Glamour and Murder at Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam Theatre

When I first moved to New York City after graduating from The Boston Conservatory with a degree in musical theater performance (at the age of 41!), I got whatever job I could and was fortunate to end up as a Broadway usher at The New Amsterdam Theatre.   The architecture awed me, and little did I know that I had stepped into one of the most actively haunted theaters in the city.  I will share the New Am’s (as we ushers referred to it) history and ghosts over two blog posts.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Let me begin at the theater’s rebirth at the hands of Disney.  Built in 1903 and located on the famous 42nd Street in Times Square, the New Amsterdam appeared in shambles when the Disney Theatrical Corporation (a division of Walt Disney) leased the building in 1993.  They found holes in the roof, mushrooms growing in the orchestra pit, and nesting birds.

BCA New York

BCA New York

BCA New York

BCA New York

With the guidance of Building Conservation Associates, Inc., which specializes in Heritage Conservation, Disney spent a reported 34 million dollars to restore the theater to its original glory.

BCA New York

BCA New York

Walking through the marble lobby, theatergoers today experience the same grandeur that their predecessors did at the end of the gilded age.  The Art Nouveau details, like those shown below, make the New Amsterdam the crown jewel of all the Broadway theaters in the city.

BCA New York

BCA New York

BCA New York

BCA New York

BCA New York

BCA New York

In addition to this rich architectural legacy, Disney also became caretaker to at least one ghost.  A few months prior to the theater’s opening on April 2nd, 1997 the first dramatic paranormal event occurred. On a cold January morning, a telephone woke Dana Amendola, the house manager for the theater at the time, from a deep sleep at 2 a.m.  The theater’s security guard on duty asked Dana to come at once.  Fearing a catastrophe, Dana raced to the theater and found the guard pacing outside the stage door. It took much coaxing to get the anxious man to reenter the building.  Once inside, the guard explained that when he did his usual rounds and came to the stage, he felt something behind him.  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a beautiful woman in the glow of the stage’s ghost light.  She wore a beaded gown and headdress with a green sash and in her hand was a blue bottle.  As he started to address her, she walked past him, heading for the 41st Street stage door.  She turned back to him, blew him a kiss, and continued through the wall, and the shaken guard ran out the door.  Some weeks later after Dana had collected historical pictures to mount around theater, he invited the guard to his office.  Laying the photos out, Amendola asked him if anyone looked familiar, and the guard pointed at the photo below of Olive Thomas.

Olive Thomas - Photo hanging in the New Am lobby

Olive Thomas – Photo hanging in the New Am lobby

In my next blog post, I’ll share Thomas’s connection to the theater and when she first haunted the theater.

Out of the Ashes…

Monday, March 25th, 2013 passed for most people as an ordinary day.  People went to work and returned home safe and sound, but 102 years ago, the day ended differently for a group of workers in New York City.  Some of them have never left the building they died in.

Asch Building (1911)Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Asch Building (1911)
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Asch Building (foreground above), at the intersections of Washington Place and Greene Street, housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on its top three floors in 1911.   A shirtwaist was the name for the blouses made popular by the Gibson girls in that era.

Artist: Gibson, Charles Dana, 1867-1944 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Artist: Gibson, Charles Dana, 1867-1944 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The executives offices were located on the 10th floor.  The 8th and 9th floors were large open spaces with most of the sewers occupying big long rows of machines on the 9th. Most of the employees were young, immigrant women who counted themselves lucky to be sewing rather than standing for 14 hours in a department store or in a dangerous, stifling commercial laundry.  Still they worked 52 hours or more a week, Monday through Saturday producing 10-12,000 shirts a week.

Moods ran high on March 25th, 1911 because quitting time came sooner on Saturdays. On the 8th floor at 4:40 p.m., as employees gathered their coats and belongings, supervisors started to pass out paychecks, and someone threw a cigarette butt into one of the bins.  The tissue paper and scrap fabric burst into a ball of fire.  People grabbed buckets of water that were on hand as required, but the materials were too flammable, rendering the water useless.  The flames quickly engulfed the main exit area, so people ran to the rear exit, but workers had to wait for a manager to come and unlock the door.  Brave elevator operators made as many trips as possible until the fire blocked their way.  Someone on the 8th floor alerted the 10th floor executive offices of the fire, but the switchboard operator then dropped the phone, leaving no one able to call the 9th floor.

