Halloween Special: Haunted Theatres
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
From the bright lights of Broadway to your hometown, get ready to take a special behind-the-screams look at some of the world’s most haunted theatres!
Halloween is the perfect night for ghost stories, and you’ll definitely want to read these ones with a light on.
Speaking of lights, did you know that the Ghost Lights also have a link to the supernatural? While these lights which burn brightly in theatres while they are left dark and empty have become a beacon of hope to many in these trying times and serve many practical purposes, there is another reason they stay lit. It is believed that keeping the Ghost Light lit will either keep spirits away, or in the case of certain theatre ghosts, give them light to perform by so they feel less inclined to cause trouble during an actual performance.
This may seem like just another theatre superstition, and so may this entire article to the skeptics.
In a conversation I had this week with John Karastamatis from Mirvish Productions, we wondered if theatres are considered more haunted because of the superstitious nature of actors? Are they more open to the supernatural, or are they just quicker to explain strange occurrences by blaming something that may or may not be there?
Or is there another reason spirits may be drawn to theatres?
Ghosts are energy, and they rely on the energies around them when it comes to showing themselves, either visually or by moving things or making sounds. You can’t deny that a theatre with hundreds of patrons, staff members, and performers is bursting at the seams with energy at almost all times.
Could it be that such a high energy site attracts those lingering from the spirit world and allows them to cause strange occurrences?
Maybe it’s a mix of both.
I can’t call myself an expert in this case at all, and I don’t know if anyone can.
These are personal experiences and beliefs.
However, I'm not only a huge fan of Halloween, but I believe in things that go bump in the night and have had my own supernatural experiences in theatres, which I'll share later on.
Whether you’re a believer or just looking for a good Halloween read, this article is for you!
I'm about to take you on a little ghost tour through Broadway, London’s West End, and of course, our own home sweet home, Canada.
So, let’s dive in.
The first stop on our ghost tour takes us to New York City and the bright lights of Broadway.
THE NEW AMSTERDAM THEATRE
Designed by Henry Herts and Hugh Tallent, The New Amsterdam Theatre opened October 26th, 1903 and was quickly nicknamed “The House Beautiful.” By June 1913, it became the home of The Ziegfeld Follies, which played there successfully into 1927.
Unfortunately, the theatre did not bounce back as well after The Great Depression.
In 1993, Disney purchased the theatre and restored it to its former glory.
The New Amsterdam Theatre is now home to Disney’s Aladdin, and is one of the oldest remaining Broadway houses.
The New Amsterdam Theatre has a resident ghost in Olive Thomas.
Olive Thomas was one of the many Ziegfeld girls to perform at The New Amsterdam Theatre and was also successful as a silent film star.
There is a bit of a mystery surrounding Olive’s death. While in Paris on vacation with her husband, actor Jack Pickford, she died of mercury poisoning after they had an argument. While no one knows for sure, there are three theories. The first is that her death was accidental, that she mistook her husband’s mercury bichloride (prescribed for his syphilis) for her sleeping pills, but that wouldn’t necessarily explain the large dose she took. Another theory is that she was allegedly murdered by her husband. The last is that Olive took her own life after Jack revealed that he had syphilis and had passed it on to her.
Whatever the cause, Olive Thomas passed away in 1920.
Reports of her haunting the theatre started mere weeks after her death, when various Ziegfeld girls claimed to have passed her backstage. Olive has made the theatre her home ever since.
A playful spirit, she has been known to move things, tap ushers and security on the back, and even stopping elevators.
There have been Olive sightings, where she has revealed herself completely. Once, she handed an audience member a booster seat mid-show, and she has been said to be seen crossing the empty stage at night, bowing and blowing kisses.
Portraits of Olive have been placed at the entrances to the theatre, and the employees are always sure to greet Olive and say goodnight by either touching the picture frame or blowing her a kiss as this is said to keep her from causing too much trouble.
Olive has become so popular in Broadway lore that staff at The New Amsterdam Theatre have had to add an additional sweep of the theatre to their nightly routines to make sure that no one has snuck in to stay overnight in hopes of an Olive sighting.
THE BELASCO THEATRE
The Belasco Theatre was opened by David Belasco in 1907 as The Stuyvesant Theatre. In 1910, when the other theatre already bearing his name closed, he renamed The Stuyvesant as The Belasco. Belasco was a part of the “little theatre” movement, and worked with designer George Keister to create a space where the proximity of the audience to the stage assisted with intimacy between patrons and performers. A large apartment was built above the theatre itself where Belasco actually lived!
