Stage Fright: The Haunting of Carolina Theatre in Uptown
The historical venue is headed for a reopening. Will Fred the Ghost join the curtain call?
The story goes like this: During Carolina Theatre’s several decades of operation in uptown, strange things would happen during rehearsals, shows, and film screenings. Meticulously placed lights would move and malfunction; props would scatter. Bangs and clangs resonated from the empty projection room. Yet all you had to do was yell, “Knock it off, Fred!” and the troubles usually ceased. Thankful, actors and technicians would ask for a blessing or bid farewell when they left.
Uptown ghost tours stop at 220 N. Tryon St. to relate the tale of the naughty specter in the white Oxford shirt that’s taken up occupancy in the 93-year-old venue, which closed in 1978 and has been under renovation since 2017. Stephanie Burt Williams’ Ghost Stories of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County,a popular 2003 volume for locals interested in the paranormal, made Fred one of uptown’s most famous phantoms.
But for more than 30 years, few people had a chance to encounter him. Then, in 2012, the City Council agreed to sell the theater to Foundation For the Carolinas for $1, which three years later announced its plans to renovate the historic structure into its offices and a civic space for town halls, arts and entertainment, and more inside the new Belk Place campus. They aim to finish work in early 2022, and the renovation has meant new people roaming the hallways and basements. They’ve seen things, heard things, that go beyond even the legends.
It turns out that Fred isn’t the only spirit that haunts Carolina Theatre.
All old theaters have ghost stories, and North Carolina has plenty of both. Charlotte, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro have all had venues named “Carolina Theatre,” and they all opened in the 1920s—Charlotte’s 36,000-square-foot version debuted as a member of the national Publix Theatres Corporation family of theaters in 1927. All of the Carolina Theatres have served multiple purposes, too, from vaudeville showcases to film screenings. Also: Staff and visitors at all four claim the theaters are haunted. (Fred is the name of the Durham Carolina Theatre’s ghost, too.)
Carolina Theatre in Charlotte is built on legends. Press clippings highlight sets from Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and one particularly electric performance from Elvis Presley in 1956. Ten years later, the film The Sound of Musicended a record-breaking, 79-week run. In 1963, the segregated theater began to admit small groups of Black attendees before it eventually invited all of Charlotte. Then suburban sprawl took audiences away from uptown. The theater screened the Bruce Li film Fists of Bruce Lee on November 27, 1978, then closed its doors. (Li was a Lee-imitator, part of the “Bruceploitation” movement of the era.)
Paranormal tales emerged as the years passed. Haunted theaters are so common that the otherwise-secular League of Historic American Theatres’ national conference offers a session on working with your local paranormal community. Laura Smith, an executive vice president at Foundation For the Carolinas, attended that workshop last year, just before the most extensive renovations began.
The city had acquired the theater in 1986 and tried several times to resurrect it. Each attempt failed. Smith led one of those efforts during her time at the Arts & Science Council; even then, ghost tours stopped by to share Fred’s story. Like Foundation President and CEO Michael Marsicano, Smith made the leap from the ASC to Foundation For the Carolinas, where she decided to try again.
The Historic American Theatres’ conference session on the paranormal inspired her to call upon the Charlotte Area Paranormal Society (CAPS). “This was just right before we started construction,” Smith says, “because one of the things we wanted to do is, before we started disturbing things, see who’s already there, so to speak.” Even at that early stage, workers complained that their tools were moving or disappearing, seemingly on their own.
CAPS, led by founder and Executive Director Tina R. McSwain, insisted that payment for their survey of the theater would defile the group’s sacred service for Charlotte. The history of their industry, after all, is fraught with centuries of supernatural investigators exposed as money-hungry kooks. Despite that striving for spiritual purity, Smith immediately noted the scientific and pragmatic nature of the 15-year-old group and its leadership.
“The first thing we look for is a plausible explanation,” McSwain told this magazine in a 2012 story on CAPS. If a motion detector goes off or a camera captures strange forms, members are quick to offer several unghostly reasons, from dust particles to mice. CAPS sells a full lineup of plausibly useful (yet delightfully Ghostbusters-esque) devices for picking up disturbances, among them an air ion counter, electromagnetic field detector, HVAC multi-meter, and the Ovilus, “one of many paranormal field experimental devices created by Bill Chappell, a retired electronics engineer and founder of the digitaldowsing.com website.”
