The Ghosts of Broadway

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10 Jun 2005

Olive Thomas hanuts the New Amsterdam Theatre
Olive Thomas hanuts the New Amsterdam Theatre

After dark, the New York theatre's past comes alive in more ways than one...

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Each night after the applause dies, the curtain falls, the audience vanishes, the cleaners dust and the lights are killed, great theatres become dark and silent places.

But not always quite empty.

That's when the theatre ghosts make their entrance and strut and fret their hour upon the shadowed stage, illuminated only by the ghost light, the solitary lamp that is required to burn though the night on every Broadway stage.



Many of Broadway's busiest theatres continue to be just as busily haunted by spirits, some with well-known names and histories. Radio City Music Hall itself is believed to host the shade of its builder, S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel, accompanied by a glamorous female companion. They like to appear on opening nights, so be sure to keep an eye on the person sitting next to you.

Broadway is the playground of stars, so it's probably not surprising to learn that even its ghosts are stars. Let's meet some of Broadway's best known - and most active - celebrity ghosts. Don't worry: like Casper, they tend to be friendly. For the most part.

The New Amsterdam Theatre

"My God, what have I done?"

Olive Thomas stumbled out of the bathroom of the Paris hotel, where she was on a second honeymoon with her husband, Jack Pickford, brother of movie sweetheart Mary Pickford. It was 1920, and these were among her last words, because, after a night of partying, she had just downed an overdose of mercury bichloride pills, which her husband was using to treat his syphilis. The official cause of death would later be listed as "accidental," but it's hard to accidentally swallow an entire bottle of pills, which happened to be shaped just like little coffins.

Olive had led a charmed life. She had been a Ziegfeld girl who had appeared in the 1915 edition of the Follies at age 21. But she was already famous. She had come to New York at age 16 to make her fortune, and did. She entered and won "The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City" contest run by the celebrated commercial artist, Howard Chandler Christy. She then modeled for another famous artist, Harrison Fisher, and wound up on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Florenz Ziegfeld spotted her and promenaded her in the Follies before moving her upstairs to the New Amsterdam Roof for his naughtier Frolics. Master pinup artist Alberto Vargas painted her, nude from the waist up. Ziegfeld bought the painting and hung it at the New Amsterdam, much to the annoyance of his wife, Billy Burke.

By 1920, however, marriage to her womanizing, alcoholic husband had cast a pall over her life and, after a night of drinking with him, she had come back to the hotel and picked up the blue bottle of pills.

No one knows what Olive's dying thought was, but no one could blame her if it was a memory of the glamour and delight of standing on the New Amsterdam stage, soaking up the adulation of the Follies audience far across the sea.

Not long thereafter, stagehands at the New Amsterdam began telling friends that they had run into Olive backstage. Impossible, they were told. Olive is dead. But no, they said, it was Olive, all right. She was even wearing her green beaded Follies dress, her beaded headpiece and her sash. The only odd thing about the girl they saw was what she was carrying: a big blue bottle.

Jump forward seventy-three years. A phone rang in the bedroom of Dana Amendola, the man whom the Disney corporation had put in charge of its latest acquisition, the derelict New Amsterdam Theatre. Amendola squinted at the clock. Who could be calling at 2:30 a.m.? He picked up the phone. It was the security guard he's hired to patrol the New Amsterdam. The man was hysterical. During his rounds of the theatre, he was crossing the stage when his flashlight picked up a beautiful young woman who had absolutely no business being there at that hour. She had a green beaded dress, a beaded headpiece, a sash and was holding a blue bottle. He shouted at her and she left the stage - by walking right through the wall on the 41st Street side.

The watchman wanted to resign on the spot.

Amendola, who is still in charge of the New Amsterdam as vice president of operations, had heard the stories of the ghostly Follies girl. He did some research and found, among many photographs, the one that accompanies this story.

Workers who renovated the theatre for its 1997 reopening reported numerous encounters with Olive. She appears almost exclusively to men, and often acts flirtatiously. Once or twice she's been reported to speak, saying "Hi, fella!" in a coquettish voice.

As Olive's host, Amendola has become something of an authority on her life. He told Playbill that she is a regular visitor to the theatre - appearing, or making her presence known - only after audiences depart. She's generally benign, but can be temperamental. Two portraits of her now hang backstage, and everyone who works there makes a habit of saying "Good morning, Olive!" when they arrive for work, and "Good night, Olive," when they leave. As long as they do so, Olive seems appeased.

There are only two times that she makes trouble. Whenever there is a change of some kind in the theatre, or when people from her era come to visit. The latter happens fairly regularly since Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS began inviting surviving Follies performers to its annual "Easter Bonnet" competition there.

One year, Amendola said, the sets began shaking violently with no apparent cause after the event. Another year, all the light bulbs on one of the office floors burned out simultaneously without any detectable problem with the electrical system.

Olive is still queen of the New Amsterdam and continues to patrol her domain. She was recently spotted in the abandoned upstairs space that once housed the New Amsterdam Roof. She was walking through the air, unsupported. Research shows that the Roof once sported a notorious glass-bottomed promenade, designed so swells could peek up women's skirts, and flappers could tease them with their frillies.

The glass may be long gone, but Olive still puts on her nightly show for the boys.

