The Maker of Stars

Article excerpt

You are standing in a large, early 1900s, empty Broadway-style theater. There is an eerie silence as you walk up the stairs to what was once an apartment. As you open the door, an icy breeze sends chills down your spine and prickles the hairs on your neck. You turn to free and see a translucent pink shape pass by you and float into the balcony

You have just had the pleasure of meeting Jessie Bonstelle, or to be more precise, her ghost. Just be happy that she didn't drop a sandbag on your head ... it has been known to happen. She has been rumored to haunt this theater, now called the Bonstelle Theatre, since her death in 1932.

Wayne State University bought the theater in 1951 and honored Bonstelle by giving it her name. The ghostly rumors started not long after it reopened and became the undergraduate theater for the university's Department of Theatre. There are many mysteries surrounding Jessie Bonstelle, or Bonnie, as everyone knew her. Nearly everything that is known about her private life is vague and largely unsubstantiated. Although theater students may know little about Bonstelle's history, it may not surprise them to know that she believed she was connected to the spiritual world, even in life.

Bonstelle was born Laura Justine Bonesteele around 1870 to Helen Lovisa and Joseph Frederick in a small farm town outside of Greece, New York. The exact date of her birth has never been documented because of her relentless efforts to keep her true age a secret.

In 1928 Bonstelle wrote a story for McCall's magazine about how her birth was predicted well in advance. Also a spiritual person, Bonstelle's mother went to a fortuneteller to have her future foretold. "Another little girl is coming to you," the woman said, according to Bonstelle's article. "You will be able to be free, through her. She will do for you that which you have never told the world you longed for."

The seer had correctly disclosed that Bonstelle's mother had always harbored a desire to be an actress and would find that she could live her dreams vicariously though her daughter. That this fortune came to pass may purely be coincidence, hut it adds to the mystique of Bonstelle's life just the same.

The youngest of eight children, Bonstelle was a small, fragile child who was home-schooled by her mother, except for one year that she attended convent school. By the age of two Bonstelle was singing at her church and by the age of nine she could recite 150 selections, mostly from Shakespeare's works.

From ages ten to fifteen, Bonstelle worked as an extra with a touring company. She changed her name from Bonesteele to Bonstelle after a printing error appeared on a poster for the company. Apparently she took a liking to it and kept it as her stage name.

Both of Bonstelle's parents died when she was fifteen. Her mother's death affected her greatly and she wrote about it many years later in a series on the theatrical world for McCall's. "But after a little time I had real consolation. She seemed to come back to me, to be in some fashion near to me--how, I cannot tell you. It has been so ever since, with those I greatly love. After the first shock of parting is over they come back to me, and beyond all doubt their love surrounds me," Bonstelle wrote.

Sometime in the 1890s she married actor Alexander Hamilton Stuart. Stuart was an actor in Augustine Daly's stock company and when Bonstelle applied to work with the company, they met and were married almost immediately, He was nearly twenty years her senior, and they were inseparable. After his death in 1911, Bonstelle decide to send her good friend Harriet Story MacFarlane to a medium to see if her dead husband would communicate.

"The seance had hardly started when the medium told me that behind my chair was standing a most distinguished-looking man, describing Mr. Stuart with unmistakable accuracy," MacFarlane told the Detroit Sunday Times. …