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Aug. 12, 2021

Ep. 47: Haunted Theaters

Theaters are places of intense emotion - the laughter of a hilarious comedy, the love of a romantic musical, the tears of an affecting tragedy. It's no wonder that these magnets for, well, drama, tend to be some of the most haunted places in the...


Theaters are places of intense emotion - the laughter of a hilarious comedy, the love of a romantic musical, the tears of an affecting tragedy. It's no wonder that these magnets for, well, drama, tend to be some of the most haunted places in the world.

From the spectral figures of the Great White Way to the site of an American president's final moments, to the home of the Phantom himself in Paris and one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the world in London, we take a field trip to a handful of the most haunted theaters across the globe. Was The Phantom of the Opera based on a real theater ghost? Did David Belasco return to the Broadway theater bearing his name...after his death? Does John Wilkes Booth still tread the boards at the location of his greatest creative successes...and most horrific acts?

We explore all these dramaturgical legends...and more!
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Transcript

Sean, as you absolutely know by now, I was heavily involved in the drama club scene during my high school years.

In my time there I got accustomed to all sorts of theater-related traditions and superstitions, like not saying “Macbeth” in the theater itself, not saying “good luck” before a performance - especially on opening night - but rather “break a leg”, a bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening, etc. Theatre is ALMOST as superstitious a thing as sports, which makes a lot of sense, because they’re both rooted in Ancient Greco-Roman traditions, which of course were rooted in myth and magic.

Theaters are also a place full of intense energy. Whether you’re getting method by diving into a character’s inner turmoil or experiencing the heady days of tech week, it’s really unlike any other hobby or art in the relationships it creates and the emotional atmosphere it fosters. As an actor especially, you become attached to your castmates in a very specific way, and even if you never see these people again, for those few weeks of rehearsal and performance, they’re your closest compatriots. So it’s no wonder that many theaters have legends of hauntings...especially since performers create such deep attachments to them in life. 

This week I’ll be taking us through some stories of the most haunted theaters in the world, courtesy of the book “Haunted Theaters” by Tom Ogden, because as your resident Drama Ghoul™ I feel rather uniquely qualified to do so. So sit back, relax, turn on the ghost light, and settle in for some theatrical spookiness.


Let’s start with the most famous theater community in the world - Broadway. The term “Broadway” in reference to theater encompasses the theatrical performances which are presented in the 41 professional theatres, each with 500 or more seats, located in the Theater District and the Lincoln Center along the 13-mile road known as Broadway in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. This area was established as a theater community as far back as  1750, when actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean established a resident theatre company that seated about 280 audience members at the Theatre on Nassau Street. Since then, the community has only grown, and has been continuously operating - with some understandable pauses for events like the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, workers’ strikes, and pandemics like...well...COVID-19. Together with London’s West End - aka England’s Broadway - it represents the highest commercial level of live theater in the English-speaking world.

So of course, with such a long and rich history including many fiery personalities, there are more than a few ghost stories.

One of the most famous is that surrounding David Belasco and his namesake Belsaco Theatre. Belasco had opened his first theater, the Stuyvesant, in October 1907 on West 44th Street. Belasco was a producer, playwright, and director that was most concerned with providing a spectacle to audiences, and his theater was one of the most grand in the world at that time. There were Tiffany lamps everywhere, elaborately carved woodwork, and 18 large painted murals by the artist Everett Shinn. Inside the Stuyvesant there were about 1000 seats with clear, unobstructed views of the stage. Belasco had a vision, and his quirkiness - along with his penchant for wearing all black and dressing in a cleric’s collar - nabbed him the nickname of “The Bishop of Broadway”. Eventually in 1910 the theater was renamed the Belasco Theatre, which it is called to this day. You may have even seen a show or two there - the most recent residents of the Belasco were the play Network in 2020 and screenings of The Irishman, the first screenings held at the Belasco, in 2019.

David Belasco was incredibly passionate about the theater that bore his name. He spent most of the last 20 years of his life inside the building, writing, producing and directing its shows. He was tremendously emotionally and creatively fulfilled by his work, and died after a happy life at the age of 71 in May 1931. But it seems David Belasco never quite took his final bow.

Almost immediately after his death, stage crew and actors started seeing his spirit all over the theater. He looked much like he had in life - white, tousled hair with a black shirt and collar, or sometimes a monk’s robe. Sometimes Belasco would be sitting alone in the balcony, or he would even go backstage to shake hands with the actors and give them a word of encouragement or advice. More than one actress hilariously complained that a man dressed as a Catholic priest or pastor had pinched her ass. Belasco, by the way, certainly loved wining and wooing his actresses, so it makes a lot of sense he wouldn’t want to stop for a pesky little thing like his own death. 

