Scandals and Secrets of the Supernatural: The Stories Behind Broadway's Haunted Theatres

Halloween on Broadway   Scandals and Secrets of the Supernatural: The Stories Behind Broadway's Haunted Theatres
 
Turn down the lights and move closer to the comforting glow of your computer screen. We’re going to tell you Broadway ghost stories.

Real ones.

Public interest in theatre ghosts was piqued this past July when a security camera at the Brookside Theatre in Romford, U.K., captured a curious sight: chairs and a table being moved by who-knows-what in the hours after a psychic medium held a show there. The clip went viral. Judge for yourself. But haunted theatres are not limited to the far-away or the long-ago. Playbill tracks reports of ghost sightings at Broadway theatres through its annual Playbill Broadway Yearbook, which has maintained correspondents at nearly every show in every theatre for the past decade.

One of the most interesting phenomena is the consistency of reporting from one show and one season to the next. Certain theatres — like the New Amsterdam and the Belasco — almost always produce ghost stories, while others — like the Shubert and the Beaumont — almost never do. It’s almost as if some theatres really had ghosts and others really did not. The appearance and activities of the alleged ghosts also maintain a remarkable consistency.

Click through to read some of the most curious reports we’ve gotten from Broadway’s shadowy backstages during the past decade.

Olive Thomas
Olive Thomas

New Amsterdam Theatre

There are several levels of haunting, ranging from the odd unaccountable noise to actual knocking (“poltergeist” means “knocking ghost”), to the mysterious opening of doors and cabinets, or the flickering of lights. Sometimes there is a strange cold spot in a room, a colored mist, a floating orb in a photograph, an inanimate object that moves without anyone touching it (like the furniture in the video above) or the echo of a disembodied voice. Sometimes you may see a wispy manifestation, a contorted face in a mirror or window. More rarely you see a full human figure, sometimes ectoplasmically white or sometimes in full natural color. Even more rarely, the figures speak. Or touch.

The actors and crew at the New Amsterdam Theatre have experienced nearly all the above at various times, and the alleged culprit is well known to them all: Olive Thomas, a onetime Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl. She is by far the most active ghost on Broadway, manifesting so frequently that the Dana Amendola, vice president of operations for Disney Theatrical Productions, has placed photographs of her at every entrance to the theatre so workers can greet her when they arrive for work each day (which is believed to keep her mischief to a minimum).

Olive’s story is a sad one. A chorus girl in the 1915 Ziegfeld Follies on the New Amsterdam mainstage and Ziegfeld’s subsequent Midnight Frolics at the more intimate New Amsterdam Roof on the top floor of the same building, Olive was whisked out to Hollywood, where she made a handful of silent films and married Jack Pickford, the ne’er-do-well brother of period superstar Mary Pickford. On a trip to Paris in 1920, Jack revealed that he had contracted syphilis and she likely had it as well. What happened next is up for conjecture. Official reports say Olive accidentally swallowed an overdose of Jack’s medicine, mercury bichloride, which is poisonous in large quantities. But one has to wonder how she could have “accidentally” emptied the entire blue bottle of pills. Olive died two days later, and her body was brought back to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx for burial.

But then an odd thing started happening. Workers at the New Amsterdam began telling friends they had run into Olive backstage. Impossible, they were told. Olive is dead. She appeared periodically throughout the 1920s, but then became quiet during the decades when 42nd Street went into decline and the theatre was underused. However, reports began picking up again when the Disney corporation bought the theatre in the mid 1990s and began an ambitious restoration. Construction workers began reporting that their off-limits work area was being invaded by a woman carrying a blue bottle. The reports continued after the theatre reopened with King David and The Lion King in 1997, and have continued since.

Amendola became — not exactly a believer, but certainly less of a skeptic — when he was touring the old New Amsterdam Roof Theatre in the mid 2000s, when it was being converted to office space. As he passed below the stage he suddenly and distinctly heard the sound of tap-dancing on the boards above him. Climbing quickly to stage level, he found he was alone.

