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Broadway's Haunted Houses

TheaterMania takes an inside look at the ghostly lore behind three Broadway theaters. logo
(© Tristan Fuge)
While most people believe theaters close on Monday in order to give the actors the day off, it has long been customary for theaters to go dark one night a week for another purpose: To keep the ghosts in the theater subdued.

Conventionally, when the theater is dark a "ghost light" is placed downstage center, to give the ghosts enough light to see, and to keep them at bay. To prevent hazardous falls and injuries, the ghost light is also the surest antidote to breeding new wraiths. Like most of theater's lore, ghosts are a blending of the practical and the visionary, reality and illusion.

One of the most famous theatrical ghosts was said to haunt the Stuyvesant Theatre, which was built in 1907, and is today known as The Belasco, memorialized for David Belasco, the producer who put his name on it just three years after it was built. A prominent force in the theater until his death in 1931, Belasco's ghost has been cited sitting in the balcony, watching the performance. For years, actors even claimed that he interacted with them, even shaking their hands.

While Belasco's ghost stopped appearing after the revue Oh! Calcutta moved there in 1971 -- he apparently fled when the mirror was held up to nature -- his mistress, the notorious "woman in blue," is still known to haunt that theater. According to Shubert Organization Archivist Reagan Fletcher, when actress Rosie Perez performed at the Belasco in Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune, she even reported that her dressing room was bathed in a blue light.

(© Tristan Fuge)
At The Palace Theatre, which is currently home to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, faint melodies from an ancient Steinway are reportedly heard after dark. the smell of cigarettes waft nightly from the old manager's office, actors from the vaudeville era are known to roam the theater, hoping for one last curtain call. and the spirit of late singer Judy Garland, has been sighted at the door at the rear of the orchestra pit, which was built specifically for her entrances and exits during her famous concerts there.

Ghostly interactions have included sightings of a little boy who rolls toy trucks in the hallway behind the mezzanine, a natty man who walks past the offices late at night (supposedly a former manager), and a white-gowned cellist whose lost melody plays into the night.

The scariest reports refer to the bloodcurdling cries of the acrobat, Louis Barsalino. who supposedly fell to his death during a performance. Eyewitnesses claim to see him walking his tightrope from balcony to mezzanine.

Spirits abound there in other forms as well, says Priscilla star Tony Sheldon: "I've never seen a ghost at the Palace but when my energy starts to flag on two-show days I've definitely felt Gwen Verdon over my shoulder whispering "C'mon kid, I did Sweet Charity here eight times a week so you can certainly get through THIS!"

(© Tristan Fuge)
Meanwhile, a beautiful young chorine from The Ziegfeld Follies, Olive Thomas -- who committed suicide in Paris after she discovered that she had contracted syphilis from her ex-husband, Jack Pickford -- is an oft-cited apparition at the New Amsterdam Theatre, which is currently home to Mary Poppins.

Indeed, the theater's current owners, Disney Theatricals, have dedicated a space to Olive at the theater (where the Follies performed); her photograph appears at both entrances, and staffers reportedly say good night to her when they leave.

Inspired by Olive's tale, Matthew Martin and Tim Realbuto visited her tomb at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where they believe she guided them in writing the dramatic final song to their musical Ghostlight, which recently premiered at this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival. In the show's second act, Olive returns to the stage of the New Amsterdam, where the characters from the first act appear to help her find peace with herself. "They try to help her get home -- and home is the stage of the New Amsterdam," says the show's executive producer, Elvin Roytman.

Like the phantoms of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, these ghosts evoke nostalgia for the glamorous past of the early days of Broadway.

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