North Carolina Theatre Haunt Briefs

Needing a project to carry me through this quarantine, I’ve decided to return to some original blog roots. Just after establishing this blog in 2010, I created a series of articles highlighting ten haunted places within each of the 13 states that I cover. Over time, these articles have been picked apart, rewritten, expanded, and used elsewhere. When I moved this blog, I did not move over those articles. Because I have a backlog of incomplete articles and bits and pieces that haven’t been published I’m creating a new breed of these articles during this quarantine.

Back in 2013 I began work on a book project that was to be a guide to the South’s haunted theatres. I finished a number of entries, but life got in the way and the book was never completed. I still have hopes that I will finish this project, especially being that I have added a number of theatres to my list in the past seven years. These entries would have been included in the North Carolina section of the book.

Benton Hall
300 D Street
North Wilkesboro

There is one name from Wilkes County that is oft repeated, Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley). The tale of Tom Dula includes all the makings of a Victorian melodrama: murder, illicit affairs, a lustful soldier and even a few cases of syphilis added into the mix. The 1868 trial and subsequent execution of the amorous Mr. Dula received coverage in national papers including The New York Times and is the subject of a number of songs and ballads like the 1958 Kingston Trio hit, “Tom Dooley.” Dooley’s sad tale is also associated with a number of hauntings in the area including the Old Wilkes County Jail in nearby Wilkesboro, though Benton Hall, the home to the Wilkes Playmakers is not haunted by Dooley’s shade.

The Wilkes Playmakers have kept the legend alive in their performances of the play, Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend, performed in Benton Hall, the company’s adapted performance space. In addition to a handful of organizations that use the old edifice, the theatre company also shares its space with spirits. Benton Hall was originally opened in 1913 as North Wilkesboro Elementary School and its auditorium was renovated into a performance space in the 1990s. Much of the activity appears to be residual and related to the hordes of children who were educated in this building over the decades. Theatre staff report that they have heard the sounds of children playing when alone in the building.

Author Michael Renegar mentions one odd phenomenon that has occurred with some frequency: phantom smells in the building. Interestingly, the smell depends on the gender of the person encountering the odor. Women will smell something sweet like flowers or cloves while men will smell something akin to rotting potatoes. Renegar posits that the spirit possibly prefers the company of women to men.

Sources

  • Absher, R.G. Ghosts of the Yadkin Valley. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009.
  • Renegar, Michael. Roadside Revenants and Other North Carolina Ghosts and Legends. Fairview, NC: Bright Mountain Books, 2005.
  • Tom Dula. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 March 2013.
  • Wilkes Playmakers. “Background.” Accessed 17 March 2013.

Carolina Theatre
224-232 North Tryon Street
Charlotte

Preservationists have been working for some time to rehabilitate the formerly grand theatre and it can be imagined that the restoration will raise spirits both literally and figuratively. One theatre technician called the theatre “a little tea party with all sorts of guests.” He encountered one guest, who he dubbed “Fred,” in and around the booth at the top of the house. He believes the spirit to be a former technician. Other, more shadowy forms have been spotted flitting throughout the ruined house while photographers have captured anomalies on film.

Carolina Theatre Charlotte North Carolina
The hulking remains of the Carolina Theatre in 2015. Renovations have since started. Photo by Fortibus, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Carolina Theatre, a small, but distinctive movie and vaudeville house, opened in 1927 as part of Paramount’s Publix Theatre chain. Patrons viewed films in the atmosphere of an open-air Spanish patio. Murals and antiques helped set the style inside while such great names as Ethel Barrymore, Bob Hope, and Elvis graced the stage. The theatre saw a major overhaul in 1938 and another renovation in the early 1960s removed much of the original interior. The theatre limped on into the next decade and closed in 1975.

The building was a target for arsonists in 1980 and two years after being added to the National Register of Historic Places, the lobby was demolished, and it was removed from the Register. Almost as an early Christmas gift, the city council voted in 2013 to sell the theatre to the Foundation for the Carolinas which will restore the theatre and operate it as a performing arts center. Work started in 2017 to transform the forlorn theatre into the centerpiece of a civic performance and gathering space. It was also announced that a large hotel will be built atop the theatre. The spirits are delighted, I’m sure.

Sources

  • Carolina Theatre Preservation Society. “Explore the Carolina Theatre.” Accessed 25 March 2013.
  • Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theatres of the Carolinas. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2009
  • Price, Mark. “Who’s there in the dark?” Charlotte Observer. 31 October 2011.
  • Price, Mark. “Will renovation of the Carolina Theatre oust the ghosts rumored to dwell within?” Charlotte Observer. 23 October 2017.
  • Stabley, Susan. “Foundation’s purchase of Carolina Theatre gets OK from Charlotte City Council.” Charlotte Business Journal. 18 December 2012.
  • Williams, Stephanie Burt. Ghost Stories of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County: Remnants of the past in a New South. Winston-Salem, NC: Bandit Books, 2003.

Carolina Theatre
310 South Greene Street
Greensboro

Cheralyn Lambeth, author of Haunted Theatres of the Carolinas, asserts that there’s no factual evidence behind the Carolina Theatre’s ghost story. The story itself is of recent vintage and she could find no evidence backing it up. Though I have been able to find evidence that this story is true.

Carolina Theatre Greensboro North Carolina
Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre in 2008. Photo by Charles Brummitt, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Carolina Theatre opened on Halloween night, 1927, as the flagship theatre for the Publix-Saenger Theatre Corporation and it hosted the finest acts of the Keith vaudeville circuit. As that art form died out during the Depression, the theatre began showing films and providing other forms of entertainment. Through the middle of the 20th century, the theatre carried on, entertaining the citizens of the region in grand style.