Late at night, after the last show and the last of the audience had left the building, crew members and other personnel sometimes would hear laughing, singing, and footsteps around the building. Sometimes even the sound of a raging phantom party, like in that movie Tower of Terror. For years, the stage doorman claimed that each day at 4pm his dog, who apparently kept him company on the job, would growl directly at an invisible presence. Of course, it was about this time of day Belasco was known in life to take a leisurely stroll around the building. Over time, the ghost’s appearance - which could also be sensed in the smell of his signature cigars or the curtain rising or falling on its own - came to be considered a lucky omen. He even apparently showed up some opening nights in his old favorite private box, which was kept empty. 

It seems, however, Belasco had the same exacting tastes in death as in his life. In 1970 the avant-garde theatrical revue Oh Calcutta! transferred to the theater, and with it, the sightings of Belasco’s ghost abruptly stopped. Perhaps this was because the show was pretty sexual, even including full-frontal nudity. Though Belasco certainly enjoyed the pleasures of carnal acts during his lifetime, perhaps he was affronted by their depiction on his beloved stage.

For the next 30 years, reports of seeing Belasco’s spirit were rare...until 2003, when the show Enchanted April had its run in the theater, and he was seen once again. In 2004 several cast members of Dracula the Musical - which I am CRUSHED that I missed - heard the sounds of an argument from a disembodied man and woman that seemed to come from behind a large portrait of David Belasco that hangs near the stage door. When the painting was removed, however, there was nothing there. During the run of Passing Strange in 2008, actor Daniel Breaker, who most recently played Aaron Burr in Broadway’s Hamilton and who I actually thing was Burr when we saw it in 2017, Sean, told Playbill Radio an interesting story:

“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.’”

The legend of Belasco’s ghost is incredibly prevalent in Broadway lore, being mentioned in the theater’s Wikipedia page and in several Broadway.com and Playbill articles. Even in the show Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which ran at the theater in 2014, the character of Hedwig briefly discusses the history of the Belasco and references the ghost of Belasco, claiming that if the ghost appears on a show's opening night the show is blessed, and asks audience members in one of the boxes to tell her if the ghost appears - ostensibly, this is Belasco’s favorite old private box. 

Maybe he’s been wandering in the dark halls of the Belasco since Broadway’s shutdown in March 2020...we’ll see if David’s spirit makes an impatient appearance when the stage lights finally come back up, hopefully, next month.

Next we have some stories from Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre, specifically from one of your favorite productions, Sean - the 2005 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. This production starred Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris and was set within a mental institution. This extremely spooky atmosphere perhaps helped stir up the O’Neill’s resident ghosts.

Donna Lynne Champlin, who played Pirelli in the production, reported to Playbill that, "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.mThere 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." Champlin’s co-star Merwin Foard also added, "I set up a 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 placed my cot under. No one was in the room but me!"

So who is the resident ghost of the O’Neill? It seems there isn’t a consensus, but perhaps it’s Eugene O’Neill himself. The theater was named for prolific playwright and Nobel laureate O’Neill in 1959 after his tragic death after years of struggle with illness and addiction in 1953. Maybe he sticks around the theater bearing his name, watching hit shows like The Full Monty, Spring Awakening and its current feature, The Book of Mormon. Wonder what O’Neill would think about THAT one.

So, let’s go beyond Broadway. We’ve actually spoken before about another haunted American theater - that of the Kline Theater at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, haunted by a spirit referred to as “The General”, who apparently enjoys sitting in on performances of the student productions. But there’s another theater that’s deeply tied to American history, as well - and world-changing American tragedy.

We won’t go too deeply into it today as I’m sure there’s a whole episode on this event in the future, but on April 14th, 1865, stage actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth entered a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and shot sitting president Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head as he laughed at a witty line from the play. Booth then jumped down from the president’s box onto the stage, yelling something to the affect of Sic Semper Tyrannis - Thus Always to Tyrants - landing awkwardly on his leg, and fleeing from the stage through a side door, making his escape via a horse he had positioned in the alleyway. The next morning Lincoln died, and Booth followed him on April 26th, perishing from complications from a gunshot wound in the neck. 

Apparently, after this, he returned to the site of his infamous act...and has stayed there ever since.

