Ghostly tales of haunted theaters are in no short supply, from the spirit of Judy Garland, who sometimes can be seen backstage at The Palace Theatre in New York City, to one of England's most famous ghosts, the Man in Gray, who has regularly been spotted at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. But, the most famous haunted theater of the them all is the The Palais Garnier, the inspiration behind Gaston Leroux's classic The Phantom of The Opera. The story was actually first published in a series of articles, and then later published as a book.
The Garnier actually was considered to be haunted by a phantom, and Leroux, being a bit of an investigative journalist, used these tales to inspire his story. The performers at the theater believed there was a "fantôme" that haunted the building, and they would often place a horseshoe above the stage’s entrance for protection from the ghost of the real Erik. Many witnesses have made claims of mysterious whispers and noises while backstage, seeing a shadowy figure running throughout parts of the theater, and occasionally some have even seen the figure so closely that they could see his distinctive garb, a black cape and a mask covering part of his face.
I don't know what it is about theaters, why they tend to be haunted. But take a look at any city around the globe, and there’s sure to be at least one theater that’s said to have one or two ghosts hanging around. One of the theories is that any place in which many people gather, and have emotional experiences, hauntings can be produced. We all know that a good movie or show can stir the feelings inside of us, twist our calm demeanor and force out our emotions. Does this set the stage, no pun intended, for future hauntings?
Arthur Melville Lucas Jr, was born in the town of Florence, South Carolina, but was raised in good ole Savannah. (Why is that not a Lynyrd Skynyrd song? Down in good ole Savannah, where they eat their ice cream with a banana, and smoke cigars from Havana, Yeah, that's life, down in good ole Savannah. Okay, that songs needs some work. But, I digress.) Back to Arthur Lucas! Throughout his life he kept close ties with his hometown; his parents continued to reside on Victory Drive, and his brother, Marion, was the city's Police Superintendent.
In 1907, Arthur Lucas entered into the field of motion pictures and held a prominent position with multiple film companies early on in his burgeoning career in the industry. He directed both The Grand Theater in Savannah, and The Washington Film Exchange in D.C.; he also was the supervisor of distribution for the Mutual Film corporation, the General Supervisor of Southern and Western states for the Triangle Film Corporation, and Manager of the Atlanta-New Orleans Division of Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. Eventually, Lucas owned and directed theaters, such as, the Palm and Keystone theaters in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In 1920, Lucas became the President of the American Theaters Corporation, which operated movie theaters in key cities throughout the South. This new opportunity is what put him on the path to begin the development of theaters in Savannah. After taking over the Odeon and Folly theaters in Savannah and the Rex Theater in Sumter, South Carolina, he built The Rylander in Americus, Georgia, where he worked with future Lucas Theatre collaborator, C.K. Howell. He then started creating plans for the construction of the The Lucas Theatre! Yeah, exclamation point.
The haunted Lucas Theatre in Savannah, Georgia, is an iconic landmark and a main attraction for many visitors who come to the Historic District of Savannah. The structure took over two years and $500,000 to complete. The culmination of work between Arthur Lucas and C.K. Howell produced one of the most beautiful theaters that could be found in the United States. Arthur Lucas owned more than 40 theaters across the country, but the Lucas Theatre in Savannah, Georgia, is the only one to use his name. Apparently, he wasn't all that vain, unlike some of the ghosts which will do just about anything to get noticed inside of this haunted Savannah establishment.
The Lucas Theatre's grand opening event was in December of 1921 with a showing of Buster Keaton's comedy short Hard Luck, and the movie Camille based on a play by Alexandre Dumas and starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino. Savannah's cultural and political elite came out in full force to support The Lucas Theatre's opening night. The event was widely discussed in newspapers, praising The Lucas' extravagant and luxurious design. Arthur Lucas even received telegrams from bigwig film industry executives and politicians from throughout Georgia.
The Lucas Theatre continued to garner attention from the social circles of Savannah, and was home to the greatest movies of the silent film era and touring vaudeville acts as well. The Lucas Theatre was also the first business in Savannah to offer air conditioning in the year of 1927, making it a must stop during those wicked hot summer days, the perfect place to cool down while watching a movie.
Mr. Lucas, proud of the success with his namesake, would tirelessly collect newspaper articles and advertisements that boasted his Lucas Theatre. A book containing these clippings was discovered in a secluded part of the theater. Perhaps the book was simply forgotten about, discarded, or maybe Lucas left it as a time capsule of sort, a treasure from the past waiting to be found. Lucas, a well respected man in the community, held a deep love for his city and the people who made Savannah so great, and was known for his generosity. He would send letters to the newborn babies of Savannah, giving them a free ticket to The Lucas once they were "old enough to understand and enjoy the movies," as Lucas put it in a letter in August 25, 1926, to newborn Charles Compton. He was also known to keep in contact with his employees who were drafted during World War II, as they were not only employees to him but a part of his gang, his family.
The Lucas stayed an operation until the year of the tricentennial, 1976. The last movie to show before they closed was The Exorcist, a befitting choice for a haunted theater. Three days after the Lucas Theatre closed their doors, the owners of The Lucas, the ABC Southeastern Theatres, made an attempt to demolish the building, but thankfully the Savannah Historic Foundation declined their heartless request. Following this episode, the Savannah Historic Foundation held their very first meeting in regards to saving The Lucas Theatre, and restoring it back to the glory days.
