An encore 112 years in the making

Originally published July 14, 2016 at: http://www.journaltribune.com/news/2016-07-14/Front_Page/An_encore_112_years_in_the_making.html

BIDDEFORD — It’s one of Biddeford’s grandest and most haunting of tales. On Halloween night 1904, singer Eva Gray died at the Biddeford City Theater after performing her third encore of the night, collapsing backstage while the crowd continued calling her name from the stands.

It was almost symbolic: After closing with her final song, “Goodbye, Little Girl, Goodbye,” Gray, a soprano with the Dot Karroll repertoire company, bowed to the audience and walked backstage, where she was seen clutching her chest before dying in her dressing room about an hour later.

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Patricia Saltzman, 77, left, and daughter Laura Hopkins-Day, right, stand in front of a portrait of Eva Gray, a singer who died of heart failure at the theater following her third encore on Halloween night 1904. Saltzman is the granddaughter of Gray, and visited the City Theater to learn about her grandmother’s legacy. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

On Wednesday, 112 years later, two of Gray’s descendants were given the opportunity to visit the City Theater, where their late ancestor – now known as the theater’s “resident ghost” – perished.

Gray’s granddaughter Patricia Saltzman, 77, and great-granddaughter Laura Hopkins-Day, 59, visited the theater for both a tour of and a spiritual reconnection to the space where Gray performed for hundreds right before her death.

“Tradition and history are important for every family,” Saltzman said. “I’d never really gotten in touch with (the theater), and it became really important I become in touch with it.”

Until about 10 years ago, Saltzman had hardly heard of her grandmother’s legacy. Her mother, Edna Carucci – Gray’s daughter who was present in the theater at the time of her death – passed away when Saltzman was only 6 years old. Saltzman only heard bits and pieces of Gray’s story from her older half-sisters.

And for her and her daughter Laura, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, coming to the theater now was important for many reasons.

Saltzman, who lives in the Florida Keys, suffers from macular degeneration and only has vision in one eye. She had never seen so much as a picture of her grandmother. For her and Hopkins-Day, the time to visit Biddeford was now or never.

But for the pair, seeing the theater went beyond the story of Eva Gray. Another of Saltzman’s daughters, Lisa, died of a form of ovarian-related cancer in May 2015. The three had planned to come to the theater three years ago before Lisa became sick.

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Laura Hopkins-Day, left, talks with Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, center, and Biddeford City Theater President Mark Nahorney, on July 13, following a tour of the historic building. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

It was a family reunion in many ways on Wednesday. Having been able to experience the history of their ancestry and celebrate their time together as just a duo, the pair were excited to see the City Theater’s efforts to preserve its own history and the legacy of their late ancestor .

“I’m pleased with the fact that they are renovating it now and keeping it up to what it was, bringing it back to what it was. Because that’s important – not just because of my grandmother, but for future generations and this generation too,” Saltzman said.

“There is a great sense of history with the theater, and standing here, I can imagine what it would’ve been like for my great-grandmother standing on the stage. You just get a good sense of the theatrical presence, and you’re standing where others stood before you,” Hopkins- Day said. “You try to experience a little bit of what they experienced looking out over the audience.”

And looking out over the audience, Saltzman drew her eyes to the front row of the stands, where she presumed her mother sat that fateful Halloween night in 1904. That night, Gray was “apparently in good health and was gowned in a handsome spangled costume,” according to a Biddeford Daily Journal article published the day after Gray’s death.

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Patricia Saltzman, left, and daughter Laura Hopkins-Day tour the stage of Biddeford’s City Theater on July 13. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

Gray’s descendants hoped Eva would have made herself known to them during their tour of the building. She didn’t, but both women said the experience was still worth the trek across the country.

“We were very moved and excited to experience the theater and stand on the same stage that Eva stood on,” Hopkins-Day said.

Going forward, Saltzman and Hopkins-Day said they will continue searching for answers about Gray’s life and death, her family and her legacy.

“We’ll just continue searching until we find more information,” said Hopkins- Day. “This is a great stop along that line.”

For an accompanying video to this story, visit http://www.journaltribune.com.

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.

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