688 Drama Drive
Cherokee, North Carolina
If you’ve read this blog for awhile or have checked the very brief bio to the right of this entry you’ll know that I’m an actor. If you didn’t know, my secret is out. By nature, theatre people tend to be very superstitious and it’s noted that any theatre worth its salt should have a ghost. The Mountainside Theatre is no exception.
Three of the best summers of my life were spent working in Cherokee at the Mountainside where the outdoor historical drama, Unto These Hills, has been performed every summer since 1950. The Appalachians hold a particular charm and having lived there, even just a few months, I truly feel that part of my heart is there. Of course the atmosphere of living among fellow theatre people—who possess tremendous energy, intelligence and creativity—enhances that experience. And the parties and Bohemian life was awesome as well!
Cherokee lies at the heart of the Qualla Boundry Cherokee Indian Reservation, the seat of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. The Mountainside Theatre was built to house Kermit Hunter’s play, Unto These Hills, which tells the story of these particular Cherokee people. The drama utilizes both hired actors and members of the Cherokee community in telling the story and for many of the locals the drama has become a family tradition with grandparents performing alongside their grandchildren and sometimes great-grandchildren.
My first year in Cherokee, I played the role of the Lieutenant, a rather gruff, white Federal officer who viewed the Cherokee with contempt. In the scene depicting the beginning of the Trail of Tears, I led the march just behind Major Davis and took a position standing on a boulder on the side stage, rifle in hand, watching as the Cherokee marched off towards Oklahoma. Nightly I would look into the faces of these people walking in the steps of their ancestors and would see scowls and expressions of outright hatred, even from people that I considered friends offstage. It was a moving experience to see history recreated and see the consequences of that same history juxtaposed into that.
The theatre itself is a huge open air amphitheatre that can seat a few thousand. The theatre is surrounded by forest and the backstage area has been constructed to preserve the tree line that gives the theatre a wonderful sylvan quality. The stage and side stages include trees, shrubbery and boulders to complete the picture. Behind the back wall of the stage there is a covered walkway with a props storage area just off stage left. Below this walkway, the terrain drops a bit further which is spanned by a covered walkway, called “The Bridge,” that connects the stage to the rest of the backstage area. Wrapping around the side of the mountain is a long building with the stage manager’s office, costume shop and dressing rooms. At the very end of this building, parallel to the driveway leading up the hill to cast housing, is the laundry room and a small porch called the “laundry porch.”
Except for the very top tier of the actors hired for the production, most other performers in the show served double duty either doing technical work (the Actor Techs or ATs) or working in the costume shop. I worked in the costume shop and part of my duty was to do laundry once a week after the show. Once the show was up and running, everyone went on to “Cherokee Time” where bedtime was sometime between 4AM to sunrise and wake up time was around noon or sometime thereafter. None of us usually had to be at work at the theatre until 6PM, so many of us became partially nocturnal.
Within a few days of my first arrival on “The Hill,” I began to hear stories and legends about the area. One of the costumers in those first few days had gone down to the theatre late one evening for some quiet. As he sat in the empty theatre he heard the sound of a horse running around the theatre. Interestingly, there were no horses in the area nor had any ever been used in the show. Other stories began to surface from some of the longtime cast members of others having odd experiences in the theatre at night. I can recall hearing one story of someone sitting in the theatre alone only to turn his head to see someone sitting in the row behind him staring straight ahead, trancelike.
Another story involved a particular former cast member, since deceased, who would sit on the laundry porch during the show. It was said that people driving past the theatre would still occasionally glimpse her sitting on the porch. An even further tale told of the techies who fired guns offstage for sound effects seeing a Cherokee dancing among the trees in the dark woods offstage. In some versions of the story he was seeing floating some feet off the ground as he danced.
The one legend that I heard almost invariably involved the Cherokee Little People, or Yun’wi Tsundsdi. I described this mythic race in my article on Chimney Rock, please see the article for a better description. In the lore of the area, the Mountainside Theatre had been constructed on ground that was sacred to the Yun’wi Tsundsdi. During the day, the theatre was lent to humans for their uses, but at night it returned to their territory. We were taught to announce ourselves whenever we went to the theatre at night. When we reached the bridge we would call out, “I mean you no harm, don’t mind me.” Failure to do so would cause the Little People to play tricks on you.
However, theatre people do love a good story. I’m not sure how much of this was truly real and how much had been concocted to scare naïve new “Hillbillies.” Nonetheless, this was the mythology that was in place.
At least I thought this was mostly mythology until one night. It was my laundry night and I had dutifully put a load of laundry in the wash. The evening was fairly quiet and there wasn’t much partying. Not really being a partier myself I had been in my room reading a book about the Yun’wi Tsundsdi. Around 3AM I walked down the hill to the laundry room to put the load of laundry in the dryer. As I walked, I muttered the Cherokee name of the Little People repeatedly in an attempt to commit it to memory. It’s a fun name to say. However, I didn’t realize that it also calls them.
I put the laundry in the dryer and started back up the hill to my room in the Boy’s Dorm. Between the end of the laundry porch and the first of the cabins of “Lower Suburbia” there is maybe 100 feet (by my estimation and I’m a poor judge of distance). On one side of the drive is forest with laurel and rhododendron growing thickly among the pines. From this thick forest I suddenly heard the sound of high pitched giggling. It was not drifting down from the ever present crowd at the picnic table outside of the Girl’s Dorm, it was coming from the forest next to me. I stopped for a moment and tried to peer into the shadows. There wasn’t anything to be seen. I uttered a tentative, “Hello?” but it was met with silence.
Again, the giggle issued from the thick shrubbery and again I said hello. No answer. The night time cacophony of the Appalachians can be quite startling to an outsider from the scream of the bobcat (which I thought was a woman being raped when I first heard it) to the various night birds (nighthawks and owls), but this was none of those. It was a childish giggle. Once more I heard it coming from the thick woods directly in front of me. At that point the instinct of fight or flight kicked in and I flew; up the hill and back to the safety of my room. Having been reading about the Yun’wi Tsundsdi, I assumed that it was them that I heard. This was confirmed the next day by a close Cherokee friend.
I can only describe what happened. I’ve thought about it many times since and searched for a more likely explanation, but I can find none. That was my only experience on The Hill. There were times when I would find myself alone at the theatre during my laundry night and I would feel uncomfortable; that feeling of not being alone and sometimes being watched.
While I cannot say for certain that the Mountainside Theatre is haunted, it’s certainly a place that could easily inspire such stories. The play Unto These Hills, although in a different form from Kermit Hunter’s original version, is still performed nightly during the summer and the theatre is open to visitors during the day. Tickets for the show may be purchased at the Cherokee Historical Association Offices, also known as “The Hut,” (which is also haunted) at the bottom on the hill in the village at 564 Tsali Boulevard.