Eleven years later, in 1987, Emma and Lee Adler started a nonprofit group, The Lucas Theatre of the Arts. The Adlers, like Mr. Lucas, were known for their love of Savannah and also for their work in preserving the city's historic landmarks. They began their capital campaign to restore The Lucas that very year. After two decades and a number of challenging campaigns to help resurrect The Lucas, a final push began in March of 1997. A couple of celebrities even helped the cause: in June of 1997, Clint Eastwood held the wrap party for his film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil at The Lucas, in which the proceeds from the wrap party and an auction featuring props from film were donated to The Lucas' restoration effort. Kevin Spacey, also, hosted a black-tie fundraiser, and gave a sizable donation of $200,000 to help with the renovations.
The Lucas was finally able to reopen its doors on December 1, 2000, 88 years from when it first opened. The film they showed was a poetic choice, Gone with the Wind. And, to steal a quote from the chartacter of Scarlett O’Hara: "As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again." And, as for the folks at The Lucas, they certainly weren't licked for long, as they made it through the other side and will never go hungry for movies again.
Today, The Lucas Theatre holds close ties with the Savannah College of Arts and Design, hosting entertainment year round. It's truly a theater for all, as you can enjoy classic films, operas, orchestras, cabarets, and country music. You will find it all and more at The Lucas. They're also home to many of Savannah's cultural events such as, the Savannah Film Fest, The Savannah Philharmonic, and the Savannah Music Festival.
But, the arts are not the only aspect of what makes The Lucas Theatre so special, as the ghost stories are the other part of the equation. Some of the reported haunted activity from the Lucas Theatre includes shadow people, applause being heard in an empty building . . . and much, much more. A few former employees came forward to Ghost City Tour's friend James Caskey, and went on record in his book Haunted Savannah sharing their experiences with the spirits of The Lucas Theatre.
A story told by many as fact, while others have doubts about its veracity, is a tale of a group of gangsters in 1928. The gangsters apparently opened fire with their Tommy Guns on an unexpected crowd of people waiting to enter the Lucas Theatre. The ticket-taker decided to make a run for it, and darted toward the entrance to The Lucas for safety, but before he could make it, he was shot in the back. There have been conflicting problems with this account. For one, there is no police report or newspaper article of the 1928 drive-by-shooting. In fact, there are no records of a shooting having ever taken place at the Lucas Theatre. Yet, some have seen this ticket-taker's spirit in a frantic state, flinging the entrance doors open, stumbling into the lobby, only to finally collapse to the ground and vanish. His spirit seems doomed to repeat his death for eternity. This unfortunate phenomenon is known as a death echo or residual energy. Residual energy or haunting is the playback of a past event. The apparition involved is not actually a spirit, but the recording of the tragic event.
There are some other ghost tales that have a little more to give in the evidence department. A former employee of the Lucas Theatre, who worked for them during the 1970s, recalled an incident, "We were all pretty sure the place was haunted, even back then there were stories. But, boys being boys, we would often use this to scare some of the female employees, by hiding and jumping out, that sort of stuff... Well, one day it backfired. I hid in a dark room, ready to spring out and scare one of the girls, when suddenly I felt a presence in there with me. I could hear someone there in the dark, in the room with me. I knew I was all alone in there, but I could also feel them watching me. I made a pretty quick exit, and I also lost my enthusiasm for hiding in dark corners at The Lucas Theatre."
Another former member of the staff previously shared to, "I was walking into the theatre to start my shift, and I heard what sounded like a full theatre applauding. I remember thinking that it was odd, because it was early afternoon before the movies really got busy . . . Why would there be a full audience watching a matinee, and why would they applaud? I walked to the door of the movie theatre and opened it, and it was deserted. We hadn't been showing a matinee at all."
The longtime former executive for the Lucas Theatre, John, once told a story that happened while nearing the completion of The Lucas Theatre's reopening, "We were getting ready for the premiere in December of 2000, and one of the problems we were having was that the air conditioners located above the balcony were leaking water. So we rigged up what we thought was a solution. We strapped what amounted to a funnel on the underside of the a/c unit, so the dripping water would flow into the funnel, down a hose and into a 5-gallon bucket at the bottom." John added that the plastic lid of the bucket was left on, and that they cut a small hole in the lid to pass the hose through. John claimed that you would have needed "elbow-grease" to jar the hose loose, and that "It was a snug fit."
John went on: "When we came back the next morning, the hose was no longer in the bucket. Somehow, the hose had been pulled out of the hole in the lid. There was no way that hose could have gotten out of the bucket unless somebody pulled it, hard! The dripping water had absolutely ruined a portion of the balcony, an area that had recently been finished. It cost nearly $10,000 worth of damage to the plaster. Fortunately, it didn't affect the premiere."
Another story happened during the renovation process, some of the workers claim to have had paranormal experiences, one worker even heard the whirling sounds of a projector, and lights emanating from the projection booth. The unnerving issue with this was that the projector had yet to be re-installed into the booth. The Phantom Projector of the Theatre, perhaps? Maybe, the Lucas Theatre and the ghosts who inhabit it would be a great source of inspiration for a sequel to Gaston Leroux's beloved book, The Phantom of the Opera.
During the day on most days of the week, you can take a self-guided tour of the Lucas Theatre. At night, you can expect to find shows and entertainment of all varieties. Plays, movies, music...can all be found in rotation at the Lucas Theatre. For more information on the Lucas Theatre in Savannah please visit their website.
From time to time, our ghost tours in Savannah will go by the Lucas Theatre. If we do, you'll get to hear these ghostly tales while standing at the location where they happen!