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Ramsdell’s ghost light shines because of Fred Sundbeck

Mid century modern lamp acts as ghost light as it sits on the stage of the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts
Kendra Carr
The Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts has its first ghost light, refurbished by Fred Sundbeck.

The Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts in Manistee, has been lacking a theatre staple for years– a ghost light.

The ghost light is traditionally the only light left on in a theatre to illuminate the stage.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it emerged as a promise to return to the stage as playhouses closed across the world.

But the ghost light tradition goes back to the days of gaslighting, says Ramsdell’s Operation Manager Mike Mikula.

“It was a release valve so the gas pressure wont build up inside so you wouldn’t have an explosion.”

Modern ghost lights are still used for safety reasons, like preventing someone from walking off the edge of a dark stage; but it’s a bit of folklore that gives the ghost light it’s name.

“Every time you build a set, you change the environment of the ghosts,” says Mike. “As a part of the appeasement, you turn the light on for them, so they can enjoy the new environment. Because you’re going to tear it apart in a couple weeks, make it a pile of lumber, and build a whole new [set] that's going to be all together different.”

One of the people involved in building the environment at the Ramsdell was Fred Sundbeck. He was the youngest child in a large family that lived down the street.

Fred was only one year old when he attended his first rehearsal in 1960. He was there as the guest of his older siblings who were acting in the show.

As Fred grew, so did his involvement in the theatre.

“There was 84 times his name was mentioned in 17 years,” says Mike.

Fred did it all. He was front and center during musicals as an avid singer. He recently helped rebuild the trap doors on the stage.

The trap door under the stage at the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts is newly re-built.
Kendra Carr
A new trap door underneath the Ramsdell stage, rebuilt by Mike Mikula and Fred Sundbeck.

“He fixed so much in this theatre,” says Mike. “He knew this building like the back of his hand. I’ve crawled around in places with Fred that probably half a dozen people and maybe a few mice have ever been in.”

Fred was involved with the original renovations of the Ramsdell Theatre in the 1990’s. He was even part of the group that went up the scaffolding and examined the dome of the Ramsdell.

And when Fred wasn’t on stage or building something for it, he was lighting it.

“He used to light virtually every outside show,” says Mike. “When the Rotary was still doing shows here, Fred would light the show. Lions were here, Fred would light the show.”

But in all those years, the Ramsdell never had a ghost light.

So when Fred stumbled upon the remains of a mid-century modern lamp he found in either a garbage bin or on the side of the road, it gave him an idea. When he proposed fixing up the lamp into the Ramsdell's ghost light, Mike agreed.

“It had such style to it when he found it. It was rusty and pitted.”

So Fred re-wired the lamp and cleaned it up. The lamp now sits on the Ramsdell's stage, offering a light for anyone who wishes to see it.

A lit art deco floor lamp sits on a stage
Kendra Carr
The ghost light gets its name because it lights the stage at night to appease the theatre’s ghosts. 

The ghost light was one of the last projects Fred completed for the Ramsdell Theatre. He passed away from a heart attack in December.

“And so now it's here,” says Mike. “Now it'll shine as much for him as any of them.”

Kendra Carr joined IPR as the All Things Considered host in 2019. She previously worked at WMOM in Ludington as the News Director. In 2017, WMOM received the Michigan Association of Broadcasters "Station of the Year" award.