WASHINGTON – Outside the McPherson Square Metro Station Saturday evening,a woman in white waited,carrying a lantern. When the time was right,she beckoned a group of tourists to gather close around her.
“This,” she said,gesturing to the lantern,”will give us safe guidance,for we do need safe guidance because we're going to the most haunted square of Washington city. Ghosts abound everywhere,and I cannot say who we might meet or what we might see tonight.”
As she spoke,a man dressed in a top hat and vest – the ghost of Phillip Barton Key II – strolled through the crowd as if he didn't see them. The tourists giggled nervously,and the woman grinned.
“As I told you,it's chock-a-block with ghosts,” said Natalie Zanin,the otherworldly tour guide of the Ghost Story Tour of Washington.
The tour is one of several interactive theatrical walking tours produced and performed by Natalie Zanin's Historic Strolls. Since 2001,Zanin and her group of costumed actors have presented live history lessons to tourists and locals alike. People and businesses in the area near the White House are now used to seeing Zanin's actors in period dress.
“But in the beginning,when I first started doing walking tours,it'd be me,a group of tourists,and a guy drinking out of a paper bag,screaming something at the people on the tour,” Zanin said.
Zanin wrote the tour script,using old newspapers to confirm historical facts and interviews with people who have claimed to experience paranormal activity,then created parts for actors. The tour covers a lot of subjects.
“If you talk for more than six minutes in one location,people will start lighting up cigarettes,” Zanin said. “You can only have so much information.”
The ghost tour had been solely an October event,but at the suggestion of an actor,Zanin decided to hold one in the summer. The tour costs $10 for adults and $5 for children.
Sara Klucking,41,of Washington,an employee with the Department of Homeland Security,one of the evening's 10 participants,said she read about the tour in the Washington Post.
“I thought it was a ton of fun,” Klucking said. “I would certainly recommend it.”
Saturday's 90-minute-tour moved around Lafayette Square,stopping at St. John's Church,the White House,Blair House and Decatur House. Zanin tells brief stories about the historical sites and launches into descriptions of contemporary ghostly activity.
One story was Key's. An angry husband shot him to death in 1859 in Lafayette Square because Key had an affair with the man's wife. Key's figure is said to appear on dark nights.
Preparation for a tour begins 90 minutes before show time on nearby H Street. The back of Zanin's car serves as backstage for the actors. Men's period shirts and jackets hang from the ceiling,bundles of skirts and dresses lie on the car's floor next to props and a cooler full of water bottles.
The actors do their own make-up and costume fittings,using the sidewalk as their dressing room. Most of the actors play two or three parts in the tour,so they either layer costumes over a tank top and shorts or return to Zanin's car to change.
Nicolette Stearns,48,frequently performs with Historic Strolls and said the costume changes take confidence and flexibility.
“I have changed clothes before and had people honk. I'm not sure what people were thinking because it's a hoop skirt,” Stearns said.
Street-side costumes changes aren't the only challenge. Weather,traffic and proximity to the audience can make working on the tour unpredictable.
Actors have gotten lost on way to a location or have been questioned by police,and wardrobe malfunctions have occurred,which Zanin will playfully acknowledge once the actors leave.
“You can't react when something goes wrong because something will go wrong,” Zanin said.
Saturday was the first tour performance for actress Emily Morrison,49,who portrayed the ghost of Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow. Morrison recently moved from Los Angeles to Washington to seek acting jobs and has a particular interest in historical acting.
“I think it's wonderful if you can sort of do this for your community,and if you're in Washington you may as well,” Morrison said.
Zanin said her tours are a different way to see Washington.
“You think of Washington as its buildings,its politics. But it's people too,” she said. “I want people to walk away and say,‘I didn't know that about Washington.'”