Ghosts of Christmas Past

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The historic Savannah Theatre is alive with song, stories and the supernatural 

THE SAVANNAH THEATRE is one of America’s oldest operating theatres. And, true to Savannah, it is believed to be one of the most haunted.

Located in Chippewa Square at 222 Bull St., it was originally designed by renowned architect William Jay. The theatre first opened its doors on December 4, 1818, with two different productions: a comedy, “The Soldier’s Daughter,” and a farce, “Raising the Wind.” 

Its first two decades may have felt like a farce, as the theatre passed from owner to owner and was put up for auction several times. But in 1838, a stock company took ownership of the theatre, and it flourished. Famous actors, including Oscar Wilde, graced its stage. Edwin Booth, older brother to the infamous John Wilkes Booth, played several Shakespearean roles at the theatre in 1876, and it is surmised that the presidential assassin, also a prominent stage actor, may have played there himself. Most strangely, Baseball Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb, aka “The Georgia Peach,” appeared in the comedy “The College Widow” in 1911. 

courtesy of VISIT SAVANNAH

Before the advent of electricity in Savannah, shows were lit by candlelight. Paranormal investigator Mike Eder gives nightly tours of the theatre and as his story goes, the first major fire occurred when a candle tipped over, and an actress named Elizabeth tragically perished in this fire. According to an 1895 Savannah Morning News article entitled, “Spooks in the Old Theater” she was believed to be one of the theatre’s first ghosts. Elizabeth was passionate about her craft then and now, and she is still often seen onstage. 

In 1898, a powerful hurricane blew through the city, flooding the theatre and ripping off its roof. Once repaired, it didn’t take long for disaster to strike again. In 1906, another fire engulfed parts of downtown, including the theatre. This time, William Jay’s elaborate original facade was destroyed and replaced by a brick one.  

The Savannah Theatre’s largest fire occurred in 1948, and far greater renovations were required. It was redesigned in the period’s popular Art Deco style and converted into a movie theatre. 

This devastating fire left the theatre with a new ghost — a child named Benjamin. The young spirit allegedly stays mainly in the balcony area. He has been known to tug at the hair and clothing of audience members, as well as the shirttails of Dru Jones, the theatre’s former house manager when Jones would operate the spotlight. “I think he just wanted my attention,” she says.

Following a fire in 1948, the Savannah Theatre was redesigned in the period’s popular Art Deco style and converted into a movie theatre. / courtesy of THE SAVANNAH THEATRE

“Then one day, my granddaughter was here for a visit —she was probably 3 [years old],” Jones continues. “I hadn’t told her about Benjamin because she was too little. So, I was in the office doing last-minute stuff. The doors were all locked, so it was safe for her to play in the lobby. She came back in, and I said it was almost time to leave, and she said, ‘But the little boy wants to play!’ I said, ‘What little boy?’ and she said, ‘Out here!’ I said, ‘What’s his name?’ and she pushed her lips together and looked like she was trying to think. Then she said, ‘His name is Ben … ja … min.’”

Although many more have been found, including separate people describing a similar nun, the theatre’s third prominent ghost is a former director named Bill. He has a British accent and is known for his fondness for curse words. But when pleased by a performer, Bill can be heard yelling, “Bravo!”

Live theatre returned in the 1980s, when a community theatre company purchased the Savannah Theatre from the Weiss family. Then, in 2002, musical theatre performers Matt and Michelle Meece and Michael Zaller leased and renovated the theatre. This core ensemble, plus Zaller’s wife, Shannon, who joined in 2005, has been performing there almost nightly since. Former paranormal skeptic Matt Meece now has his own creepy stories, and says once the lights go down, “I put my head down and get out of there!” 

Meece also makes sure to mention the theatre’s dark history beyond the ghosts. “With segregation, up until the 1960s, African Americans had to sit in the balcony,” he says. “I’ve met several people here who tell me that as kids, they were forced to sit up there and enter through their own separate entrance.”

Today, the theatre’s iconic marquee is a beacon of light on Bull Street, with a diverse cast and a schedule of shows that brings the community together. The company begins the holiday season with a run of “ELF the Musical,” on stage November 4-27. “Mike Zaller basically is Buddy the Elf in real life,” says Meece. “So it was a no-brainer who should play the role.”

Audiences can then look forward to the 20th year of their signature Christmas show, “A Christmas Tradition”, running December 1-24 — perhaps with a cameo from one of the theatre’s friendly ghosts.