John Wilkes Booth and his brother, Edwin, were popular actors of the time, though Edwin was much, much more famous than his brother and often left John in his very long shadow. Them and their brother Junius, another actor, were all good friends with John T. Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theatre. John even frequently had his mail delivered to the theatre when he was on tour, and Lincoln himself had previously seen him in a performance of The Marble Heart in 1863. So he already had a deep attachment to the place, and really sealed the deal with the assassination. Just days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to the Union at Appamattox, Booth would snatch away the triumphant president in an act of anger and revenge. Such a violent act is likely what keeps his spirit connected to the theater even now.

Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, photographer Matthew Brady - who took many of the famous photos of the Civil War we know today - captured a series of archival images of the inside of the playhouse, and a blur within the presidential box can be seen in one of the photos. Since then, many have claimed to see a spectral figure hovering in the booth.

Disembodied footsteps are sometimes heard on the stairs, particularly along the route that Booth took that fateful April night. At times the sound of laughter or sobbing will be heard, with no known source. The front curtain will sometimes raise and lower on its own, and many actors performing at the theater attest to the fact that there is an evil, invisible presence that can be sensed hanging over the diagonal path Booth ran across the stage to the back door and his escape. Cold spots are common, even in areas without particular ventilation like air conditioning or windows. And perhaps Booth’s spirit isn’t the only one restlessly roaming the theatre: some have seen a shadowy figure wearing a distinctive stovepipe hat materialize and disappear. But maybe this isn’t even Lincoln. The theater saw another tragedy after the assassination on June 9, 1893, when the front of the building suddenly collapsed, killing 22. Strangely, this happened on the same day Edwin Booth, John’s famous older brother, was laid to rest. 

America isn’t the only home to theater ghosts, of course. Let’s go visit the Parisian “Phantom of the Opera”!

The half-masked phantom of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical apparently isn’t PURELY a work of fiction. In fact, Leroux even writes “The Opera ghost really existed…” in his prologue to the story, which is set at the Palais Garnier in Paris, France. The Palais Garnier opera house, built in 1875, has been called "probably the most famous opera house in the world, a symbol of Paris like Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, or the Sacré Coeur Basilica." What’s interesting about the Palais is that, like Leroux’s story, it actually does have a spooky lake deep beneath the opera house floor. Charles Garnier, the Palais architect, ran into a problem while digging its foundation: he’d hit an arm of the Seine river below its ground, and no matter how hard they tried to pump out the water it just kept rushing back in. So Garnier adjusted, creating cisterns to control the water, which made a sort of artificial lake. It’s used by the Paris Fire Department for training to this day. Another eerie truth from the story is that of the falling chandelier, which is a famous set piece (especially from the musical) where the giant chandelier falls to the stage. In reality, in May 1896 the grand chandelier really did fall into the audience at the opera house, killing a woman named Madame Chomette. Possibly weirdest of all, Leroux apparently had also heard a rumor during a visit to the Opera House in 1908 that one of Garnier’s assistant architects, named Eric, had requested to live underneath the Palais, just like the eventual Phantom of Leroux’s story - and hadn’t been seen since. Indeed, the Phantom was really named Erik, and was detailed by Leroux in the novel to have been a contractor for the real lead architect Charles Garnier. 

Over the years, many at the Palais, including both performers and audience members, also claimed to have experienced and witnessed a variety of mysterious events. Some say that they have seen a pale and crippled figure wandering through the opera house. Others relate the story of an apparent “jilted older woman” who roams the streets outside of the opera house in search of her former lover. It’s said that on Leroux’s deathbed, he claimed that the Opera Garnier ghost really existed...but whether this is true, we’ll never know. 

Our final un-resting place for theater phantoms takes us to London, fittingly, where Shakespeare himself tread the boards and tested out his drafts of classic plays like Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet. Let’s take a trip to the “Most Haunted Theater in the World”, named so by our reference book Haunted Theaters, so you know it’s legit! This is the Theater Royal on London’s Drury Lane in the West End.

This particular building is the most recent in a line of four theatres which were built at the same location, the earliest of which dated back to 1663. This makes it the oldest theatre site in London still in use. Since World War 2, the theater has mostly hosted long runs of popular musicals, like Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, 42nd Street and Miss Saigon, the theatre's longest-running show. It’s currently owned by the aforementioned composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and will next be hosting the musical Frozen’s London debut starting in September. Hopefully.

This is another theater that has its own Wikipedia article section on its hauntings, which I always thing is a pretty good indicator of how haunted a place is at least said to be, since Wikipedia is really the most basic source of information on...well...just about everything. In 1848 or possibly 1850, renovations were taking place in the theater. During these renovations, a previously unknown empty chamber was found behind one of the walls...well, empty, of course, aside from a SKELETON!