The Belasco Theatre was purchased by the Shubert Organization in 1948, and was completely restored in 2010. Girl From The North Country is currently playing at The Belasco.
The Belasco is haunted by David Belasco, “The Bishop of Broadway” himself. As a playwright, he is said to have worked on around 374 plays, and is known for penning Madame Butterfly, Lulu Belle, and the autobiographical The Theatre Through Its Stage Door. Belsco is also remembered for his focus on sensational realism, and ground-breaking developments in special effects and lighting.
The hauntings began shortly after Belasco’s death in 1931.
Actors have reported a feeling of being watched while in the theatre, doors lock and unlock on their own, and lights also switch on and off for no apparent reason.
He has been spotted as a shadowy figure sitting in the balcony, as well as appearing as a full-bodied apparition. Belasco has been known to appear to actors to compliment them on their performances, as well as to pinch showgirls on the rear.
There have also been reports of loud 1920s music coming from his old living quarters, as well as general party sounds, but when security would go to investigate, no one was ever there.
While Belasco has been far less active since the renovation in 2010, those working at the theatre are known to say “Goodnight, Mr. Belasco” when leaving as a sign of respect to the spirit of this theatre legend.
THE PALACE THEATRE
The Palace Theatre was opened in 1913 by producers Martin Beck, B.F Keith, and E.F Albee and designed by Kirchoff and Rose to be one of the biggest vaudeville theatres in the country. “Playing The Palace” quickly became synonymous with “making it” in show business and many of the greats have performed on its stage.
In 1965, the Nederlanders chose to turn The Palace into a “legitimate theatre”, opening with Sweet Charity, starring Gwen Verdon.
The Palace Theatre closed for renovations in September 2018 following Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical, and was originally scheduled to reopen in 2021.
The Palace Theatre is rumoured to have more spirits than any other Broadway house, estimating that it houses more than one hundred ghosts.
Strangely enough, a lot of the reported supernatural activity at The Palace is in the form of full-bodied apparitions. There have been reports of a shadowy figure seen late at night walking past open doorways, the ghost of a child in the mezzanine who likes to play peekaboo, and a musician in white in the orchestra pit.
One well-known ghost of The Palace is that of tightrope walker and acrobat Louis Borsalino. He used to perform at the theatre, and once took a fall from the tightrope. Records vary as to if he passed away or if he was just severely injured. However, he has been seen walking the tightrope, swinging from the rafters, and even recreating his spectacular fall.
WEST END THEATRES
Across the ocean, London’s West End houses theatres which are centuries old. By age alone, it is no surprise that many of these old buildings house many spirits.
THEATRE ROYAL DRURY LANE
Since 1663, a theatre has been on the site of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, making it the oldest theatre site in continuous use.
The original building opened by Thomas Killigrew was the size of the stage inside the theatre today, and unfortunately burned down in 1672. Another theatre opened by Killigrew opened its doors in 1674 and operated for 117 years. In 1794, the building was torn down and rebuilt to seat 3,600 people. Manager Richard Sheridan is also known for installing the world’s first safety curtain, however the theatre would still burn down fifteen years later.
The current theatre, designed by Benjamin Wyatt opened in 1812 and has been active ever since.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane closed for renovations recently, and is set to reopen with Disney’s Frozen in 2021.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane is not only considered one of the most haunted theatres in the world, but one of the most haunted buildings.
This theatre has many spirits, but three in particular are reported most often.
The most famous is The Man In Grey, a tall man in a long grey coat and three cornered hat who haunts the Upper Circle, and can be seen walking along before disappearing through the same spot in the wall. The legend of The Man In Grey is almost as old as the theatre itself, and during renovations during the 1840s, a skeleton in grey rags with a knife through his heart was discovered in the exact spot where the ghost disappears. The Man In Grey is the most-spotted ghost at Drury Lane, and is considered a symbol of good luck and a successful show.
The theatre is also haunted by the ghosts of two clowns, specifically in the stage area.
One is the spirit of Joseph Grimaldi, the father of modern clown and British pantomime. The other is believed to be Pantomime Dame, Dan Leno. Grimaldi is known to kick and push at actors onstage while Leno’s presence can be sensed by the smell of lavender.
THE ADELPHI THEATRE
The Adelphi Theatre was originally built in 1806 and was opened under the name Sans Pareil by John Scott. In 1819, the new owners Jones and Rodwell, renamed the theatre as The Adelphi and it rose in popularity.
