Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
New York is haunted by nature of its constant transformation. Neighborhoods change, leaving only small or hidden remnants of what they were; once thriving communities are slowly eclipsed by others. But, New York may be haunted in more traditional ways as well.
During his long career in theater, David Belasco produced, wrote, and directed over 100 plays, including the original 1900 adaptation of Madame Butterfly, starring Mary Barker as Suzuki and Frank Worthing as Lieutenant Pinkerton. He was one of the most powerful figures on Broadway, spending nearly every waking hour either in his theater, the Belasco (formerly the Stuyvesant Theatre), or in his study and apartment directly above. But as rumor has it, even after his 1931 death, Belasco thought he had more to contribute to Broadway.
Immediately following his death, actors and staff reported sights and sounds they could not explain. Hardly a shy ghost, he is said to appear almost solid and even speak to actors. Although he’s commonly spotted as a lone figure, dressed in priestly garb watching rehearsals from the balcony, he is also said to offer praise to the actors, shaking their hands and even pinching the bottoms of several young actresses. A perfectionist in life, Belasco’s ghost isn’t afraid to show his disapproval. Over the years, actors claim to have heard moans in the theater’s wings and had their dressing rooms upturned after a particularly bad performance.
Of course, he manifests himself in more traditional ghostly ways as well: unexplained footsteps, doors mysteriously opening in unison, and a supposedly non-functioning elevator, which makes trips to Belasco’s apartment.
A social man in life, Belasco’s ghost is rumored to have incorporeal guests. Shortly after his death there were reports of raucous parties in his apartment, but he seems to keep quieter company these days. A lover of women in life, Belasco continues to carry on affairs in the afterlife. Several sightings of the “Blue Lady,” the ghost of a showgirl who died after falling down an elevator shaft, have been reported in the theater.
One television and film actress who prefers to remain unnamed told Playbill that she heard her locked dressing room door open while she was taking a shower. Upon investigating, she found the door still locked, but the bathroom steeped in a blue glow. The Blue Lady may not be the lone female ghost Belasco is entertaining; the disconnected elevator is rumored to carry phantom visitors directly to his private apartment.
Visitors to the Belasco Theatre need not be anxious though. One rumor says that Belasco’s spirit stopped appearing after Oh! Calcutta! was performed on the stage; perhaps he was taken aback by the full-frontal nudity in the production. If he is still roaming the halls of his theater, however, at least he seems to be a friendly ghost.
– Anne DiFabio