Stage FRIGHT
Charlotte Magazine|October 2020
Carolina Theatre is headed for a reopening. Will Fred the Ghost join the curtain call?
ANDY SMITH

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.

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