HAUNTED THEATERS AND SUPERSTITIONS WITH A CHARLOTTE FLAIR
From small cities to the heart of Broadway, the theater world is filled with haunted tales and legendary superstitions. And Charlotte’s theaters have some grand stories of their own. Over the years, there have been strange, inexplicable events experienced by staff members at Blumenthal and those stories continue to circulate backstage from one generation of employees to the next.
Theaters are a popular spot for exploring paranormal activity, according to Nelson Nauss, executive director of The Ghost Guild, a non-profit organization that investigates alleged haunted locations.“...It’s typically a place that has a lot of history and a lot of emotions that are part of theater.” The group’s past investigations have included Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park, Temple Theatre in Sanford, and The Carolina Theatre in Greensboro.
One spot that’s been on Nauss’s radar for a while is McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square. Before being refurbished as a theater, it served for more than 60 years as the sanctuary for the First Baptist Church, built in 1909. The building still has its byzantine style dome and stained glass windows. “You kind of have a double thing there,” says Nauss, noting the strong emotional pulls of both types of gathering places.
Gregory Jones, a member of the Ghost Hunting Club at UNC Charlotte, says his group has also been interested in investigating McGlohon Theater for years. “We have heard multiple stories, both online and from past club members, about the level of activity there,” explained Jones in an email. “The property itself has a rich history and plenty of justification as to why the grounds and building may be haunted.”
THE SPIRITS OF SPIRIT SQUARE
Blowing in the Wind
When Jessie Hardison, longtime security supervisor, started at Blumenthal about 19 years ago, he worked in the maintenance department. One night he was working late on the third floor in the back part of the former church when something strange happened. He didn’t see or hear it, but he could feel wind blowing on him; Hardison says this also happened on another occasion.
“I don’t believe in ghosts so I brushed it off,” he says,“but it was in the back of [my] mind… I felt something and I knew it was not normal.”
Hardison had heard other stories floating around too—like his colleague’s tale of a sound like a bottle rolling down the steps of the balcony, one at a time, when there didn’t seem to be anyone or any object there. “Of course we don’t go looking for these things when we hear them,” says Hardison.
The Creature who Moves Things
Robert Schoneman, Blumenthal’s Director of IT, also has his own strange story from an event that happened one late night in McGlohon Theater around 2005. At the time, he was working as part of the technical production team. The show was over and everyone, including the security team, had left the building. Schoneman placed the ghost light center stage, as is customary in practically any US theater, as a safety precaution. (Once the house lights go down, the theater would be totally dark without one, and full of potential hazards, like falling into an orchestra pit or tripping over a set piece.) But legend says the ghost light has supernatural capabilities as well: some believe it keeps malicious spirits away while others claim it lights the way for them to move around and possibly even perform on the otherwise darkened stage. (Learn more about this and other superstitions below.)
It was around one in the morning when Schoneman headed downstairs to the tech offices, which are located directly underneath the stage. When you’re in the office, you can hear footsteps if someone walks across the stage. All alone, Schoneman went about his work, wrapping up his paperwork for the evening. Suddenly, he looked up at the video monitor of the stage and noticed that the ghost light was no longer where he’d placed it; it had been moved about 15 feet from where it was supposed to be. Schoneman returned upstairs to double check and saw that it indeed had been moved. But he never heard any footsteps or saw anyone else.
He thought it was odd but at the time figured someone else must have been in the building with him. “It wasn’t until late the next day when I was telling my coworkers and somebody said ‘that’s the creature,’” says Shoneman. Others started telling him they had also heard or seen strange things taking place in the theater.
“I don’t believe in that kind of thing,” says Shoneman, who went on to spend many other late nights in the theater. “It never happened again but I never could explain it.”
“McGlohon is old and there’s a lot of history,” he adds. “That’s a lot of time for people to come up with all these crazy stories.”
But others believe there really is something inexplicable going on there.
“Things happened all the time in those buildings,” says Nellie McCourt, a former Blumenthal security guard. In an interview via Facebook messenger, she explained how things were often moving on the McGlohon stage when she was standing right there. She frequently heard children (that no one could see) laughing in other parts of the building and says that coke cans were sometimes mysteriously tossed down on security staff when they walked across the stage.
McCourt says weird things happened in other theaters as well: “[O]ne night standing in the doorway of the Duke Theater something or someone passed right through me and I was freezing for about 15 minutes later.” Each time something strange happened, McCourt says she was working alone and sometimes she would get really scared.
For years, Tommy Cantrell, Director of Front of House Operations, has heard stories about unexplained phenomena taking place at Spirit Square, from orbs floating around the McGlohon’s balcony to a gentleman appearing in the soundbooth wearing a top hat and long tail coat.
“I’ve walked through here at night locking up and no one’s here and I do get a creep, you know, but I’ve never experienced anything. But you do think about that. It’s in the back of your mind that things have happened here,” says Cantrell. “But I don’t feel that way in the Booth Playhouse, not at all.”
That’s surprising since Booth Playhouse is where Cantrell has experienced his own inexplicable encounters.