The last reconstructive work on the theatre was done in 1930 by Ernesst Shaufelberg, but was also refurbished in 1993 when the building was bought by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The Adelphi is still co-owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Nederlander Group, and has just announced that it will host Back To The Future: The Musical in May 2021.
The Adelphi Theatre’s resident ghost is that of Victorian actor, William Terris.
In 1897, Terris was performing in Secret Service at The Adelphi. At the stage door before the evening performance, Terris was stabbed to death by a jealous actor and deranged friend, Richard Arthur Prince. William Terris died in the arms of Jessica Millward, his lover who was also an actress at the theatre, promising her he would return.
Reports of Terris vary. While there have been a few sightings, he is heard far more often. He is known to knock on the door of a certain dressing room, where Jessica was said to have used during her time at The Adelphi. It was also reported in 1928 that the ghost of William Terris appeared in the dressing room and attacked her.
Apparently, sightings of Terris are not limited solely to the theatre, as he has been seen around The Covent Garden Station.
A plaque commemorating William Terris is hung on the rear wall of The Adelphi Theatre in Maiden Lane.
THE DOMINION THEATRE
The Dominion Theatre was opened in 1929 by Moss Empires and designed by William and T.R Millburn. It is currently owned and operated by The Nederlander Group.
The Dominion is set to host The Prince of Egypt in 2021.
The site of this theatre has a very rich history.
Most notably it is the site of The London Beer Flood in 1814. That October, a ring on the fermentation tank on the premises broke, causing the entire tank to fall apart. More than 320,000 gallons of beer flooded out, collapsing the brewery wall and spiralling down the Tottenham Court Road area. Buildings were taken down, and eight people drowned during this tragic event.
This leads us to The Dominion Theatre’s resident ghost. Fourteen year old Eleanor Cooper was working as a barmaid in the Tavistock Arms Pub during the flood. The wall of the establishment was taken down by the wave of beer, trapping her in the rubble where she eventually drowned.
While there are few reported sightings of Eleanor, staff at The Dominion report mysterious noises; crashes and bangs, the laughter of a young girl, and other general poltergeist activity.
Canada is also home to many haunted theatres, and as Canadians we had to feature some of our spookiest ghost hosts!
THE ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE (TORONTO, ONTARIO)
At 113 years old, The Royal Alexandra Theatre is the oldest of the Mirvish-owned theatres in Toronto, as well as Canada’s Most Haunted Theatre. It is also one of North America’s oldest legitimate theatres in continuous use, due to its near-constant operation since its opening.
After Upper Canada College changed locations in the early 1900s, the playing field space became a park until it was purchased by Cawthra Mulock in 1907, who then built The Royal Alexandra Theatre with architect John Lyle. The theatre was originally operated as a “road house”, hosting touring productions and performers from all over, as well as being rented out to other companies. By 1963, The Royal Alex was only operational for a few weeks of the year. When it was threatened with demolition, Ed Mirvish purchased the building, restoring it to its former glory. The theatre continued to operate as a touring house during this time, with Mirvish bringing in shows from London and New York.
In 1987, Mirvish productions was founded by David Mirvish with the intent to showcase Canadian work, as well as Canadian artists, while collaborating with other Canadian theatre companies. The Royal Alex was home to many of these productions, and now, Mirvish Productions is the largest commercial theatre production company in Canada.
In 2016, The Royal Alexandra was renovated again, reducing the available seats to 1244, adjusting width and legroom for the comfort of their patrons.
The Royal Alexandra Theatre is currently home to the Canadian Production of Come From Away.
As Canada’s Most Haunted Theatre, many spirits reside inside The Royal Alex, and reports of their existence seem to be almost as old as the theatre itself.
Those working at the theatre from performers, crew and security, have reported temperature drops, noises in the dressing room hallways such as footsteps and dragging chains, to glass shattering in an empty room. Hot spots in the theatre include the green room, the second floor dressing room hall which is home to the haunted Dressing Room 10, and the house’s Dress Circle.
While speaking with John Karastamtis, the Communications Director at Mirvish Productions, he told many stories from a man named Lewis, who worked the midnight shift at The Royal Alexandra’s stage door. Lewis would speak often of the games the spirits would play with him. One evening, upon hearing the sound of shattering glass in the greenroom in the basement, he went to investigate, only to find a coffee pot simply sitting in the middle of the floor.
