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The phantom of the theater

Mary A. Castillo

They say that she was a heartbroken actress who jumped to her

death over a lost role. They also say that she slipped while working

50 feet up, above the stage on the grid system.

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No one knows her name, when she died or even if she actually

existed. But some students, parents and teachers who have worked in

the Laguna Beach Artists Theatre are sure of one thing, they each

swear they’ve encountered a presence known as “Clarissa.”

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Drama Director Mark Dressler remembers the early years of his

tenure when he would stay late into the night hanging lights. Seeing

someone out of the corner of his eye or hearing unexplained noises

inside the empty theater were common occurrences. But after years of

working with the Park Avenue Players, Dressler accepts her presence.

“She doesn’t have a reputation that makes people scared,” he said.

“We’re currently working on ‘The Crucible,’ and the kids make jokes

that with the hangings, she would like this play.”

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Although stories about the spirit have been scarce in the past

couple of years, Clarissa is part of the history of the Artists

Theatre, originally built as the Laguna School auditorium in 1929.

Dressler has run into former alumni who know of -- or had encounters

with -- the infamous presence.

But not everyone -- most notably Tod Kubo, founder and director of

the Laguna Beach High School Dance Company -- finds Clarissa so

charming.

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Dressler remembers discussing a project with Kubo when without

warning he looked over his shoulder in the middle of the

conversation.

“He felt a hand on his shoulder,” Dressler recalled.

The only problem was that no one was standing behind or alongside

Kubo, who had been visibly upset by the incident.

Whether or not Clarissa is a ghost or the product of wild

imaginations, Dressler knows that something was with him when he

appeared at the theater on a stormy December morning in 1997.

He had driven past mudslides and gaping holes of water to retrieve

some paperwork he had left behind the night before.

“I reached for the door handle and it swung open as if someone

opened it,” he said.

He felt something pull him into the theater that echoed with

ringing alarms and the trickling of water.

Stumbling through the darkness, he found himself in the basement

where he discovered two feet of water. Not wasting another minute,

Dressler called students and parents for help. Volunteers yanked

costumes and props out of storage, sandbagged the premises and bailed

out the basement, saving the theater.

To this day, Dressler is convinced that it was Clarissa who guided

him.

“It was a profound experience,” he said. “One that I’ll never

forget.”

* MARY A. CASTILLO is a news assistant for the Coastline Pilot.

She covers education, public safety and City Hall. She can be reached

at mary.castillo@latimes.com.


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