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Boos cruise! Creepy new riverboat show and dozens of other ways to get spooked this Halloween

Boos cruise! Creepy new riverboat show and dozens of other ways to get spooked this Halloween


Say it carefully now: Phantasmagoria.

After a few tries, it does roll off the tongue. It’s a concept that goes back centuries, a word used for early ghost shows and seances, when troupes used projectors to create phantasmic images on a screen to thrill audiences.

Now, in true St. Louis form, Phantasmagoria comes to the Mississippi River.

On Friday, the Riverboats at the Gateway Arch debut a new Ghost Cruise featuring the Phantasmagoria theater troupe. Performances run through Nov. 3 aboard the Becky Thatcher paddlewheeler.

The troupe's five actresses will perform spooky classics such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart," as well as stories about the Lemp Mansion, mysterious ghost ships on the Mississippi and an original tale about the ghost of the Becky Thatcher.

Why is Phantasmagoria here? Because of a yearslong friendship between Robert Hopkins, who became the riverboats' director of operations a little more than a year ago, and John DiDonna, the director of Phantasmagoria, which he started 10 years ago in Orlando, Fla.

Hopkins’ family ran a dinner cruise operation out of Sanford, Fla. DiDonna had created an original comedy wedding show that ended up running for four years on the cruises there.

When Hopkins moved to St. Louis, he proposed bringing along the wedding show, and they did. Meanwhile, DiDonna, who had grown up loving horror, created Phantasmagoria, a traveling company that incorporates stage combat, puppetry, fire dancing and sword-swallowing. About 70 actors perform in troupes between Orlando, Atlanta and now St. Louis.

“It’s not done in a hokey way," Hopkins says. "It’s very classily done. There’s a slight bit of humor. It’s kind of haunting and spooky in that you are kind of thinking about the stories that build and build, and get you on the edge of your seat and get you to the climax.”

The shows are suitable for ages 13 and up.

The performers in the St. Louis show — Carol Ann Miller, Elizabeth Dunn, Emily Rice, Melissa Harlow and Suzanne Bettonville — are local. All but Rice performed in the wedding show.

None of the actors knew what Phantasmagoria was when they started, DiDonna says, but they took to it beautifully. “They’re phenomenal,” he says. “They’re family.”

DiDonna lives in Sanford but has traveled here for the shows. He had never been to St. Louis before that.

“I love being here,” he says. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, it really is an arch.' It’s huge. It’s all new for me.”

Riverboats at the Gateway Arch plan to include Phantasmagoria in programming year-round, adding it to other shows that Hopkins started this year: PJs and Pancakes, Docktails happy hour, Dock of Love and Decked Out Divas. Hopkins hopes this makes the Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer boats more of a destination than just a simple river outing.

DiDonna already is researching for next year’s show, eager to uncover the secrets St. Louis is willing to share.

What Phantasmagoria Ghost Cruise • When 8:30-10 p.m. Oct. 4, Oct. 18 and Nov. 1; 6:30-8 p.m. Oct. 6, Oct. 13, Oct. 20 and Oct. 27 • Where Riverboats at the Gateway Arch, 50 South Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard • How much $28, reservations required • More info 1-877-982-1410;

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