Most of the people on the 10th floor followed the owners through the dense smoke in the main stairwell to the roof.  They were dismayed to find that their building was shorter than the New York University building next door.  Fortunately a professor, leading a lecture, noticed the fire, and he and his students rushed to the roof and lowered ladders rescuing everyone there.

Sewing room, shirt factory, Troy, N.Y. -Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sewing room, shirt factory, Troy, N.Y. –
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The sewers worked in a room that encompassed the building’s entire ninth floor, similar to the Troy, NY factory depicted above.  Machines hummed until 4:45 p.m. when the quitting bell sounded. That’s when the fire reached them.  Flame and smoke blocked the main entrance, so people rushed to the only other staircase but found the exit door locked. No one had a key.

Some of the girls remembered the fire escape that hung on the inside airshaft of the building.  Fire danced up from the eighth floor making it a harrowing journey down. The  rungs measured only 18 inches wide.  Abe Gordon, a button puncher, saw that there were no exits at the bottom of the air shaft, so he kicked through a 6th floor window.  As he pulled his foot off the balcony, his clothes smoking, he heard a grinding screech followed by shrill screams as the fire escape collapsed, sending 24 souls to their death by falling onto the spiked iron fence at the bottom or through the basement skylight.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Firemen arrived at 4:47 p.m. to bodies crashing to the pavement.  They looked up to see faces pressed against the ninth floor windows with flames behind them.  The firemen extended their ladder to the sky, but it stopped at the sixth floor, 30 feet too short.  They held out catch blankets for the jumpers, but the force of the fall ripped the blankets from the rescuers hands, and most victims died on impact.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

One woman, surrounded by flames, tossed her new hat into the air, dumped her money on to the crowd below, and jumped.  Another man helped women up on to the windowsill, so they could jump. One of the women he embraced tightly and gently lowered her to her death.  A United Press reporter, William Shepherd, who arrived with the first fire truck, described the man “…as if he were helping them into a streetcar instead of into eternity.” Twenty-one people jumped from the Washington Place side of the building, while another thirty-three jumped or fell from the Greene Street side.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The last body fell at 4:57 pm.  Seventeen minutes after the fire began, 146 people were dead or dying.  Most were young women between the ages of 16 and 23. Authorities established a morgue on the pier at East 26th Street, opening the doors to the public at midnight.  Through the night wails of grief echoed in the cavernous space as more than 6,000 people an hour wandered “Misery Lane”.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Asch Building, now the Brown Building belonging to New York University, still stands and has a history of hauntings. People of have smelt burnt flesh, smoke, and heard screams in foreign languages. Some have seen bodies on the sidewalk. A woman has been seen running in terror down the hallway.  A friend of mine who attended NYU did not experience such dramatic events, but she did say that there were unexplained noises, lights would turn on and off, and the energy of the building was very somber and oppressive.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Until September 11th, 2001, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in New York’s history in terms of loss of life. Although the evidence indicated that supervisors locked the workers in, the factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were found not guilty of manslaughter. They would later lose a civil suit and owe $75 per victim.

The victims though did not die in vain. This event shaped the future of New York City, and  fire equipment and fire codes changed for the better. Out of the ashes Unions grew more powerful and so too worker’s rights. No longer could workers be locked in their work place.  Every year on March 25th, the city’s unions pay their respects at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street, and the fire trucks arrive and shoot their ladders to the sky to say that we will never forget.

Trade parade in memory of fire victims - Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Trade parade in memory of fire victims – Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Ghost Hunter, The Witch, and The Actress

June Havoc (1952)

June Havoc (1952) Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Lucy Ryan began wandering a patch of ground on West 44th Street in New York City in 1792 when there were only farming fields and forests.  The street didn’t get built until the mid-1800s, and no one knew Lucy’s name until after the actress, June Havoc, bought the still quaint brick townhouse between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.

