Belasco Theatre. Photo: Matt Petosa
You’ve no doubt heard of “break a leg” instead of “good luck!”—one of many superstitions surrounding the world of Broadway. Another that’s less familiar is the ghost light: after the last playbill is autographed and the stage door is locked, a lone standing bulb is lit on each Broadway stage in the Theatre District, illuminating the vacant house.
But is the theater truly empty?
Broadway’s superstitions were not known to the security watchman at the New Amsterdam Theatre when he was tasked with patrolling Disney’s newest property. While renovations were underway for its spring reopening, the guard walked the darkened building one February night in 1997 with just his flashlight.
New Amsterdam Theatre (c. 1905). Courtesy, Detroit Publishing Co. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
The crumbling, waterlogged ruin had been one of New York City’s most prominent performing arts theaters after opening in 1903 with a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. By the time Disney took over the property in the mid-’90s, it had been abandoned since 1983. Its art nouveau smoking room, which once hosted folks like Charlie Chaplin and the would-be King of England Edward VIII, was under two feet of water when the lease was signed—with “mushrooms as big as dinnerplates” growing from the walls.
Stepping onto the dark stage in the middle of the night, the guard shined his flashlight out into the auditorium. He followed the path of its spotlight—chipped paint, scaffolding, gutted seats—before an uneasy awareness took hold. There was someone behind him. He was sure of it.
He looked back to see a young woman dressed in a green beaded gown, holding a small blue bottle. Smiling, she walked from one end of the dark stage to the other, blew him a kiss and then moved through a wall leading to 41st Street.
He lasted another week before quitting.
As the old saying goes, “.” The ghost light itself was originally intended to keep people from falling off the stage but now is also believed by some to ward off spirits and keep the ones in residence happy.
“When you’re dealing in a world of make believe, superstitions and traditions inherently are part of that,” says Tim Dolan, actor and founder of walking tour company .
Read on to see how those legends and myths started and have endured at four Broadway theaters.
New Amsterdam Theatre. Courtesy, Disney Theatrical Group
New Amsterdam Theatre
Dana Amendola remembers feeling embarrassed when he and the night security guard called the police to that night. Four officers searched the complex for a woman in full costume and found no one.
Now the vice president of operations of the Disney Theatrical Group, Amendola had been hired to manage the restoration of the New Amsterdam in the 1990s—returning it as close to its appearance on opening night 1903 as possible. He had been too preoccupied to delve deeply into its history until the bones of the theater were restored for its April 1997 opening; as of February of that year, the lights hadn’t even been turned on.
“I was on the original restoration team, and the only thing we were researching was what did the color palettes look like, what did the carpet look like, what did the lighting sconces look like,” says Amendola. “We weren’t digging into the human history.”
Ziegfeld Girls display, New Amsterdam Theatre. Photo: Emma Diab
One of the most memorable productions at the New Amsterdam was producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s revue, The Ziegfeld Follies. The show featured singing, dancing and variety acts inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris, and included a troupe of chorus girls known as the “Ziegfeld Girls.”
“The Follies to me is Saturday Night Live meets a Las Vegas show meets the Radio City Rockettes,” says Dolan, who features the theater as one of the stops on his Ghostlight Tour, showcasing the various hauntings and myths of Broadway.
Olive Thomas. Courtesy, Bain News Service. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
It was when Amendola was framing portraits of the Ziegfeld Girls to hang around the theater that, on a hunch, he thought to invite the security guard back. As it turned out, that was not the first sighting of the woman in the green dress. After the Great Depression hurt the theater industry, the New Amsterdam was turned into a cinema in 1953. During preparations for its reopening as a movie house, a nightwatchman is reported to have heard the clicking of heels, only to turn and see a beautiful woman in a long gold and green beaded dress, with a sash that said “O-L-I-V-E.” In her right hand, she held a blue bottle. After blowing a kiss, she disappeared.
Amendola says, “I put the photographs of all the different Ziegfeld Girls who had performed there right on the stage. I didn't even have to ask him. He went right over, pointed to Olive Thomas and said, ‘That's the woman I saw.’”
