Monday, October 31, 2011 / 12:00 PM
You have to get excited when you drive into a cemetery after dark and a sequence of volunteers waves you forward along an otherwise pitch-black road with flashlights. If, by that point, you’re not excited by the spooky possibilities of a to-do in the boneyard after dark, you will be when you park your car in a makeshift grass lot, get out, and then other volunteers pick you up in gas-powered golf carts to scoot you and the other guests off into the October night.
“Where are they taking us in this huge cemetery?” was surely the question on all our minds, and “I’m creeped-out already!” the dominant emotion.
We knew we were there for “Voices of Valhalla,” a traditional Halloween theatre-piece where actors stand near the gravesites of the actual people they portray, and describe the ups and downs of their lives, a la Spoon River Anthology. The setting was Pagedale’s Valhalla Cemetery & Funeral Chapel, celebrating its 100th year in 2011. We didn’t know much else.
Soon the protocol became clear. We were offered cyalume glow-light necklaces (which, for some of us, may have triggered memories of the “raves” of the ‘90s), and hot cocoa and cider. We climbed aboard a large flatbed trailer (pulled by a truck) with hay bales on which to sit. We were told to all face the same way, because the actors would all be performing on the same side of the cemetery path, so we wouldn’t have to keep swiveling around on our butts.
The trailer had a light mounted on a pole, allowing us to see maybe 20 feet into the graveyard. As we were pulled along, the disorientation was profound. We could have been anywhere in the dark cemetery. My little audience-group of about 20 sat and sipped cocoa, and, despite looking goofy in our glow necklaces, we spoke not at all on a journey that would prove solemn, spooky, educational, and philosophical, with brief moments of comic relief.
The actors portraying Valhalla’s permanent residents were the talented bunch that comprises the Hawthorne Players, who normally gig at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre. They were assisted by the scribes of the St. Louis Writers’ Guild, and the researchers of the St. Louis Genealogical Society.
The hayride inched forward in the blackness, stopping every few minutes to permit an actor to wend forth from a backdrop of barely visible headstones and step into the light.
In period costume, they described their accomplishments and headaches. Before becoming the founder and first mayor of University City, E.G. Lewis was a “flim-flam man,” selling medicines and tonics of questionable value. Jennie Guillemot, a dressmaker and thief, died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave. Ragtime banjo king Sylvester “Vess” Ossman wrote a series of early hits, including "The St. Louis Tickle." Ida Calhoon was a flapper, and a dancer/singer at the Muny. Betty Carspecken was a painter, and an early advocate for sex ed for women and girls. The wife of Truman’s Vice President Alben Barkley, Jane Barkley (played by charming actress Judy Yordon) wrote the 1958 memoir, I Married the Veep. Arthur Shropshire, one of the nation’s first African-American school superintendents, pushed education as a means to economic freedom in nearby Kinloch. And U.S. Congressman and attorney Cleveland Newton defended a pair of mongooses at the St. Louis Zoo. Yes, it seems a few nuts decided that if the mongooses escaped from the zoo they would begin killing area chickens willy-nilly, and possibly even "decimate our local serpent population.” Newton explained that he simply pointed out that both mongooses were male, so the alleged decimating would be severely limited by the not-reproducing. The goofy legal footnote captured headlines in 1929.
As much by the performances themselves, I was captured by the idea that each of these actors stood in a pitch-black cemetery awaiting the hayride so they could approach and perform. How creepy is that? Standing alone in the middle of 120,000 deceased people, in a cricket-enhanced silence, as your thoughts roam across the gloom and the unknown—it couldn’t have been a job for everyone.
The first actor on the journey portrayed the founder of Valhalla itself, Clifford Zell. (He’s the grandfather of current cemetery Director Stephen Zell.) He asked some pretty heavy questions of the audience. “Are we creatures of circumstance?” he pondered. Later, another Hawthorne actor reminded us of a George Bernard Shaw quote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” It was part of a “carpe diem” theme for the night. The people under the grass are no different from you and me, went the message: So get off your duff and make stuff happen.
Also, I would add, get off your duff and wander around Valhalla—particularly the amazing, huge, star-shaped, marble-walled mausoleum building, lined with alcoves stuffed with bronze urns, and featuring a dramatic chapel, and a fountain and columns recovered from the 1904 World’s Fair.
The mausoleum is also home to five or six pet birds in cages, just sitting right there in the hallways, surrounded by crypts. They have been left there by relatives of the deceased to provide happy little chirps of life amidst the finality.
Valhalla Cemetery, 7600 St. Charles Rock Rd., 314-863-3011, valhallafunerals.net.
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