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Dana Amendola
Dana Amendola

Technically her landlord, Amendola has become a keeper of the Olive Thomas flame. Among other things, he clocks reports of her appearances. There have been two (that he knows of) in the last two years. “In 2013 a creative development team — a man and two women — was in one of the offices in the old New Amsterdam Roof, they were talking about the film 'The Artist,' which was set in the silent film era. They were wondering how many Follies girls became film stars, and they mentioned that Olive Thomas was one, but Mary Pickford was the REAL star of the silent era. Now, maybe Olive got a little upset about that because when someone said, 'I wonder Olive Thomas would think of 'The Artist,' a stack of DVDs on the table next to them flew into the air and crashed across the room. They all sat in stunned silence. That stack had been there for a long time and there was no obvious way they could have fallen, let alone flew across the room.”

Olive is believed to have made her presence known again earlier this year, during previews of Aladdin. Amendola said a female replacement conductor, who had worked on Mary Poppins and know about Olive, was getting ready in a dressing room. Reading from an email from the conductor, Amendola said she spoke out loud to Olive, “Well Olive, I’m back again, and I’m a little nervous. I just wanted to introduce myself again and, ask if you could please give me some good luck.” The she mused aloud, “I wonder what the Follies girls would have thought of a female conductor?”

And just then, Amendola read, four of the round dressing room bulbs flickered on and off, for a few seconds and then stopped. The bulbs were all new, having just been replaced for the new show. “It was like a wink. She was signaling that she was fine with the idea.”

Amendola said that if there really are such things as ghosts, and if the New Amsterdam is indeed haunted by one, he’s happy about it. “We embrace it. She’s never violent, always playful. She kind of embodies what we’re all about here at Disney. We’re in the business of happiness and to have someone from so long ago acknowledging that she’s pleased makes us feel like we’re doing the right things.”

However, Amendola said Olive is not predictable and doesn’t “perform” on cue. “She doesn’t appear on Halloween, for instance. When people try to find her, they can’t. She tends to appear just at the moment we forget about her — when we’re busy putting in a new show or putting a new office in. When there are changes happening. “You don’t find Olive,” he added. “She finds you.”

David Belasco
David Belasco

Belasco Theatre

Another of Broadway’s named ghosts makes his home at the Belasco Theatre, which makes perfect sense, as it is believed to be the spirit of onetime owner, Broadway impresario David Belasco, once known as the “Bishop of Broadway” for his oddball habit of wearing a priestly cassock.

Belasco was part of the great 19th-century tradition of theatre owners/producers/playwrights. He built the current theatre that bears his name in 1907, but only after decades as a successful author of dozens of passionate melodramas, two of which achieved immortality as source material for Giacomo Puccini’s operas Madama Butterfly and La Fanciulla del West. Belasco loved theatre so much, he spent nearly every waking hour at the theatre, writing, managing or directing his plays. He also spent every sleeping hour there, since he made his home in an apartment above the theatre on West 44th St. He spent so much of his life in that building, it's small wonder that he seems to be spending his death there, too.

He’s one of the most alive-looking theatre ghosts. No wispy ectoplasm for him. He appears much as he did in life: tall, with tousled hair and wearing the cassock and clerical collar that was his lifelong affectation. He was known, during his life, as “The Bishop of Broadway.” Those who have glimpsed him but don’t know this story nevertheless have nicknamed his ghost as “The Monk” — though, as Playbill historian Louis Botto has pointed out, there was nothing monklike about his lifestyle. Many a pretty young actress furthered her career by accompanying him up to his apartment via a phone-booth sized private elevator. Shortly after his death in 1931, he began to show himself. Actors stepping out on the stage unawares would suddenly notice a lone, dark figure sitting in the balcony, watching them intently. This ghost had a voice, too. He would walk right up to actors and shake their hands, telling them that they had done a fine job at a performance. More than one actress filed complaints with the house manager that an old man dressed up like a priest has pinched their bottoms. The uninitiated were often horrified. Veteran actors looked forward to these meetings, seeing them as a good omen.

