The Arts

Stage Fright: New York’s Haunted Theaters and Ghosts

October 7, 2015
Belasco and ghosts

David Belasco in “high spirits.”

Some of the most thrilling moments in New York occur in its theaters, where the energy of a live performance can be spine-tingling. But not all the excitement is “live.” Most NYC theaters are haunted and many performers, who spent their lives dying to take center stage, simply refuse to exit. Indeed, for many thespians, the show must go on…and on…

Theatrical ghosts are so prevalent that one of the theater’s most common traditions is the ghost light – a single bare bulb placed on an empty stage to provide illumination. While the ghost light has a practical purpose (helping workers avoid a tumble into the orchestra pit), it’s understood this “night light” burns to keep the spirits at bay.

Here are some of NYC’s most famous haunted theaters…and infamous ghosts.

New Victory Theater, NYC

The beautifully-restored interior of the New Victory Theater.

The New Victory TheaterBuilt in 1900 by impresario Oscar Hammerstein, the jewel-box New Victory is the oldest operating theater in New York. It was also the first theater to become a raunchy house of burlesque, and the first “legitimate” theater to screen pornography. Beautifully restored in the 1990s, the theater now (ironically) presents family entertainment.

And among the kids romping in the theater is a spectral child in a white gown. Sometimes encountered in the balcony, the girl vanishes when discovered.

David Belasco apartment

David Belasco’s abandoned apartment – where the party never stops.

Belasco Theater: Colorful impresario David Belasco spent most of his life in his theater, producing and staging his plays. He also lived in the duplex apartment atop the theater.

And, apparently, he’s spending his afterlife there, too. He’s been a regular presence in the theater since his death in 1931. Belasco’s ghost is seen in his private box on opening nights (considered a sign of good luck for new productions). He’s instantly recognized by his characteristic clerical collar.

If that weren’t enough, laughing, singing, and footsteps have been heard in his sealed-off apartment, as have the sounds of his private elevator in use (which was dismantled decades ago). He’s been spotted watching rehearsals from the balcony, and the distinct odor of his cigar is present backstage where actors sometimes encounter him.

Actresses have even complained of having their rears mysteriously pinched!

New Amsterdam Theater: This historic theater was home to the famed Ziegfeld Follies, the dazzling, star-studded musical revues that featured a chorus of beautiful, scantily-clad girls.

One of the most stunning performers was Olive Thomas, who died from swallowing medicinal mercury… perhaps accidentally – perhaps not. Or perhaps at the hands of her drug-addicted, philandering husband.

Olive Thomas

The ethereal Olive Thomas, one of Broadway’s most mischievous ghosts.

Olive has been a familiar presence in the theater since her death, carousing in her beaded follies costume, flirting with the stagehands, and blowing men kisses. She’s also been seen in the derelict rooftop theater, where her risqué routines once made her the darling of stage door Johnnies.

During the 1990s theater restoration, Olive’s ghost flirted so brazenly with a night watchman (before disappearing through the brick wall) that the terrified man quit on the spot. Olive also has created mischief backstage, like blowing out all the lights in the theater offices; she even jammed The Lion King’s turntable set piece when she felt slighted.  Olive becomes particularly active when one of the surviving Ziegfeld Girls returns to the theater.

There is a photo of Olive hanging near the New Amsterdam stage door. Every night cast and crew say, “Good night, Olive,” and often blow her a kiss. (It’s wise to remain on Olive’s good side!).

The Palace Theater: For many decades vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment—and the Palace was the nation’s preeminent vaudeville theater. To “play the Palace” was to reach the pinnacle of success, and players relished their gigs so much… that some have refused to move on.

There’s said to be as many as 100 ghosts inhabiting the Palace. Regulars include a female cellist in the Orchestra Pit, a playful boy in the mezzanine, a man who stalks the theater offices, and a sullen little girl in the balcony. Even the spirit of Judy Garland has been felt near the door she used during two concert engagements at the Palace!

One ghost to avoid – Louis Borsalino, an acrobat who tumbled from a high wire to his death during a performance. If you see him, keep moving! It’s said those who encounter his ghost will die within a year.

Radio City Music Hall

The iconic art deco auditorium of Radio City Music Hall.

Radio City Music Hall: “Don’t give the people what they want. Give them something better!” said Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the flamboyant showman behind Radio City Music Hall. One of the world’s largest and most stunning showplaces, the theater, its lavish stage shows, and its famed dance troupe The Rockettes were all created by Roxy, who oversaw every aspect of the venue until his 1936 death.

Roxy is such an integral part of Radio City, in fact, that his ghost still attends opening nights—accompanied by a glamorous female companion.

Cherry Lane Theater, Greenwich Village, NYC

The historic Cherry Lane Theater, a classic off-Broadway playhouse.

It’s not only the Great White Way that’s haunted. The Union Square Theater reportedly has a frisky phantom with glowing cat-like eyes, the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater (housed in a 19th-century Bowery bank) is haunted by a deceased thespian, the Provincetown Playhouse (scene of Eugene O’Neill’s early premieres) features an opaque specter, and the Cherry Lane Theater is home to several spirits.

Finally, Joseph Papp, the charismatic producer who founded the New York Shakespeare Festival, is still trying to run the show at the Public Theater.

For theater folk, clearly, the show must go on… even from beyond the grave!

Ghost light

The ghost light: as common in theaters…as the ghosts.

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