Wanting to gain proof of these paranormal experiences, Lewis spread talcum powder down the second floor hallway where he would hear the sound of someone running. That evening, he heard the same sounds, and when he went to investigate, there was a set of footprints left in the powder.
The Royal Alexandra Theatre does have three confirmed resident ghosts. The first two have appeared only as full bodied apparitions. One is a woman in a long white gown who sits in a Box in Dress Circle house left, looking out onto the stage. Another is a tall man in a tuxedo and top hat. Another possible ghost is an unnamed apprentice who fell from the paint room to his death in the theatre’s early years, though no one has ever found records confirming this.
These lively spirits have actually inspired a song cycle by Ron Jacobson and accompanying short story by Karastamatis himself, which can be found here:
THE BURTON CUMMINGS THEATRE (WINNIPEG, MANITOBA)
The Burton Cummings Theatre, originally The Walker Theatre, was opened in 1907. Corliss Powers Walker and his wife Harriet founded the theatre in hopes of bringing ballets, operas, and Broadway-level shows to Winnipeg and went on to host some of the biggest names in show business. The Walkers are credited not only with bringing this caliber of live performance to Winnipeg, but with making performances accessible to those who lived there. Twenty-five cent tickets were available in the second balcony (known as “The Gods”), which expanded the demographic of theatregoers.
In 1945, The Walker Theatre was converted into The Odeon Cinema and was Winnipeg’s most popular single-screen movie theatre for the next fifty years before being purchased by the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group (WTPAG) in 1990. The theatre was restored and designated a National Historic Site of Canada as well as a Provincial Heritage Site.
In 2002, The Walker Theatre was renamed The Burton Cummings Theatre after Winnipeg-born lead singer of The Guess Who.
The theatre has been under the ownership of True North Sports + Entertainment since 2016.
The Burton Cummings Theatre has many reports of supernatural activity.
One of the most common occurrences is the sound of applause coming from “The Gods”. Performers in closed rehearsals, and others alone or in small gatherings have heard clapping from the upper balcony when no one was there.
Other reports include strange noises: footsteps on stairs, hand clapping backstage, lights turning on and off, doors shutting on their own as well as disembodied voices. One of the spookiest accounts includes a highly trained guard dog reacting intensely to a closed door. When the door was opened and the room was searched, there was nothing, and no one inside.
There are also stories of a full bodied apparition downstage left, a stocky woman in a black dress who rises from the floor and disappears.
The majority of the hauntings at The Burton Cummings Theatre are credited to Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney. This famous acting couple from England completed their North American tour at The Walker before leaving for home on the Empress of Ireland. In what’s known as the most tragic events in maritime history, the Empress of Ireland went down on May 29th, 1914. Thousands of lives were lost, including those of Laurence and Mabel. A plaque was erected in the lobby of the theatre in honour of their memory.
It’s said that during his final bow, Irving promised Winnipeg that he would return.
Maybe, despite their sad ending, Laurence and Mabel chose to reside in the last place they performed.
Another suspected spirit is a ticket seller by the name of Joe. Joe left his job at The Walker in 1914, going to serve his country in the First World War. Despite surviving the war, he was caught in a gas attack and he spent the rest of his life in poor health. It’s said that Joe haunts the theatre, as it was the place he was happiest during his life.
THE GRAND THEATRE (LONDON, ONTARIO)
The Grand Theatre was opened by Ambrose Joseph Small in 1901 as The Grand Opera House. The theatre operated as a touring house, hosting road shows and vaudeville acts.
Trans-Canada Theatre Ltd. owned the theatre until they went bankrupt in 1924. The Grand Opera House then went under ownership of Famous Players, a movie house company which used it to present movies and stage shows. A community theatre group known as London Little Theatre purchased The Grand in 1945 and by 1971, they became a professional theatre company known as Theatre London.
Theatre London renovated the theatre in 1977 and changed its name to The Grand Theatre in 1983.
It’s said that The Grand Theatre is haunted by its original owner Ambrose Joseph Small who just so happens to be the subject of one of Canada’s largest unsolved mysteries.
One of Canada’s largest theatrical entrepreneurs, Small started off as an usher and climbed the ladder to become the owner of a chain of successful theatres across Ontario.
On December 2nd, 1919, Ambrose Small sold his group of theatres for 1.75 million dollars and was never seen again. The money was deposited into his account, and a body was never found.
While no one knows what happened to the 52 year old tycoon, he was known for having a gambling problem, many mistresses, and was not known as a necessarily endearing man.
