New York is a great town for live theater and the waking dead. Put the two together, and the combination is irresistible. From a classic spook like the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to comedic ghoul Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit to singing-and-dancing poltergeist Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof, there has never been a shortage of fictional specters eager to haunt the city’s stages.
There has also never been a shortage of apparitions backstage. In fact, the superstition behind the ghost light—the single bulb lit after all the other lights are turned off and placed center stage with the curtain raised—is to allow each theater’s spirits a chance to perform their own phantasmal productions after hours, in hopes of appeasing them from disturbing the production being performed during regular hours.
Skeptics will ask if the “ghost stories” that follow are true. Let the facts speak for themselves; the rest may require a willingness to suspend disbelief. But, regardless, they make for great entertainment.
Among the first legitimate theaters in Midtown was the Theatre Republic, now called the New Victory. Built in 1900, this anchor of the revitalized 42nd Street still hosts one of its biggest stars, actress Caroline Dudley, better known as Mrs. Leslie Carter. After a scandalous divorce, Carter parlayed her notoriety into a successful stage career, which she is evidently loathe to abandon.
Colleen Davis, the New Victory’s production coordinator, has had several run-ins with the attention-seeking Mrs. Carter, including one notable incident in the wardrobe room. Davis saw a large plastic bin shoot straight off the shelf, flip in midair and land upside-down on its lid. She is quick to note, though, that Mrs. Carter, who departed this life in 1937, may mess with the production team but never with the production itself. The show always goes on at the New Victory.
Not so at the Roxy Theatre, whose demolition in 1960 at Seventh Ave. and W. 50th St. was an inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s ghostly 1971 musical Follies. Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the flamboyant impresario who built the lavish show palace, also helped open Radio City Music Hall in 1932, where he oversaw every aspect of the Art Deco venue until he died four years later. But once a showman, always a showman. Tour guides attest that Rothafel’s ghost, attired in top hat and tails, occasionally attends opening nights, strolling down aisle D to his favorite seat in the first row of the third mezzanine before disappearing.
A scathing theater critic for The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) ruled the Algonquin Hotel’s lounge on W. 44th St. as a conversationalist and charter member of the ultimate lunch bunch, the Algonquin Round Table. When the hard-drinking wit attempted suicide in her suite upstairs, her status as a future ghost was all but assured. That, and the fact that her cremains languished in a file cabinet in a New York law firm for 15 years before being interred in Baltimore. Gary Budge, former general manager of the Algonquin, went on record as saying he believed Parker’s unquiet spirit lived on after death, citing an incident when said spirit expressed her dislike of the hotel’s redecoration by sending a framed image of herself crashing to the floor.
Off-Broadway’s experimental theaters have their own cast of wraiths. One pioneer in Greenwich Village was the Provincetown Playhouse, the longtime residence of an unidentified ghost who chilled the air as he traveled the stairs to and from the basement dressing rooms. Farther west, in the elbow of Commerce Street, a few Provincetown alumni founded the Cherry Lane Theatre, home to two anonymous phantasms, one of whom has been spied quietly maintaining his vigil from the top of the lobby staircase, while the other keeps watch in the hallway near the dressing rooms. Their faces are always hidden, says Tom Ogden, parlor magician and prolific writer on the supernatural.
Nearby, on Hudson St. at W. 11th St., the White Horse Tavern is where you can not only get a stiff drink, but also have an encounter with a great literary stiff. The bar became a favorite hangout for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose “play for voices,” Under Milk Wood, premiered in May 1953 at the 92nd Street Y. In the fall of that year, Thomas was back in the city on a reading tour. After downing a rumored 18 whiskey shots at the White Horse, he died on Nov. 9 at age 39.
The pub’s back room is something of a shrine to the poet. There, you can raise a toast to the man who is often sighted at his favorite corner table and who seems to have taken his own advice to heart and, like other local ghosts, did “not go gentle into that good night.”