BOOTH PLAYHOUSE AND BELK THEATER BOGEYS
On one occasion, while walking from the front of the house to backstage with a member of the ticketing staff, a full sheet of paper completely vanished from his hand. “Both James [Smith] and I looked at each other and said, ‘where the hell did that paper go?’” says Cantrell. “...It was just freaky.”
Another time, Cantrell was walking with longtime colleague Renee Justice through the empty theater. They crossed from the box seats to the lobby when Cantrell realized he’d forgotten something. Only a few seconds had gone by but when they returned, some of the seats had been pulled out from the row and into the aisle. Cantrell says it was eerie.
Just to be extra cautious, if he’s the only one around, doing payroll late at night, Cantrell doesn’t walk through the backstage of Booth Playhouse. He goes out through Founders Hall (which, incidentally, also appears on a number of internet lists for top haunted destinations in Charlotte!)
Not to be outdone, even Belk Theater has a story. Former security guard McCourt says she once witnessed a tall, thin man in a black trench coat and hat sitting in the fifth row. “[T]here was no one in the theater and no lights on and as I was walking down the aisle towards him, he stood and disappeared and so did I.” She says she ran as fast as she could.
ARE THESE STORIES FOR REAL?
When the Ghost Guild explores locations, it looks for two types of hauntings, intelligent and residual. The latter, Nauss says, is like a recording that plays over and over. A ghost may appear to be walking through a wall where a door once stood and isn’t aware that the door is no longer there. If it’s an intelligent “spirit” on the other hand, he says it may respond to questions. The responses are often not audible to the human ear but they show up on audio recordings, says Nauss. The Ghost Guild tries to approach its investigations in a scientific manner, ruling out as many factors as possible, and using specialized equipment to record sound, video and capture environmental data such as variations in temperature, humidity or pressure when it attempts to trigger events.
Still, Nauss says since these spaces can never be completely isolated from outside sounds and stimuli, especially in an urban setting, it’s hard to come to any definitive conclusions. “We really try to get to other rational explanations,” says Nauss. “We really try to apply as much critical thinking as possible… We wouldn’t make a claim that it is paranormal evidence but it certainly is interesting.”
5 FAVORITE THEATER SUPERSTITIONS
Director of Front of House Operations Tommy Cantrell admits he’s superstitious. No whistling in the theater. No walking under a ladder. “And saying that Shakespeare play. I will not do that…[I’m] adamant about that,” he says. “And if I hear someone doing any of it, I will reprimand them.”
And he’s not the only one. Actors and stagehands around the world refuse to take their chances with a theater ghost who may be up to mischief. Here are some time-honored ways to prevent bad luck.
The Ghost Light.
A single, bare electric bulb on a pole is the last thing left on stage and night and the first thing removed in the morning. Each of Blumenthal’s theaters has one. Its practical use is to provide a source of light when all the other theater lights have gone dark, thereby preventing injury and mishaps from people stumbling around in the dark. But it’s also commonly credited with keeping theater ghosts at bay by reassuring them that the theater’s not been abandoned; others say it provides light for them to perform by. Another theory put forth by some scholars, according to theatrenerds.com, is that before electricity, a single light was left burning onstage to prevent pressure in the gas line from building up and causing an inadvertent explosion. At some point the name morphed from gas light to ghost light.
Say “Break A Leg” before a performance.
You don’t want to accidentally jinx someone by wishing him or her good luck. According to the TDF Theatre Dictionary, one popular explanation for this tradition is that it’s a fancy way of saying take a bow/curtsy (after a successful performance). “Another is that the curtains that hang in the wings on the sides of the stage, parallel to the proscenium, are sometimes called ‘legs.’ You have to pass through or ‘break’ the line of drapery to take your curtain call.”
Never whistle backstage.
Believed to bring bad luck, this superstition likely began as a safety precaution. According to Playbill.com, the roots of this tradition go back as far as the 17th century. Prompters—the precursors of stage managers—would use whistles and bells as a way to signal actor entrances, scenery changes as well as moving curtains or backdrops. This is thought to have been borrowed from sailors and dock workers, who could find work as stage hands during the cold months. Aboard ships, it was common practice to use whistling to call for raising or lowering sails.
(Christine Daaé in Love Never Dies.)
Never use peacock feathers in a set or costume.
According to Backstage.com, these colorful feathers are to be avoided because the pattern resembles “the evil eye” and could jinx a production.
In a theater, always refer to Shakespeare’s master work as “The Scottish Play.”
Legend has it that “Macbeth” has been cursed from the start, with stories throughout history of strange accidents and even deaths linked to numerous productions. Some say that Shakespeare used actual incantations in the play, angering a coven of witches, who cursed it forevermore. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company website, “Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Other rumoured mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan (resulting in the actor’s death).”
According to tradition, you can remedy the situation if you slip up: you must exit the theater, spin around three times, curse, spit, and then knock on the door to request permission to come back inside.
Do you have any fun theater superstitions to share? We’d love to hear them!