A lot of ghost stories take place in the distant past or in remote, abandoned places.
Not this one.
Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre, thronged with more than 1,700 people nightly to see the hit musical Aladdin, is home to one of the theatre world’s most active ghosts. And it’s been a busy couple of years for her, according to Dana Amendola, vice president of operations for Disney Theatrical Group.
Olive Thomas, a onetime Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl who has been haunting the 42nd Street playhouse since she committed suicide in 1920, is by far the most active ghost on Broadway. She manifests so frequently that Amendola 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). Most are visible only to Disney employees, who have a ritual of blowing a kiss or touching the picture frame as they enter and leave. But audiences who enter through the main entrance on 42nd Street can see one, too; Olive Thomas is the last photo on the right side as you enter.
But her spirit made a recent appearance, too.
Amendola said a group of Disney staffers were sitting in an office discussing the Oscar-winning film The Artist, 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 somebody said the REAL star of the silent era was Mary Pickford (Olive’s sister-in-law). “Now, maybe Olive got a little upset about that because when someone said, ‘I wonder what Olive Thomas would think of The Artist,’ a stack of 13 or 14 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. They didn’t fall straight down as CDs would have done; they went flying about three feet across the room and hit a wall. This was witnessed by several people. They didn’t even make the connection to Olive right away. But when they told me about it, I did.”
Amendola said ushers and overnight security people report feeling a touch on the back, like someone sneaking up on them and playing a practical joke. But when they turn around, no one is there.
Thomas may have made another appearance in the middle of the crowded New Amsterdam orchestra section. Shortly after the opening of Aladdin in 2014, an audience member came up to one of the ushers during a performance and asked if she could have a booster seat for her child. “We don’t like to interrupt a show, so we waited until the intermission and came to her with a booster. But we found she already had one. When we asked where she had gotten it, she said a ‘lady at the back of the theatre’ had gestured to where they were. Now, we don’t have a woman at the back of the house who does that in the middle of a show. We checked and none of the staff had done it. So you can take that how you like, but it was kind of freaky.”
“This has been going on for 20 years that I remember,” Amendola added. “I think she likes the attention.”
Ironically, Amendola says that Olive’s lurid story, promoted through magazine stories and even an immersive 2015 stage musical Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, has attracted a web following. Nearly a century after her death, Olive Thomas is one of the best-known of all the Ziegfeld Girls, the subject of films, books, and at least a half dozen websites.
“That would really delight Olive and annoy the other Ziegfeld girls, I’m sure,” Amendola said.
And that has created a problem for the staff at the Ziegfeld. Amendola said they get asked about Olive all the time, which is not a problem. But many of Olive’s craziest fans have tried concealing themselves in corners of the theatre, hoping to stay after it is closed so they might catch a glimpse of the glamorous ghost. Amendola said his staff now does a special sweep of the theatre each night to catch stowaways and escort them out.