For the first visit, McSwain and a CAPS associate arrived without the rest of their crew or the usual equipment. They just wanted an initial impression. As Smith and a co-worker led them around, the two occasionally moved away from the group “to discuss things that we couldn’t hear.” Smith confronted the pair and asked why they kept slipping away to speak in private.
Their answer: They felt a presence, particularly in the balcony. A strongpresence. But it wasn’t Fred; it was a female. A female talking about shoes.
Smith couldn’t sense anything herself. “I’m probably the least intuitive person in the world on a day-to-day basis,” she says today, with a laugh. “So the fact that, you know, I didn’t experience it would not cause me to disbelieve that someone else is having that experience.”
She made a note to investigate whether any shoe stores had operated at or near Belk Place, from the days when retail ran uptown. (Sure enough, Ledbetter’s Shoe Store opened and closed during the mid-1900s in a space next to the theater.) In Williams’ Ghost Stories,an effects and lighting technician named Bill Freeman says the name “Fred” entered his mind one day, andwhether or not metaphysical forces placed it there, it took. Likewise, the moniker for this newly discovered ghost appeared in the mind of a Foundation staff member and spread throughout the site. Her name is Clarissa.
Smith and her group of Foundation employees and ghost hunters descended to the basement. “Down there, there’s a doorway that leads into what looks like a closet,” she recalls. “And in this closet, you’re actually looking underneath the stage. It’s just like the void of space.”
Before the group reached a doorway in the basement, one of the CAPS members stopped and said, “Wait, do you see that?”
Smith and her Foundation colleagues didn’t see or sense anything.
Moments later: “Wait, do you see that?”
The onlooker asked everyone to stand behind her and look into the doorway. The entire party, skeptics and believers alike, obliged.
“All of a sudden, this little ball of light, this little orb, shot across the other side of what would be the opening of this door,” Smith says with a chuckle of disbelief. “And so I turn around to my colleagues and say, ‘Hey, did you see anything?’ When they said yes, I said, ‘Well, what do you think you saw?’ They described it the exact same way.”
A party member suggested it was a trick of the light, so they took turns trying to block gaps and holes in the walls where they thought light might be leaking in. The orb continued to float across the space.
“So [a CAPS member] is saying, ‘If there’s someone here with us, will you make yourself known?’” Smith continues. “She’s asking these kinds of questions, and I will tell you this, the light then came across the chest of that individual, and then appeared to go through her. Again, it appeared, went across her body and then actually went throughher.”
CAPS returned days later, unpacked an artillery battery of beeping devices, and deployed its technicians throughout the theater for an extended, hours-long session. The group heard and felt odd things they couldn’t explain that night. But it’s that first visit—and the mysterious, floating orb—that sticks with Smith. “I don’t know what that was,” she says, “but I certainly saw something that I can’t explain today.”
A history of hauntings is still history. Whether or not the ghosts exist, the Foundation embraces them as characters in Carolina Theatre’s story. It’s good PR: the League of Historic American Theatres recommends that theaters weave these stories and paranormal communities into their programming.
That doesn’t mean the philanthropic group is full of believers. “When most of the Foundation found out that I had brought the paranormal community to visit with us at the theater, I’m afraid my stock didn’t exactly rise with my colleagues,” Smith says, laughing. “I would get these pretty goofy looks.”
She intends to bring CAPS back after construction finishes in 2022 to see if they can corroborate past phenomena and perhaps make new friends. Expect these bygone specters to be part of Carolina Theatre’s future—but not as hokey props. Smith invites those with real spiritual curiosity to explore the paranormal history of the theater, without the kitsch of paid actors or special effects carted out for Halloween.
“I don’t assume that I know everything that there is to know about this world,” she says, “and if there are those that believe this, who am I to disbelieve them? I can’t disprove it, you know? I’m open to it. And I think we at the Foundation remain open to this because we think it’s a great piece of the history of the Carolina Theatre, whether it’s Fred, Clarissa with her shoes, or any other the other stories from this place. … And you know, I’m hoping, whoever’s been there before us, we’re in their good graces.”
Andy Smith is executive editor of this magazine.