The theatre reopened in 1977 after being refurbished by the United Arts Council as a performance space. Fire destroyed a stairwell on July 1, 1981, and authorities discovered the body of a woman. A few days later, this woman was identified as 47-year-old Melvallene Reva Ferguson, who was reported to have suffered from mental illness. Ms. Ferguson is believed to have entered the theatre the night before the fire broke out. Legend holds that it is her ghost that haunts the theatre.

Following the fire of 1981, the theatre has been restored and reinvigorated and continues to provide the finest in entertainment for further generations.

Lambeth relates one story told to her by a theatre staff member. As he was locking up one evening a voice wished him goodnight. Thinking it was the voice of another staff member who had been working with him, he wished the staff member goodnight in return. Upon making his way to the parking lot, the other staff member’s car was not there. He realized he had been alone in the building.

Goodnight Melvallene, rest well!

Sources

  • “1 killed in theater fire.” Charlotte Observer. 2 July 1981.
  • Carolina Theatre. “History.” Accessed 7 April 2013.
  • Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theatres of the Carolinas. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2009.
  • York, John. “Fire victim identified.” Charlotte Observer. 3 July 1981.

Carolina Theatre
222 1st Avenue, Northwest
Hickory

Throughout the centuries, theatres have often served as centers of the community. This is most certainly the case with Hickory’s Carolina Theatre. Opening in 1934, during the roughest years of the Great Depression, the theatre was built to provide both live entertainment and first-run films. Throughout the country, many of these type theatres, downtown theatres built for live performance and films, fell on hard times in the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Being forced to compete with new multiplex operations in newer developments away from the heart of town, these older theatres—often with just a single screen—could not compete. Many of these theatres closed and were shuttered to deteriorate in gloomy darkness. The Carolina Theatre was not one of them.

Perhaps it was the love of patrons—the memories of first dates and kisses in its darkened house, or of hearts stolen by matinee idols—that kept the theatre alive, but it was also good business decisions made by the theatre’s management. The theatre adapted well to the changing economic climate. In 1974, the theatre added a screen by enclosing the balcony, and nearly a decade later it converted to a second-run movie house: thus reducing pressure from the newer first-run houses. The theatre has recently seen renovations to update its facilities for another generation of theatre-goers.

However, there is some tragic history here in the heart of Hickory. One legend that has circulated among theatre employees tells of a young actress carrying on an affair with a married actor. When the actor’s wife learned of the illicit goings-on, she confronted the actress at the theatre. One of the women shot the other, though it differs depending on the version of the legend. People entering the theatre’s dressing room where the murder occurred have felt a spirit present. Interestingly, this is comparable to the legend of the Athens Theatre in DeLand, Florida where an actress fell in love with the theatre’s married manager and she was killed when his wife confronted her.

Another story from the Carolina involves the door to the theatre’s office. Often, when the theatre is quiet, or just after closing time, staff members will hear the door slam. This has been attributed to the spirit of a theatre manager who died within the office. It’s also noted that the office is often quiet cold, even on days when the rest of the theatre is quite warm.

Sources

  • Carolina Theatre. “Our History.” Accessed 7 April 2013.
  • Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theatres of the Carolinas. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2009.

Cary Arts Center
100 Dry Avenue
Cary

Little has been documented about ghostly goings-on at the Cary Arts Center, formerly Cary High School. Kala Ambrose mentions in her Ghosthunting North Carolina that spirits were seen and felt when the building served as a school, but few details are provided. The school was constructed in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration and the large, Georgian building was purchased by the city in 2006. After a few years of renovations, the building was opened in 2011 as the Cary Arts Center. Among other arts groups, it provides facilities for the Cary Players.

Sources

  • Ambrose, Kala. Ghosthunting North Carolina. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2011.
  • Cary Arts Center (Former Cary High School). Triangle Wiki. Accessed 7 April 2013.

Frank Thompson Hall
Campus of North Carolina State University
Raleigh

Frank Thompson was quite an athlete. This engineering major was captain of both the university’s baseball and football teams. When he was killed in action in France during the First World War, the university felt the need to pay homage to this scholar-athlete by naming the new gymnasium building for him. With the building of Reynolds Coliseum, the graceful, Beaux Arts-style gymnasium was no longer needed, so it was converted into a theatre facility. Over its decades of use as a theatre, students have taken to attributing odd and possibly paranormal activity to Frank Thompson, though there is no real reason why he would be haunting this elegant structure.

Postcard Frank Thompson Gymnasium NC State University Raleigh North Carolina
An undated postcard of Thompson Hall. Postcard in the Massengill Postcard Collection, North Carolina State Achives.

The NC State University Theatre blog records an odd incident that happened to the theatre’s scenic designer while he was painting a set one afternoon in the studio theatre. The designer noted that there were few people in the building at this particular time. He stood back to look at what he had just painted when he felt a strong gust of air rapidly pass by him. He thought for a moment that someone had walked past him rapidly; problem was that he was alone in the theatre. He checked the doors to see if an open door had caused a cross breeze; again, that was not the case. While he’s not able to attribute this to a paranormal cause the designer has still been left quite puzzled. He also notes that while this event was the first unexplainable thing to happen to him in the theatre building, many others have their own stories.

[N.B. I have noted the date of this particular blog entry, April Fool’s Day, though nothing about the blog entry reads as a joke to me.]

Sources

  • Cook, Ellie. “I ain’t afraid of no ghost.” NC State University Theatre blog. 1 April 2010.
  • NCSU. “Frank Thompson Hall.” Accessed 4 April 2013.
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