The Belasco Theatre

The Shubert Organization maintains an unusual degree of security on the top floor of the Belasco Theatre. The entrance is kept locked at all times, covered by a dark, heavy curtain. Motion detectors and an alarm are always on, and access is granted only by special permission.

Nevertheless, sitting alone in her wood-paneled office with milky bottle-glass windows that run up to the ceiling (and can be glimpsed from the lobby, above the box office), house manager Carol Fleming sometimes hears footsteps from the floor above her. They don't even bother her anymore, she says. She enjoys the company of the theatre's builder and namesake, who once lived in an apartment on that top floor, David Belasco. The only odd thing about it: Belasco's been dead since 1931.

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 Street. He spent so much of his life in that building, its small wonder that he seems to be spending his death there, too.

He's one of the most solid 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 "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 by squeezing next to him in a phone-booth sized private elevator.

Shortly after his death 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 complained that an old man dressed up like a priest had pinched her bottom. The uninitiated were often terrified. Veteran actors looked forward to these meetings, seeing them as a good omen.

Belasco manifests himself in other ways, too. Closed doors on the set have been seen to magically open in unison as the curtain rises. The reek of cigar smoke has permeated more than one production in which no one smoked. The private elevator is sometimes heard to rise and descend, even though the shaft is sealed and the motor has been disconnected.

Belasco apparently wasn't ready to give up his life in the theatre when he gave up his life. For years, workers at the theatre reported the sounds of raucous parties in the abandoned apartment. Since, then, only footsteps.

His frequent appearances on dark stairways or deserted hallways has sent a chill up more than one spine. In a story about the Belasco phenomenon, The New York Times reported that a caretaker's dog would growl at an unseen intruder every afternoon at precisely 4 PM, when, apparently, the theatre's namesake would make his rounds.

One usher who now works at a theatre on the other side of Times Square said she was closing up in the lobby one night at the Belasco and playfully called out, "Goodnight, Mr. Belasco." And, even though the exterior doors were pulled shut and there was no wind, all the outer lobby doors swung open silently and in unison. She said she asked to be transferred after that, and still won't work at the Belasco.

Belasco relished female companionship in life, and appears to be continuing his romances in the afterlife. Another ghost, known as the Blue Lady, is frequently seen in the house itself. One well-known TV and film star who appeared at the Belasco during the past four years reported hearing a locked door open in her dressing room while she was taking a shower. She darted out to confront the intruder, only to find the door still securely locked, but the bathroom suffused with a strange blue glow.

Things may not be going well with this post-mortem love affair. Earlier this season, Dracula star Melissa Errico said she and other cast members had heard the sound of an argument coming from behind a huge portrait of Belasco that hangs just inside the stage door. A check showed that there was no one in the theatre having such an argument. No one living, anyway.

The Palace Theatre

Back in the Vaudeville days, hard-working acts from Portland to Peoria struggled to attain the same dream: to "play the Palace" in Times Square. Especially desperate jugglers, comedians, eccentric dancers and dog acts would ply their trades on the sidewalk in front of the Palace, known as "the beach," hoping to catch the eye of the theatre's bookers.

Some of the lucky few who finally made it inside must have decided they never wanted to leave.

Ever.

More than one hundred ghosts are said to haunt the Palace, including a white-gowned cellist who plays in the pit (and who last appeared to Andrea McArdle when she was doing Beauty and the Beast there), a sad little girl who looks down from the balcony, a man in a brown suit who walks quickly past open office doors light at night, a boy who rolls toy trucks on the landing behind the mezzanine, and Judy Garland herself, whose presence is felt near a door that was built especially for her at the rear of the orchestra.

One ghost you never want to see is the spirit of a Vaudeville acrobat who fell and broke his neck there. He has been seen walking a tightrope from the house-left box up to the mezzanine. But legend has it that anyone who sees this particular ghost will soon die themselves.

At least they'll have company.

There are lots more Broadway ghosts.

A famous and well-documented incident occurred Dec. 21, 1909, at the Lyric Theatre, now part of the Hilton Theatre on 42nd Street. It was the opening night of The City, the last play by prolific author Clyde Fitch (Beau Brummell, Barbara Frietchie, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines). Fitch had died the previous summer in Europe, but, according to published accounts, as the cast of The City was taking its final curtain calls, women in the audience screamed and fainted as the unmistakable figure of the late author emerged from the wings, strode to center stage, took a deep bow - and vanished right before everyone's startled eyes.

Not all such stories are confined to the distant past. This very season, the cast and crew of Wonderful Town suffered a rash of lost props and things being mysteriously moved and removed from dressing rooms. This seems to be an unhappy ghost, and the feeling is that this is the spirit of entrepreneur Martin Beck, who hasn't yet accepted that the theatre, which bore his name since the 1920s, was recently renamed for caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Do theatre ghosts really exist? Are they actually spirits of the dead, or are they some kind of image of energy, imprinted by the intense emotions generated inside the great Broadway houses? Why don't they release their hold on the Earth and move on?

The answer to the last question may be found in the punch line of one of the oldest theatre jokes: What, and give up show business?

—The preceding story is excerpted from the book, "The Ghost Walks," by Robert Viagas, which is due in stores in 2006.