And Belasco isn’t alone. A spirit known as the Blue Lady, who appears as an icy-cold blue mist, has been seen on the theatre stairways and dressing rooms. There are reports of the sound of raucous parties being held in the Belasco apartment, complete with the sound of feet dancing the 1920s-era music. When workers got upstairs to see who has broken in, they find the apartment empty, its dust undisturbed. Playbill took a video camera up to the Belasco apartment in 2010, one of the few media outlets ever granted permission to do so. Click here to take our tour of the creepy place, which, ghost or not, would rent for millions if they ever put it back on the market. PS: There are no plans to do so. The video is a tour of the whole refurbished theatre. We ascend to Belasco’s lair at the 4:12 mark.

Melissa Errico, who played Mina in Dracula the Musical, reported that Belasco does indeed haunt the theatre. “My dresser Cathy saw him walk in to a mirror the other day. She thinks he lives in the mirror in the wall outside my dressing room. One night I forgot my coat and I had turned out the lights in my room. I turned back to get my coat in the dark and someone (David?) turned the small pretty table light on for me to see my way. It was spooky! As I opened the door to leave, as I was walking out, ‘someone’ closed the door behind me. I didn’t touch it but watched it move.”

Getting into the spirit of their supernatural musical, the cast of Dracula celebrated Belasco’s 150th birthday that year with a cake, and sang happy birthday to him.

During the run of Passing Strange in 2008, Daniel Breaker told Playbill Radio in an interview that one evening he was putting on his makeup in his dressing room mirror when he saw an old man with white hair sitting behind him, silently watching him. When Breaker turned around to demand what he was doing there, the man, who resembled nobody working on the show, was gone. Breaker reported the incident to the house manager, and was told, “You just saw David Belasco.”

Dominic Brewer, who appeared last season in Twelfth Night and Richard III, wrote “We’ve not spotted Mr. Belasco or any of the theatre’s reported spooks to date, but with the white make-up several of the cast wear for Twelfth Night, along with the eerie gliding of the female characters, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d spotted a ghost backstage. However, we have had a strange happening onstage: one evening the candles on one of our six hanging candelabras completely burnt down, probably twice as quickly as all the others, without any perceptible draft or obvious external influence. An unsolved mystery.”

Current Belasco house manager Stephanie Wallis said that Belasco has been comparatively quiet in the years since the 2010 renovation. To tease him out, the creators of the theatre’s current hit, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, actually wrote Belasco into the script. Each night Neil Patrick Harris and his successors ask if anyone in Box B has seen the ghost, but so far, Wallis reports, no takers. Nevertheless, Wallis said, “I can tell you that the front door of my office suspiciously locks itself from time to time — and I KNOW it isn’t me doing it.”

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Richard Rodgers Theatre

During the run of In the Heights Luis Salgado claimed to have seen the ghost of a small child just off stage during a show. In 2010 Blanca Camacho wrote, “There are reappearing red lipstick smudges in the ladies room. They get painted and wiped but inevitably return. Stall doors open by themselves. Dressing rooms have strange sounds, and things spontaneously fall off shelves in one of them. After hours brings bizarre howling sounds, chandeliers moving, the sound of people walking. Jimmy, our doorman, armed himself with a baseball bat one such evening. Guess he was gonna take a few of them with him! Then three different people told me about the ‘Redheads.’ Ralph sees ‘her’ in Box B about 2 AM. Beverly saw ‘him’ in Mezzanine Row H. Cast member Tony Chiroldes has twice felt the presence of his Mom, an actress and also, at times, a redhead. None of these people knew of the others' stories! Our beautiful red theatre must be a beacon for them. I myself, during a company meeting in the house, saw a door open fully and close slowly all by itself but nervously dismissed it till I heard these stories. However, I was assured that these are benevolent beings that like musicals as nothing bad ever happens during those times when music fills the Richard Rodgers Theatre.”

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Eugene O’Neill Theatre

Donna Lynne Champlin, appearing there with Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris and Merwin Foard in Sweeney Todd in 2006, reported, “We believe there are at least two ghosts at the Eugene O’Neill, one male and one female. During previews, things would randomly fall from the upstage prop shelf — sometimes dangerous things like gardening shears — when no one was remotely near it. Actors’ hair gets tugged everyone once in a while, and they have heard their characters’ names whispered in their ears onstage.

