The Phantom of the Opera walked to the front of the stage, the spotlight bouncing off the ivory light covering his disfigured face.
When the thunderous roar of the audience hit the stage and the bravos and cheers filled Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, the demonic countenance of the Phantom disappeared. The man behind the mask smiled broadly--or as broadly as he could underneath his mound of heavy makeup.
Thus began the Long Goodby of Michael Crawford.
"I am so glad this has happened to me," Crawford said, raising his arms in the air.
"Phantom of the Opera," had come to the end of another Sunday matinee. But for Crawford, it was simply The End.
The performance marked the end of the British actor's 3 1/2-year stint as the murderous but romantic madman who terrorized the Paris Opera House in Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical. He is off on an extended vacation before returning to London to start the film version of "Phantom."
The role turned the British actor into a major star and won him numerous awards, including a Tony. He was also transformed into a reluctant sex symbol, and hundreds of women began hanging out around the stage door.
In recent weeks, Crawford's impending departure had taken on the aura of a historic event, and sparked an unprecedented demand for tickets.
Fans from all over the country staged overnight vigils at the Ahmanson box office in an effort to buy tickets for reservations that had been canceled. Phantom freaks who had already seen the production as many as 60 times wanted to go again. Scalpers asked as much as $1,100 for a ticket.
Crawford was deluged with requests for autographs, interviews, a handshake or a hug.
Hours before Sunday's matinee, unlucky-but-hopeful fans walked around with crude hand-drawn signs saying "Desperately Need 1 Ticket" and "Please, 2 tickets." More than 100 people sat sullen-eyed in the cancellation line as the fashionably-dressed ticket-holders walked confidently into the theater. One group of fans set up a radio scanner and an antenna at a table outside the theater, saying they could pick up the performance inside.
Many of those in attendance Sunday had already seen the musical several times. They said they felt the cast had performed with more emotion and the show had been more poignant in the weekend shows leading up to the final matinee.
"I came Saturday night, and people were crying on stage," said Misty Thomas, 33, who had seen "Phantom" 19 times. "I feel incredibly sad and depressed about Michael's leaving. I've spent a beautiful year with him."
The capacity audience was silent when Crawford, as the Phantom, made his first appearence, materializing behind a mirror and leading Christine (Dale Kristien), an opera singer who is the object of the Phantom's tortured affections, into his labyrinthine lair.
But he received a rousing ovation during "The Music of the Night," the slow, sensual ballad in which the Phantom seductively pleads with Christine to give in to his dark desires.
As the play neared its conclusion, the atmosphere on stage appeared more charged. Kristien was tearful as her emotionally torn character said farewell to the ruined Phantom, and repeat fans said she appeared more moved than in previous performances.
And when Crawford sang his final line, "It's over now, the music of the night," the audience erupted into applause that lasted through the remaining minute of the musical.
When Crawford first appeared for the final curtain call, he paced back and forth along the front of the stage, accepting a large bouquet of flowers from members of O.G.R.E (Opera Ghost's Return Enthusiasts)--fans of the actor's who had flown from London especially to catch his last shows.
"As you know, this is Michael's last show," Kristien said when the cheers died down. "We're hoping he'll be back." Her voice cracked just a little when she said that working with Crawford had been "very moving."
She then led the cast and audience in a chorus of cowboy star Roy Rogers' theme song "Happy Trails," a song the cast adopted for its departing members. Black-and-white balloons poured from the stage rafters onto Crawford, and the cast showered him with colored streamers.
When Crawford finally spoke, he began, "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much." Someone in the orchestra interrupted and yelled back, "Thank YOU!"
He praised the cast, comparing them to a "good tennis partner." He gave special appreciation to Kristien, saying she is "better than me and makes us all better."
He also wished good luck and love to Robert Guilluame, best known for his television role as Benson, who is taking over the role Tuesday.
Crawford then said, "God Bless You" and gave a final wave.
As the audience filed out, Judith Clelland, a member of O.G.R.E, stood at the orchestra pit and stared unblinkingly at the descended curtain. She appeared transfixed, seemingly in disbelief that it had finally come to an end. Finally, wiping a tear from her face, she turned and left.