The story goes like this: During Carolina Theatre’s five 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 Music ended 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 Leeimitator, 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.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
A DIAGNOSIS OF CHARLOTTE'S COVID ECONOMY
Business Alliance digests data that illustrates how virus has swamped commerce
Forbidden Planet, Forgotten History
In 1956, the movie that redefined science fiction cinema premiered in uptown Charlotte
The 1985 police killing of his brother still powers his efforts to unite his adopted city
It was a pilot’s playground for more than 50 years until the housing boom brought it down to earth
CHARLOTTEANS OF THE YEAR
More than any year before it, 2020 made demands of us. Our nine Charlotteans of the Year responded by breaking through boundaries. A doctor informed a confused, frightened public. A globally recognized superstar stepped out, finally, on racial injustice. Here are their stories, and ours.
Social service agencies struggle to adapt to the disconnected world of COVID
A (Socially Distant) Charlotte Guide to Christmas
Take in the holiday cheer, but don’t gather too near
DINNER AND A SHOW
MOA Korean BBQ & Bar serves an upscale grill-at-your-table experience
COMMUNITY DINNER RESERVATIONS
Jim Noble is one of this city’s most successful, innovative, and philanthropic restaurant owners—and a lot of people in ever-changing Charlotte won’t set foot in his eateries
7 THINGS TO DO AND SEE THIS MONTH
TEXAS AIN'T HOG HEAVEN ANYMORE!
Shoot-on-sight order as dangerous wild pig population explodes
A VIEW FROM ABOVE
Topping out the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge
Southern Rockers Reborn
WITH A NEWLY RELEASED ARCHIVAL CONCERT ALBUM, THE OUTLAWS RIDE AGAIN.
The Most American Religion
Perpetual outsiders, Mormons spent 200 years assimilating to a certain national ideal—only to find their country in an identity crisis. What will the third century of the faith look like?
Think Like a Dog, and “Shhh!”
Meemo’s Farm, a prime bird hunting destination in north-central Michigan, was the setting for dog trainer Ronnie Smith’s “Foundation Seminar,” a two-day introduction to the “Silent Command System” of dog training. Participants ranged in experience from those working with their first dogs to professional handlers/guides to veteran trainers with more than 40 years of experience.
Smith is ‘feeling more comfortable'
Starting quarterback Alex Smith when many second-guessed if the passer was even physically able to play over a younger quarterback that could be developed wasn’t a lucky guess by coach Ron Rivera.
It has been a magical ride
FROM WHERE I’M SITTING
Who Was Albert F. Mitchell?
When somebody hears the words “Sharps rifle,” the first things that probably come to mind are the great buffalo hunts, the “Wild and Wooly West” and tales of long-range shots, Indian attacks, and hunters freezing in blizzards.
OLD MEETS NEW
Brian Snitker expertly navigated the Braves to a third straight division title despite myriad pitching injuries
Memories of Gold Dollars for the Holidays