“There is a strong smell of lilacs sometimes downstage left. My whistle disappeared from my bloody lab coat pocket (which never leaves the stage) and was found down in the basement in the ‘dead’ rack of clothes They only found it weeks later because they moved the rack and it fell to the ground.

“Patti’s dressing room has doors that open and close on their own. She also thought she had stepped backward onto her friend’s foot, so she said, ‘Excuse me.’ Her friend said, ‘What for?’ Patti turned around and her friend was a good two feet away from her.”

Merwin Foard said, “I set up the cot to take a nap between rehearsal and a show and asked out loud for a wake-up call. Sure enough, at 6:30 I was awakened by a slap on the bottom of my shoes that almost sent my head crashing up into the bottom of the counter that I had place my cot under. No one was in the room but me!”

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Sondheim Theatre (built on the site of the old Henry Miller’s Theatre)

Kevin Duda, who plays Neil Sedaka in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical wrote in spring of 2014 that he “had stayed late one night at the theatre, walked up to the stage door and realized that I had forgotten something in my dressing room. I noticed the old 'Henry Miller' sign, which hangs over our security desk at the stage door, as I returned to the elevator to go back downstairs. I murmured, under my breath, ‘Wow, I wonder what Henry Miller thinks of his sign being relegated to the stage door?’ And the elevator bounced. And stopped. I was stuck. I screamed for about five minutes and finally, Adolf, our head of security, came to my rescue and pried the doors open. I have NEVER said Henry Miller’s name in this theatre again.”

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Gershwin Theatre

Ghostly appearances tend to occur mainly in the older theatres, built before 1930. But the 1971-vintage Gershwin seems to have picked up some paranormal activity as well, during the run of the witch-ridden musical Wicked. Actor Michael McCorry Rose wrote this year, “According to sources in the know about these things, we have three ghosts. Drew (a.k.a. Dennis) is the only one we know by name. The other two ghosts who are regularly seen haven’t been named, but one dresses in a 19th century blue suit and the other wears a white t-shirt.”

Rose is not the first to record supernatural manifestations at the Gershwin. In 2012 Jonathan Warren reported, “Nathan Peck got tapped on the shoulder before his front-of-house monkey flight one evening. When he turned around, no one was standing near him. Later, when he told people about it, Kevin Hucke mentioned that he had the same experience throughout the years in the same location. It is rumored and believed to be the ghost at the Gershwin.”

And in 2010, Jason Viarengo related, “Stage manager Jason Daunter and ensemble member Eddie Pendergraft were standing on stage left and happened to look up, thinking they saw a swing performer watching the show. Then suddenly that person disappeared behind the curtain. The person they thought they saw was actually only a few feet away from them on the stage.”

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Imperial Theatre

Though the Imperial is traditionally believed to be haunted by diva assoluta Ethel Merman, she hasn’t been seen recently. Instead, the young ballerinas of Billy Elliot were convinced that that the theatre’s girls’ dressing room was haunted by a spirit they named Fred. Ballet girl Kara Oates reported seeing a bathroom door open and close by itself while she was doing homework there in 2011.

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Lyceum Theatre

During the 2010 run of The Scottsboro Boys, Colman Domingo said, “The Friday of our last weekend things were happening backstage and onstage with the lights and the computer equipment. We definitely felt we were in the presence of some ghosts.”

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Palace Theatre

We conclude our survey with a brief visit to the legendary Palace, reputed to have more ghosts than any other Broadway house. Among them is a mysterious figure who passes open doorways late at night, a child ghost who plays peekaboo in the mezzanine, a musician dressed in white who appears in the orchestra pit and a tight-rope walker (presumably from the theatre’s vaudeville days) whose appearance is said to foretell the viewer’s death. However many there may be, they seem to have been quiet in recent years, as reports of their activities have dropped off sharply. However, during the run of the 2011 Annie revival actor Ryan Van Den Boom claimed that when alone in a dressing room one night, he thought he heard a voice call “Judy.” Now, the queen of the Palace’s celebrity revenants is said to be the great Judy Garland herself, but who may have been calling her, and why, must remain a Broadway mystery.

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(Robert Viagas is executive editor of PlaybillEDU, editor of the annual “Playbill Broadway Yearbook,” and Playbill’s resident theatre ghost expert.)

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