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Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there are reports of strange sightings, sounds and smells in some of the world’s oldest theatres that just can’t be accounted for. With Halloween happening this month, we take a look at the stories behind some of the most famous hauntings - including in venues right here in the Midlands...
Mention ghostly goings-on in theatres and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom Of The Opera instantly springs to mind. Made famous in modern times by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of the same name, the story is set in the Paris Opera House (now the Palais Garnier), where a young girl is taught to sing by her ‘protective angel of music’ - a phantom who resides in the darkest depths of the venue.
Although Leroux’s tale is one of fiction, there are reports that some of the eerie details are based on fact. A stage fire in 1873 resulted in the death of a ballerina and left her fiance (a pianist) disfigured. In 1896, the theatre’s grand chandelier fell and killed someone. There is also a lake underneath the opera house.
Meanwhile, on this side of the Channel, one of the UK’s most magnificent performing spaces, the Royal Albert Hall, is said to be inhabited by the spirit of the designer of its large pipe organ. Visions of a skull-topped Father Henry Willis have been reported, as have sightings of two young Victorian women chatting and giggling while making their way through the Royal Albert Hall corridors.
Here in the Midlands there are numerous stories of spooky sightings in some of our oldest theatres; nothing quite as dramatic as fires and falling chandeliers, but tales to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end nevertheless.
Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre reputedly has had two ghosts, one male and one female. The latter apparently met her demise falling from one of the theatre’s boxes. Known as the Lavender Lady - because of a scent of lavender which accompanies her - the deceased was a theatre-goer and, allegedly, a former mayoress of Wolverhampton. The area of the dress circle closest to where she fell, and the box itself, are the places where people have observed a sudden chill and the scent of lavender.
The second of the ghosts is supposedly Percy J Purdey, who managed the theatre in the first half of the 20th century. Purdey lived in a flat on the upper floors of the venue, staying there after he retired. He had the reputation of being a man of habit, and his ghost seems to have followed suit, walking around the building at the end of a busy day - and, it is said, popping down to the old basement bar for a whisky each night. Staff over the years have reported footsteps, figures appearing in doorways, locked doors seeming to have unlocked themselves and items such as bar furniture and glasses changing positions when staff members’ backs are turned.
Celebrities who’ve had ghostly encounters at the theatre include one half of comedy duo Little & Large and actor Victor Spinetti. Syd Little spoke of being haunted whilst visiting the toilet during a party in the theatre’s upstairs bar in the 1970s: “It was all in darkness, and I had a very cold feeling beside me. I had a very strong feeling that someone was there, and I knew nothing about the ghost at that time. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I was terrified. I couldn’t get out quick enough!”
Meanwhile, Spinetti recalled once walking into his L-shaped dressing room and starting a conversation with a woman he had glimpsed going into the corner. He had assumed she was a cleaner. Receiving no reply, he looked again to find that there was nobody there.
Ghostly happenings have been recorded at The Alexandra in Birmingham for many years. Originally called the Lyceum, the theatre was built in 1901 on the sight of a notorious slum. In 1935 much of the venue was re-built, with an extension to the frontage then being added in 1968. Throughout this time, a number of sightings and strange experiences led to the theatre being considered one of the most haunted buildings in the city.
Staff past and present have witnessed a gentleman in an old-fashioned doorman's uniform in various parts of the theatre - even in the wings during a rehearsal...
Ghostly footsteps have been heard on the stage, as has old-fashioned music. It’s believed that the ghostly sightings could be of a stage manager who used to walk around jingling his keys.
One member of staff recalls how her daughter, who was watching a show in the dress circle one evening, sensed someone sitting down next to her, yet when she looked around to acknowledge them, there was nobody there.
A wardrobe mistress once described how clothes would be found scattered around the floor in the morning, when all had been left tidy the night before. She had worked at the theatre when Leon Salberg was its manager and swore it was his ghost causing the disruption when it was unhappy with the costumes. Leon died in his backstage office in 1937. This became a bar for a while, and one night a tray of drinks was said to have travelled by itself.
In 2018, Birmingham’s Old Rep theatre commissioned a paranormal investigation of the Station Street building. Complete with detection equipment, the team set about looking at various parts of the ‘veritable warren’. One person picked up on the movement of a female in Victorian attire near the stage, while another figure was reported to have been spotted in the sound room, along with a distinct smell of smoke. Members of staff have also reported experiencing ‘strange feelings’ whilst in the venue, with one recollecting the time she was changing posters in the balcony area. The stairway was clear on the way up, but on her return she noticed black soot on the flooring and staircase. She made a hasty descent!
As might be expected with its wealth of history, Stratford-upon-Avon has more reports of ghosts than most. Two of them reside in the town’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST).
Both staff and visitors have spoken of the Perfumed Lady. Her old-fashioned, flowery perfume is said to be frequently smelt when new front-of-house staff are working their first shift - almost as if she is checking out the new arrivals.
A former carpenter at the venue recalls: "I was working on putting up a set in the RST and I smelt perfume very strongly, so strongly that I thought it was one of the other workers, till they said something as well. It was like a vertical column of scent rising directly upwards from a certain point, and then it just disappeared."
Another member of staff to have experienced The Perfumed Lady is front-of-house employee Sue. "During an evening shift, myself and another front-of-house assistant sensed there was a presence in the auditorium. I kept hearing the sound of creaking floorboards. At the interval, my colleague asked me who had been walking up and down the lobby during the first half of the show, and I said no one.
"In the second half, I continued to hear creaking floorboards, but there was nobody there. Suddenly, out of nowhere came this most beautiful smell. It enveloped me for a minute, and I held my wrist to my nose in case I'd forgotten my own scent, but it was nothing like what I was wearing. Then, just as abruptly as the scent came, it melted away. Later on, I found out about the Perfumed Lady and I felt even more spooked. I've worked in the same place since and felt nothing like the strange atmosphere I felt that night. Also, even more strangely, I've walked along the floor behind the seats where the floor creaked on that night, and it doesn't creak at all!"
Over at the RSC’s Swan Theatre there have been sightings of the so-called Grey Lady, both on CCTV and on thermal-imaging photographs. Wearing a long grey dress, she appears so real she is often mistaken for a patron. Security guards report that she switches on the Swan Theatre bridge lights every evening.
Another spooky recollection comes from retail merchandiser Pippa. "I was opening up in the old Swan shop on a Sunday morning, which included unlocking the Swan Gallery doors and turning all the lights on. We used to have a TV in the corner of the shop, where you could see a CCTV feed of the upstairs gallery. While I was in there, I was looking at an old costume and I remember feeling cold, but nothing else out of the ordinary. When I went back downstairs, a colleague said that she was surprised to see someone viewing the gallery so early. I said it was only me up there, but she said no, there was a lady standing behind me while I was looking at the costume - she’d seen her on the CCTV. She told me she saw an old woman in a long grey dress standing behind me as I looked at the costume, but there was definitely no one in that room other than me!"
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