Olive Thomas. Courtesy, Bain News Service. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Thomas wasn’t just any Ziegfeld Girl; she was the Ziegfeld Girl. She won the title of “” before joining the Follies and quickly becoming its most popular showgirl. She had a successful but brief career on stage and screen before dying in Paris under mysterious circumstances—generally thought to be due to accidental mercury poisoning, mistaking the French label on the small bottle for a sleeping draught.
According to reports, Olive seems to appear when things are changing in the theater, and only to men. For a while, as a counter measure, the theater staffed only women as overnight guards.
“We take this seriously,” says Amendola. “I like to think she spent the happiest moments of her very short life here. She’s protecting the theater and giving her OK.”
Portrait of Olive Thomas. Photo: Emma Diab
Two portraits of Olive are perched on either side of the stage doors, and cast and crew make a point to shout “Goodnight Olive!” as they come and go.
When articles were written about the incidents in the 1990s, former employees of the theater would Today, the story is well known among paranormal researchers and theater buffs, with books, films and documentaries made about the actress.
The story also attracts some paranormal investigators, who have attempted to hide in the theater after Aladdin is finished for the night. One man hid in a bar cart; he was quickly found (most of his body was sticking out) and escorted away.
“What are you doing in here?” asked the guard.
“I was waiting for Olive.”
Lyceum Theatre, interior, 1903. Courtesy, The Shubert Archive
While every theater may claim to have a ghost, tales of choreographer Bob Fosse smoking on the mezzanine might be a stretch for even the most fervent believer. In fact, Dolan does not include it in his Ghostlight Tour.
“We do believe we have a ghost,” says Emily Petrain, house manager of the . “We just are not certain that it’s Mr. Fosse.”
Bob Fosse. Photo: Martha Swope. © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
The Fosse rumors began after the premiere of The Visit in 2015, which starred Chita Rivera, Roger Rees and others who had worked with Fosse. The multitalented Fosse was known for his skills as a performer as well as choreographer, writer and director (most notably for Cabaret and Chicago). He also happened to be known for chain smoking.
“There was one sighting of him where Roger Rees looked up and saw him smoking on the balcony, but it’s the only time he was ever seen,” explains Dolan. “They think the amount of people connected to him in that building [at the time] was enough to do it.”
Lyceum Theatre, nighttime exterior, c. 1903, Byron. The Shubert Archive
But for a theater that opened in 1903, within days of the New Amsterdam, could that one-off be it for visitations to the Lyceum?
“We’re not really a theater that has a lot of activity,” says Petrain. “It’s not like things are moving; it’s few and far in between. But, I mean, everybody knows—we all know about Mr. Frohman.”
Daniel Frohman. Courtesy, Bain News Service. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
Daniel Frohman was the original owner of the Lyceum Theatre; he lost the space before his death and eventually the Shubert Organization took it over. What is now known as the Shubert Archives was the penthouse apartment in which Frohman and his wife, actress Margaret Illington, lived. An 18-inch trick window overlooks the stage from the office. Frohman would use it to wave a handkerchief and catch the attention of his wife if he felt she was overacting during her shows.
Petrain had heard some stories about Mr. Frohman haunting the Lyceum, but it wasn’t until she was checking the theater for stragglers in the orchestra pit after a showing of A Strange Loop that she had her own run-in with the producer. The restroom is at the very back of the orchestra, some 20 steps below stage level that she would climb up and down as part of her rounds. That night, she decided to call out instead.
Lyceum Theatre. Photo: Matt Petosa
“Is anybody down there?” she yelled. Suddenly the automatic sensor-activated paper towel machine began to run, and would not stop.
“I walked down the stairs and said, ‘OK, Mr. Frohman,’ and it stopped. So from then on, I no longer yell down the stairs,” said Emily. “I think Mr. Frohman just wanted me to know he was there too, just because the patrons were all gone.
“It’s fun to hear the stories that have been passed down and know that in some way, I'm a little part of it.”
