Turn back time with New Westminster’s haunted history

Cover by Ed Appleby
Cover by Ed Appleby

Ghost play sparks interest in city’s paranormal activity

By Cheryl Minns, Senior Columnist

Founded in 1858, New Westminster is filled with heritage landmarks, from the 1865 Irving House-turned-museum on Royal Avenue to the 1909 Fisheries Building-turned-Bernie Legge Theatre in Queen’s Park. With stories of paranormal sightings and ghostly tales, this city could be just the haunt you’re looking for this Halloween.

At the Bernie Legge Theatre, the Vagabond Players are performing a ghost story of their own: Elizabeth Elwood’s Body and Soul. The ghostly romantic comedy follows writer Timothy Grey (Alex Ross), who is attempting to write a true crime novel about a fictional historical figure named Andrew Fairfax and his three wives, including two of their suspicious deaths.

Tim lives in the fictional Fairhaven House in New Westminster, in an apartment converted from the Fairfaxes’ bedroom. The room is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Andrew’s first wife, Mary Fairfax (Jacqollyne Keath).

To help with Tim’s book, his inventor roommate, Conrad Bright (Jeremy Heynen), invents a time machine to bring Mary’s ghost to present day to ask her questions about her death. While Tim is out with his fiancée Laurie McMardle (Heather Evens), Conrad retrieves Mary’s ghost with the help of his neighbours, librarian Jenny Brooks (Tracy Labrosse) and psychic seamstress Tibby Tailor (Alison Main-Tourneur).

The problem is Mary’s ghost refuses to cooperate with the group and comes up with a plan of her own.

“She’s quite an edgy, outspoken lady,” Elwood said.

Mary first appeared in Elwood’s marionette musical, The Christmas Spirit, which was performed at the Bernie Legge Theatre in 2003. In the show, a 20th-century family gathers for Christmas at their English manor, which is haunted by Mary’s ghost. During a time-travel incident, one of the family members accidentally brings the living 17th-century Mary to the future, much to her ghost’s dismay.

“The only resemblance between the marionette show and Body and Soul is the concept of time travel bringing back the real person while the ghost is still present,” said Elwood, who has been with the Vagabond Players since the 1980s and premiered four plays with them, including Body and Soul. “Other than that, and maybe three or four lines that were lifted from the marionette show, it’s totally different.”

When Elwood started rewriting the marionette show into a play in 2014–15, she decided to change the setting to New Westminster instead of England in order to include local references. The change also altered Mary’s history, which now takes place in the 20th century instead of the 17th century.

“The history had to be something that could relate to New Westminster’s history. I couldn’t go back to the 1600s, so I went back to the early 1900s,” she said. “To design things of that era, we toured Irving House and modelled some of the wainscoting and style for the set design.”

Jacqollyne Keath voiced Mary in the original marionette musical. She reprises her role as both the ghost and living version of Mary in Body and Soul.

“I have always believed in the supernatural, so it is fun to play a ghost,” said Keath, who has been with the Vagabond Players since the 1990s. “It has been a wonderful opportunity to make Mary come to life onstage.”

The Bernie Legge Theatre has a long history of ghostly happenings, which some of the Body and Soul cast feel is part of an old theatre’s appeal.

“Theatres are notorious for paranormal activity. I can’t say I’ve ever been in a theatre that doesn’t have stories of unusual occurrences,” said Tracy Labrosse, a Douglas College theatre alumnus who has been with the Vagabond Players since 2013.

“Whatever spirits linger at the Bernie Legge Theatre are welcoming to me. It’s a strange and magical place,” said Jeremy Heynen, who has been with the Vagabond Players since 2015.

The theatre has been investigated by several paranormal groups in Metro Vancouver, including several times by Northern Paranormal Investigations.

“Apparitions have been reportedly seen from the stage, seated in the audience: A woman in white and sometimes a man in a tuxedo,” said Holly Fynn, an NPI investigator.

“On one occasion, a director was alone in the theatre, perusing a script at the coffee bar. Suddenly, music started blaring from the stage. As he headed towards the tech booth to see who was there, he passed the doors into the auditorium and saw that the lights on the stage were flashing too. He got to the tech booth door. The music and lights stopped. The door was locked,” she said.

Body and Soul features lots of sound effects, voiceovers, projections, and more that require excellent timing and delivery. It is an interesting choice to premiere the technical production at a theatre known for its paranormal-related technical glitches.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve angered the spirits of the Bernie Legge Theatre with this show. We have definitely had some strange things happen during rehearsals that I wouldn’t rule out as ghostly doings,” said Labrosse.

“There were flickering lights, strange noises, and a few random and weird accidents. Some of them were explained, others were not,” said Heynen.

“Northern Paranormal Investigations has investigated several theatres and many other historical buildings, as well as private residences throughout the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. The Bernie Legge Theatre remains one of our favourite locations to investigate,” Fynn said. “It is a great theatre both from a cultural and paranormal standpoint. I would say that it is paranormally active, but there is absolutely nothing there to be feared or concerned about.”

Rick Pedersen, a paranormal investigator, medium, and founder of the Society of Paranormal Incident Research Investigation Team (S.P.I.R.I.T.), investigated the Bernie Legge Theatre in 2009.

“I had several experiences that were quite interesting while I was there that one evening,” he said. “I clearly sensed the spirit of a little girl skipping rope and playing out front. I also sensed a male spirit in the theatre seating.”

“In the basement, there is a room where they store a lot of props and furniture, and it was in that room where I sensed another spirit very strongly,” he said.

“There are loads of vintage clothing, jewelry, props, and antique furniture that have been donated to the theatre over the decades,” Fynn said.

“Antiques, used furniture, and possessions can retain energy and may also have a spirit attachment. Spirits can attach to a location or to an object if there was a strong emotional connection,” Pedersen said.

“I have memories of late evenings at the theatre, painting a set on my own while down in the paint room or the props/shop area, and hearing someone walking upstairs. When I went up, there was no one there,” Keath said.

“There is a lot of energy in theatres: The energy from the actors, the energy from the audience, and electrical energy. It is thought that spirits sometimes try to utilise those energies to assist them in manifesting,” Fynn said.

“I have a supernatural encounter every night when I step on stage to do Body and Soul, and I’d like nothing better than if people would come out and experience it with me,” said Alex Ross, who has been with the Vagabond Players since 2014.

Body and Soul tickets start at $15 and can be purchased at VagabondPlayers.ca.

The show will be playing Thursdays–Sundays until October 29 at the Bernie Legge Theatre in Queen’s Park, New Westminster.