According to local lore, if you visit the historic Towngate Theatre in Centre Market you might have an encounter with Peter, Towngate’s friendly ghost.
Where did the tale of Peter come from? It all began with a man by the name of Peter Whitaker. Peter directed and acted in a handful of plays from 1969 until his death in 1971. As a young man living with a congenital heart condition, Peter was looking for a creative outlet that he could enjoy while living with his illness. He was always drawn to the arts, so upon meeting Hal O’Leary, Towngate’s founder, the two hit it off instantly.
Hal would serve as Peter’s mentor, teaching him the in’s and out’s of the theatre and, eventually, working together to direct and act in plays. For someone with complicated health issues, Peter would come alive when he was on the stage. Those who worked with Peter at the time described him as someone who would appear to be reserved and a bit run-down when he was off-set, but when the time came to take the stage he would dance, do somersaults, and fill the air with his singing. It was clear that Peter was destined to be a performer, and he found community and support at Towngate.
The last production that Peter was a part of was The Odd Couple in 1971. He was directing the play when his health had taken a turn for the worse. He was hospitalized at OVMC, where he succumbed to his illness and passed away before the show opened. It was a devastating day for the actors and staff who were a part of the production.
Perhaps Peter’s untimely death is the reason why his presence can still be felt within the walls of the Towngate Theatre to this day. Those who were closest to Peter would be sure to say goodnight to him before leaving the theatre for the evening. There have also been several instances where a photo of Peter would fall from its place on the wall, no matter how well it was secured.
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But perhaps the spookiest encounter with Peter was experienced by a former technical director. When Peter was alive, one of his favorite props was an old, ornate chair that was left in the building from when it was the Zion Lutheran Church. The chair was used in several performances and is still used to this day. One day, the technical director was up on the catwalk focusing the lights when the phone rang downstairs. The director climbed down to take the call and when he returned, he found that all of the lights had been rearranged to focus on Peter’s favorite chair in the center of the stage – something that couldn’t have been done in the short time he was away. Many at the theatre were convinced that it was Peter’s way of making his presence known.
Tim Thompson, the current director of performing arts at Towngate Theatre, has not experienced anything too unusual at the theatre, but he does believe that Peter watches over them. Tim has said that when he’s in the theatre alone, he’s often felt as if someone was watching him. Tim has also used Peter to help children develop an appreciation for the theatre. He tells them about Peter and how much he loved the theatre, which is why he sticks around to keep an eye on things. He explains that Peter is simply a friendly ghost who wants to make sure that everyone respects the theatre as much as he once did.
Whether or not Peter’s ghost is “real,” his presence is felt in other ways thanks to a generous endowment made to Towngate Theatre on behalf of Peter Whitaker and his family. Their endowment has helped provide lighting, sound equipment and other resources to help elevate and sustain Towngate Theatre’s programs.
So, what do you think? Is Peter truly a friendly ghost? Or is it just another fanciful tale from bygone days?
• Natalie Kovacs is an illustrator under the moniker Shapelessflame. She has a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a minor in graphic art from Carlow University of Pittsburgh. In her spare time, you’ll find her frolicking through the woods, reading and collecting countless books, crowd surfing at concerts, or testing out new vegetarian recipes. She lives in Bethesda, OH with her husband, son, and their four mischievous cats.
• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.