June was the star of vaudeville, movies, and Broadway, and the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee. She bought the house in the 1960’s, rented out the top floors, and moved into the ground floor apartment.  As Lucy had done with past tenants, she harnessed her energy and began rapping on the floor of the kitchen, usually around 3 a.m. Havoc called in an architect, a plumber, and a carpenter who found nothing structurally wrong with the building to explain the noise.


Gypsy Rose Lee (1956)Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Gypsy Rose Lee (1956) Courtesy of The Library of Congress


June shared her sleepless nights on her television show, and a viewer put her in touch with the renowned paranormal researcher, Hans Holzer.  Holzer who had a doctorate in parapsychology published more than 100 books in his lifetime.

Hans Book

Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond

According to Holzer’s book, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, Holzer arranged multiple séances beginning in January of 1965 at Havoc’s home and one even aired on her television show.   He felt that productive ghost hunting could only occur with the help of a legitimate, gifted medium, and in this case he chose to work with an English woman named Sybil Leek.  Due to her upbringing and a stint traveling with Romany Gypsies, Leek became involved with witchcraft and authored many books on the occult and was called by the BBC Britain’s most famous witch.

The ghost announced its presence shortly after Holzer arrived in the apartment by tapping below the floorboards at the rear of the house.  Later when Leek dropped into trance, the spirit spoke through her lamenting how hungry she was.  She identified herself as Lucy Ryan.  She said she was 20 years old and the year was 1792.  Asking how she had gotten there she replied, “Came…people set us away…soldiers…follow them….sent me away…” [1] When asked which regiment, Lucy said “Napier”[2] which Holzer later identified as possibly being the Office George Napier who had fought for the British during the American War for Independence.   She also said he knew a solider named Alfred Bailey, that he left her, and she came to this place.  When asked why, she said, “They made me come. Picked me up.  Man brought me here. Put me down on the ground.”[3]  When asked if she had died on that spot.  She replied, “Die? Die? I’m not dead. I’m hungry.”[4]

At the end of the trance, the group, including Leek, Holzer, and Havoc, gathered around a table, which began to move and lift.  The tapping from earlier resumed, and through a lengthy communication process, they determined that the energy spelled out the word “leave”.

In later trance sessions, Hungry Lucy as she became known, revealed that her soldier, Bailey, had promised to meet her at 3:00 a.m., but he never came, and she waited for him still.  Then in March 1965 at a final séance, it appeared that Lucy had finally crossed over, and now Alfred came through.

When asked about Lucy, he said, “She didn’t get any food, and then she got cold by the river. [5]

“…Nobody helped them there by the river. Let them die. Buried them in a pit.”[6]

During outbreaks of yellow fever and other epidemics, bodies were buried in New York City in mass graves.  Perhaps this was Lucy’s fate, and when part of her story came to light, it appeared to release her, for ever since the séances with the Ghost Hunter, the Witch, and the Actress, the residents at number 428 all sleep peacefully with full tummies.

[1] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 257
[2] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 257
[3] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 258
[4] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 258,
[5] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 262
[6] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 262

The Palace Theatre’s Gang of Ghosts

Palace Theatre

Opening in 1913, the Palace (tallest building above) became a premier vaudeville theater. When an act played the Palace they knew they had hit the big time.  Performer Jack Haley once wrote:

The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theaters in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of Variety success.

Helen Keller

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini

Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman

Up until the 1930s stars such as Helen Keller, Harry Houdini, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, and Ethel Merman graced its stage until the popularity of motion pictures turned it into a high-class movie house.  In the 1950’s it attempted to reclaim its live-theatrical roots with stellar performances by Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.  It began producing legitimate Broadway productions in 1965 with the opening of Sweet Charity, and stars continue to grace its stage.

BossalinaHowever, some acts have refused to bow out. The most famous ghost is thought to be Louis Bossalina, who is the second from the left in this picture from an article published in The Reading Eagle on March 31, 1935.  (His name was apparently misspelled as Borsalino in a New York Times article in 1935, and the misspelling stuck.)  The article reported how Bossalina fell 18 feet to the stage while performing with the acrobatic team, The Four Casting Pearls on August 27, 1935.  They leapt from stationary positions without nets, and Louis, the team captain, missed the hands of his partner while performing a double summersault, a move his team called “The Death Loop”.  He suffered a fractured pelvis and internal bleeding.  It was thought he died because stories abound that stagehands have seen his ghost swinging from the dress circle rim.  Some people have heard him scream and seen him fall.  Actually I believe I found his obituary in his hometown paper, The Reading Eagle, and it listed his death as August 4th, 1963, at the age of 61.  Perhaps the paranormal activity is a residual haunting as a result of the dramatic nature of the accident.

