Would Savannah be the most haunted city in all of Georgia if it wasn’t home to at least one haunted theater? Theaters tend to attract all types of spirits and strange phenomena. People once flocked to theaters by the thousands looking for a wondrous night out filled with entertainment. The energies of these theater patrons are left behind — echos from the past into the present and the future.
The Savannah Theatre is the longest continually operating theater in the entire county. It first opened its doors in 1818 and after two-hundred years of history, the Savannah Theatre is the reported home of a handful of resident ghosts.
So, who are these spirits? What is their connection with the historically haunted Savannah Theatre? Read on to get to know the history of the theater as well as the stories of the phantoms that call it home.
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History of the Savannah Theatre
In December of 1818, the Savannah Theatre opened its doors to the excited public with a riveting performance of The Soldier’s Daughter. The building itself was designed by an architect named William Jay who also was the mastermind behind other historic buildings in Savannah. The first twenty years of the Savannah Theatre were rocky, to say the least. The seats were empty, the theater was auctioned off two times, and changed hands several times.
In 1838, a large stock company purchased the theater and were able to run it in a profitable way. The crowds started to rush in and the theater finally saw success.
The Savannah Theatre was ingrained into American history when Alexander H. Stephens gave his Cornerstone Address in the theater in 1861. It was a few weeks before the outbreak of the Civil War and Stephens used the address to define white supremacy as the ‘cornerstone’ of American ideals. He also declared that slavery was a necessity and that anyone who wasn’t of European origin was ‘inferior’ and should ‘remain subordinate.’ The Cornerstone Address drew obvious support from the Confederacy and just a few weeks after, empowered by the brazen speech, the Confederate Army attacked Fort Sumter, the first act of the Civil War.
Over the course of the 18th century, countless shows were being performed at the Savannah Theatre. Some well-known performers graced the stage, such as Oscar Wilde, W.C. Fields, E.H. Sothern, and even Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth.
A Theatre of Tragic Curses
Over its two centuries of history, the theater has witnessed four disasters that have threatened its life. First, the theater caught fire in 1827 — for the first time. The building didn’t sustain much damage, but a few patrons were killed in the blaze, as well as an actress.
In the summer of 1898, a massive hurricane tore through Savannah. Homes and businesses were destroyed, floods damaged properties beyond repair, and the Savannah Theatre took a beating. The theater roof was torn off and the auditorium was flooded. The theater was staring death right in the face, but recovered. Then, just a few years later flames once again engulfed the theater. The building needed a complete remodeling. The once elaborate and beautiful facade designed by William Jay was replaced with a dull, brick face. Still audiences returned, their love of theater unswayed by a boring facade.
Later, in 1948, another fire raged in the Savannah Theatre. This time, the entire building was almost burned to the ground. Much of the theater was lost and rebuilt in the popular art-deco style. After the destruction, the theater was rebranded as a movie house. According to some local Savannah residents, the second fire occurred because of a curse that was placed on the theater. The curse was believed to be cause by the most unusual of suspects — a penny.
When the Savannah Theatre was under construction the first time, a man placed a penny inside of the walls to act as a good luck charm. The penny was found during a later renovation and given to the owner, but the day before the fire, the owner lost the penny on a trip to New York, leading some to believe that the penny was actually part of a curse imposed on the theater.
Spirits of the Savannah Theatre
As the oldest theater in America and calling the most haunted city in Georgia home, it’s no surprise that the Savannah Theatre is home to a reported three hauntings. All of the spirits at the theater are said to have died there, unable or unwilling to leave.
The first spirit reported is a woman by the name of Betty. She died during the fire of 1827 and was a well-loved actress of the theater. She became trapped underneath the stage when the fire broke out and passed due to smoke inhalation. Betty was passionate about her acting career, and even in the afterlife she remains on the stage. She’s most often seen on opening night for new performances, appearing as a light behind the curtain or a full-bodied apparition hanging out backstage.
The second spirit of the theater is a young boy who died in the 1948 fire. His name is Ben. Ben was on the balcony when the flames started and as attendees were all directed to to exit, the young boy was caught in the crowd of people rushing to escape — he was trampled to death in the process. Ben’s ghost is now tied to the balcony in the afterlife, where he was sitting shortly before his life ended. Ben’s spirit is known to bug the spotlight technicians, tugging on their pants and asking if he can help move the light. He often rigs the equipment to malfunction to get a rise out of the techs and is known to tug on the hair and clothes of audience members.
The third spirit is said to be one of the earliest theater directors. He’s mostly seen on the upper balcony, and he’s sometimes heard yelling ‘Bravo!’ after acts. Sometimes performers will even hear a slow, disembodied clap coming from the balcony. Since the director’s spot is invisible from the stage and right next to the exit, the theater staff thought that someone was sneaking in and taking a peek at the rehearsal. After numerous security checks and interrupted rehearsals, the staff realized that whoever is yelling at the performers had already been in the theater for a long time. After some research, the theater staff learned that one of the theater directors died of a heart attack while on the job.
Theater staff and patrons have experienced all sorts of ghostly happenings in the theater. The first haunting around the theater was reported in 1895 when local police would hear applause and performances from the theater late at night when the building was empty. On another occasion, a group of female performers were forced out of the dressing room when they all had a strong collective feeling of being watched. The women fled the dressing room before suiting up, refusing to return until the matter was solved.
Looking to learn more about the hauntings of America’s theaters? Check out our article on Mishler Theatre here!
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