Belasco Theatre apartment. Courtesy, The Shubert Archive
The day founder Tim Dolan found himself on his hands and knees in David Belasco’s mysterious apartment, crawling into a secret passageway on the urging of a man he had just met on the sidewalk, was the day he decided to ignore the voice in his head asking “Is this how I die?”
“I built a company called Broadway Up Close,” says Dolan, recounting his excitement at the surprise trip to one of the most guarded pockets of Broadway that had him crawling through a trick wall to see David Belasco’s safe. “I try to get as close to these people as humanly possible, but I never get to touch their personal stuff!”
A fixture in a green T-shirt in the Times Square neighborhood, Dolan and his team walk groups from theater to theater to teach the history of Broadway on various tours—in addition to the one, there’s a and a tour of the interior of the Hudson Theatre—when not at . It’s not unusual for curious visitors or Midtown workers to loiter and listen before moving on, but Dolan was shocked when one such bystander turned out to be Thomas Stein, who had been responsible for the 2010 . Dolan knew that this man might be the only person who could satisfy his curiosity about the long-elusive Belasco apartment that almost no one had access to.
“Who do you think has the keys to the apartment?” asked Dolan.
Stein had laughed. “I do!”
David Belasco, White Studios Portrait. Courtesy, The Shubert Archive
David Belasco’s story has it all: an eccentric creative who dressed like a Catholic priest (though Belasco was Jewish by birth and did not practice any religion), a rumored mistress who fell down an elevator shaft and a Gothic-style apartment over the theater that had been shut away for decades with only a few people entrusted with its key.
Belasco’s entire life revolved around the theater: he wrote and produced plays, made numerous innovations in stage lighting, and even lived in the 10-room duplex above the stage. After his death, purported sightings of the so-called Bishop of Broadway on opening night were rampant, at least until the entirely nude production of Oh! Calcutta! was said to scare him away for a few decades.
Belasco Theatre apartment. Courtesy, The Shubert Archive
From Dolan’s account and scant other reports, the apartment is a curiosity. It features 6-foot-tall windows, a stained-glass dome, an and a trick wall with a safe. Sounds—music, laughter, footsteps—in what should be a locked apartment are still reported by those working in the theater below. in the year 2010, but for the most part, those interested in inspecting the premises have been met with silence.
Standing across the street and looking up, Dolan points out what little you can see—a peek at the stained glass of the dome visible through the giant windows.
“They say it’s one of the most haunted places in New York City,” he says.
Palace Theatre. Photo: Brittany Petronella
Perhaps the greatest feat seen at the Palace is the theater’s own levitating act. Closed since 2018, the landmark on 47th street was over the course of five years to accommodate for retail space at the ground level.
When it opened its doors in 1913, the Palace was a vaudeville theater, staging variety acts, burlesque and even escape artists like Harry Houdini. When vaudeville declined in the ’30s, the venue became a cinema before reopening in 1966 as a traditional theater. Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity was its first show.
“This theater was the number one vaudeville theater in America,” says Dolan. “Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, all of the Marx brothers—you have these insane performers, but then you have acts like the Four Casting Pearls [a group of acrobats].”
Palace Theatre, c. 1920. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
As the story goes, a stagehand walked into the theater to see a man spinning in the air above the ghost light before screaming, falling and disappearing. The crew member looked down to see all the hair on his arm standing up. A year later, the same stagehand walked into the same exact scene, except this time he noticed the man’s all-white ensemble and likened it to some type of circus performance. Digging deeper, he uncovered an article about an acrobatic vaudeville troupe whose act had gone wrong, sending performer Louis Bossalina—one of the Four Casting Pearls—flying through the air before falling 18 feet onto the stage and breaking every bone in his body.
Multiple outlets reported that Bossalina had perished, but Dolan kept researching and discovered that the acrobat not only lived through this fall but continued performing many years before dying of natural causes.
“The week he died in 1963—was the same week that he was first seen here.”
For stage performers living or dead, timing is everything.