Bing Crosby singing for the troops.

Bossalina isn’t the only ghost in the majestic theater.  Other phantoms seen include a sad little girl who looks down from the Mezzanine and a little boy who plays with toy trucks. There is also a man in a brown suit who walks past the House Manager’s office door at night after the audience has left.  In 1995 an actor in the cast of Beauty and the Beast saw a white-gowned cellist in the orchestra pit vanish during a performance.  Intrigued cast members invited the famous psychic, Elizabeth Baron, to do a reading of the theater, which she conducted on October 6th, 1995.  As Baron sat down, she became overwhelmed by the impression of more than 103 souls.  One included the singer, Bing Crosby (performing for the troops above), who conveyed his remorse at how he had treated his children in life.  Baron went on to say that many of the spirits were full of pain, worry, and unhappiness and were stuck in their stubbornness in not wanting to leave the theater.  Some of the ghosts wouldn’t go on to a higher dimension until they make it right with people left behind, so when she finished her reading, the psychic asked cast members to pray for those stuck behind.  A moving account of the reading is told by her daughter on Ms Barron’s official website:

The Ghost of Tweed Courthouse

Tweed Old

Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chamber Street in New York City may be recognizable as it appeared in movies such as The Verdict, Kramer versus Kramer, and Gangs of New York, but this building now the home for the New York Department of Education began in infamy because of the shady dealings of William ‘Boss’ Tweed. (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.)

Tweed Portrait

Tweed rose to power while overseeing one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, the Seventh Ward.  He setup programs to aid the poor Irish immigrant population to bribe them for their votes.  Then as a member of the democratic political machine, the Tammany Society and as the Commissioner of Public Works, Tweed set in motion various corrupt business dealings.  The courthouse would be his last.  He used the construction to embezzle what today would be millions of dollars. (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.)

Tweed Cartoon

Cartoons by Thomas Nash of Harper’s Weekly and stories by The New York Times brought about Tweed’s downfall.  Ironically he would be tried and convicted in his own courthouse.  Although convicted of 204 counts, a higher court reduced his jail time from 12 years to 1 year.  However, New York State filed a civil suit to recoup some of the stolen funds, and Tweed was rearrested when he couldn’t pay up.  While on a home visit, he escaped and worked as a seaman on a Spanish ship until someone recognized him, and  he was turned over to U.S. authorities. (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.)

Tweed Interior1

He died in the Ludlow Street Jail and still visits his courthouse.  Some of the early accounts of Tweed’s activities come from an article first published in the Ohio State Journal in 1911, recounting George F. Lyon’s experiences while serving as Jury Clerk in the Tweed Courthouse.  Lyon stated that while waiting in a vacant courtroom for a jury to adjourn, he felt a presence in the room and saw the shadowy figure of a man cross from a door on the right side of the room to the left.  (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.)

Tweed Interior2

Lyon also told how one morning, he over heard the Justice who had officiated Tweed’s trial, Noah Davis, point out a crack in courtroom’s Northeast window.  He said and everyone in attendance agreed that the crack, which had occurred some time during the night created a perfect profile of Boss Tweed.  (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.)

Tweed Night

Nighttime seems to be the time for paranormal activity. During Lyon’s tenure at the courthouse, he learned that the janitor found the night watchman, Larry O’Hara, on the Chambers side-portico one cold, stormy night.  O’Hara refused to go inside the building even if it meant his job.  He claimed that he heard sounds and saw things moving about the dimly-lit corridors.  A few months later, the janitor discovered O’Hara’s replacement, John Riordan, on the steps outside one night.  When asked if he would go in, Riordan replied, “Begora, but O’hara was right; the damned place is haunted!”

I haven’t heard of any recent accounts of activity in the building, but apparently paranormal events spike with news reports of political corruption.