However, his theatres were his great loves, and The Grand, his pride and joy.
Reports of hauntings at The Grand Theatre include full-bodied apparitions of Small in various parts of the building; on balconies, catwalks, backstage, and over the audience. This spectre also makes his presence known by the sound of footsteps, turning lights and appliances on and off, making hissing sounds, and has even been known to drop a chandelier! One notable account from a cast member states that a seat in the theatre flipped down as though someone was sitting there before returning to its original position.
Legend has it that Ambrose Small’s spirit still walks the stage after every opening night, and has been known to “sing” on nights when a performance was successful.
It seems that the disappearance of Ambrose Small isn’t the only mystery.
Another is where his ghost chooses to reside.
Small is also said to haunt The Avon Theatre, one of four theatres which makes its home at The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. The Stratford Festival is one of Canada’s biggest arts festivals, founded by Tom Patterson in 1952.
Before being purchased by The Stratford Festival in 1963, The Avon Theatre had gone from vaudeville stage (Known then as The Royal Albert), a movie theatre (The Majestic), before returning to live performance and being renamed The Avon Theatre in 1941.
The Avon Theatre has similar reports of objects being moved and reappearing mysteriously, disembodied voices, the feeling of being watched, and sightings of a man in the audience during closed rehearsals.
These hauntings are attributed to Ambrose Small.
Personally, I have yet to find a link between Small and The Avon, it is possible he worked there in the early 1900s.
So which theatre houses the ghost whose disappearance is still one of Canada's most famous unsolved mysteries?
The Grand, The Avon, or both?
And if he only haunts one building…
Who is in the other?
A LITTLE CLOSER TO HOME…
Go to any theatre, and most of the time there will be a spirit of some kind linked to it, or at least strange goings-on reported.
Hauntings aren’t limited to commercial theatres in large entertainment districts, they can happen in local theatres as well. I've experienced the unexplainable in theatres quite close to home.
And this article wouldn’t be any fun if I only told you ghost stories recorded by other people…
So, I have decided to share our very own theatre ghost encounters with you!
SOUTH SIMCOE THEATRE, COOKSTOWN, ONTARIO, CANADA
My ghost story takes place in the teeny tiny town of Cookstown, Ontario at South Simcoe Theatre which isn’t too far from the tiny town where I grew up.
The thing you should know about Cookstown, which I didn’t at the time, is very haunted. I’m actually curious if it’s a location based thing like ley lines, because for a small town to have so many haunted places is.... Crazy.
It was Fall 2012 and I was in rehearsals for Nunsense, my very first community theatre production with SST.
We had gathered to rehearse despite the impending thunderstorms, and as it happens with old buildings and bad weather… The power went out.
This theatre doesn’t have a traditional ghost light, it’s equipped with emergency lights in the wings. Otherwise, it’s pitch dark both upstairs and down in the basement.
We all went down to the common area in the basement which serves as the lobby and dressing rooms to wait out the storm. Eventually, it becomes pretty clear that we’re done for the night and we started to figure out leaving.
I had left my tap and ballet shoes upstairs, and since I needed them for dance class the following night, I couldn’t leave them backstage. My friend who was stage managing took a flashlight and we carefully made our way up through the auditorium.
It’s worth stating, that at this point, I didn’t know the theatre was haunted, no one had ever shared any stories or rumours with me.
I get backstage and pick up my shoes and water bottle. It’s very dimly lit, and with how the backstage is laid out, around certain corners it was completely pitch black. It was then I saw a shadowy figure moving back behind the set pieces. It looked like a man, and he seemed to be leaning against the far back wall. He didn’t move towards me, but I quickly decided it was a trick of the light and to ignore the feeling of being watched.
I called out to tell my friend I was going to head downstairs via the backstage staircase: a treacherous, narrow squeeze where actors would ascend to reach the playing area from the curtained off dressing rooms. It was likely a foolish decision as I am very clumsy, but I managed to make it downstairs without an issue.
While grabbing my bag from the dressing room, I felt an icy grip on my wrist… I’ll never forget it. There was no one else even in the dressing room, though I could hear and see my castmates with flashlights right outside through the curtains. In the half-light, I could have sworn it was a woman’s hand, but I only saw it for a moment before it disappeared… Then of course, I ran out of there.
After that, it was no surprise to learn that the theatre was haunted!
That’s a wrap on the tour of some of my favourite Haunted Theatres!
Do you have a theatre ghost story?
Leave it below, I would love to hear them!
Previously Published on Break A Leg