The hidden body seemed to date back to the 1700s, but there was no knowledge or even hypothesis of who this could be the remains of. The bones were given a Christian burial nearby, and all was well...I mean, until the ghost started showing up. 

No one knows if the spirit that began to haunt the theater was that of the unnamed skeleton, as it began to appear to people in the 1930s, but there is one aspect of the sightings that seems to signal it is: the phantom always appears in the area where the renovations were being undertaken, and always begins its stroll by the spot in the wall where the hidden chamber was...or is?...located. The phantom is called the Man in Gray, as he’s always dressed in a long gray cloak with the hint of a sword...or maybe something else...protruding from underneath. He also wears knee length breeches, ruffled sleeves, buckled shoes or riding boots, a powdered wig, and a tricorner hat. Perhaps this was a young dandy who was killed and then hidden during a fight over one of the young actresses appearing on the Theatre Royal stage. 

The Man in Gray always shows up during the daytime, between 9am and 6pm or so, and normally only during the rehearsals for a new show. Apparently actors and management are always thrilled to see him, because his presence indicates that the show is going to be a big hit. Once in awhile he does come back to see an official performance - Morgan Davies, one of the stars of 1950’s run of Carousel, spotted a figure in a long gray cloak with ruffled cuffs sitting in an empty box during a performance. The figure stood up and raised an arm, and at this point Davies realized that the arm was transparent. 

The Man in Gray isn’t the only ghost of the Theatre Royal - after all, one spirit would hardly make a place the most haunted theater in the world. Another is said to be Charles Macklin, an Irish actor with a terrible temper. Macklin got into an argument with and killed fellow actor Thomas Hallam in the backstage hallway of the 2nd incarnation of the theater in 1735. Macklin eventually got off with manslaughter, and lived til he was FUCKING 107 YEARS OLD, but apparently came right back to the theater after he did eventually die. His ghost is said to be tall, ugly, and thin, and walks the corridors near where he killed Hallam. 

Actress Sarah Siddons, famous for her work in tragedies, apparently manifested in the dressing room of Camelot star Elizabeth Larner in 1960...over a century after her death in 1831. Larner saw the spirit rise from a chair, walk up to a wall, and vanish through. Larner immediately knew it was Siddons - she recognized her from an oil painting that hung elsewhere in the theater.

Multiple actresses have been guided by invisible hands further downstage during performances, to spots where they could be better seen by the audience. An unseen person was heard walking up and down the set stairs during My Fair Lady, even though they were in the middle of the stage and no one was on them at the time. Gloria Stuart, who you may know as old Rose from the movie Titanic, spoke of a spectral prankster taunting her during her run in Oklahoma, when it moved her pay for the week from a still-locked drawer to her pocketbook. 

There are at least dozen other named spirits that haunt Theatre Royal, including comedian Dan Leno, actor Charles Kean, managers Arthur Collins and George Grossmith, former head of cleaning staff Miss or Mrs Jordan, and perhaps even former King Charles the 2nd himself, who had commissioned the building of the original theater.

So Sean, what are your thoughts? Do you think spirits gravitate toward emotionally dense places like theaters?

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NEWS

Let’s take a trip to the Bizarre Bazaar!

It’s time to meet up with an old friend of the show...DB Cooper!

KOIN News reports that Cooper researcher and crime historian Eric Ullis conducted a weekend-long dig early this month looking for the infamous skyjacker’s parachutes and briefcase, which Ullis theorized might be found along the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon. Old-school listeners to our podcast may remember from our 4th episode on DB Cooper that this is where, in 1980, a young boy found $6000 of the $200,000 in marked bills Cooper was given as ransom before he jumped out of his hijacked plane, never to be seen again. 

Ullis, who also starred in the recent episode titled “The Final Hunt for DB Cooper” on the show History’s Greatest Mysteries, has theorized that this is the likely resting place for Cooper and his wares, one that the FBI has never properly investigated. Ullis will be continuing the dig on and off throughout this month and end sometime in September. It’ll also be streamed using Facebook Live in the Facebook group DB Cooper: Mystery Group. 

As the FBI announced in 2016 that it’s no longer investigating the DB Cooper case, Cooper enthusiasts like Ulis feel it’s up to them to find the answers. 

There’s no news from the dig so far, but we’ll keep you all posted if something regarding Cooper comes to light!

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That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on uFacebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. You can support the show by supporting our sponsors, and becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/aintitscary. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts...we’ll be forever grateful.

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