Spirits in the Hall
A close encounter of the spine-tingling kind at historic Thalian Hall
By Chris E. Fonvielle Jr.
I believe in ghosts! I believe in ghosts as I encountered one.
There, I said it. Some of you may chuckle, scoff or say something like “pshaw,” but I am not kidding. I saw an apparition that can only be described as a ghost.
I grew up hearing my mother talk about the ghosts of Thalian Hall in historic downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. Jane M. Fonvielle was a talented stage actress who often performed in plays there, including Anastasia, Dial M for Murder and the Thalian Follies, in the 1950s and 1960s, and then helped lead the historic theater’s preservation movement in the 1970s.
My mother was not alone in experiencing supernatural occurrences at Thalian Hall. Many folks associated with the theater in those days — Ruth Caplan, Hester Donnelly, Claude Howell, Henry MacMillan, among others — experienced strange things and sightings that they could not explain. Whatever walked there, however, did not walk alone. People reported occasionally seeing the specters of two men and a woman in the gallery or near the back of the arena.
I often accompanied my mother to play rehearsals and performances at Thalian Hall. It is a magnificent theater designed by John Montague Trimball, a prominent New York architect, in the 19th century. Of all the opulent playhouses he built in New York, Cincinnati, Charleston, Richmond and other cities, only Thalian Hall remains open and in use.
Construction of the building, which still doubles as City Hall and performance hall, began in 1855. The theater opened to great fanfare with two plays, The Honey-Moon and The Loan of a Lover, on Oct. 12, 1858. It seated 1,000 people, one-tenth the population of Wilmington, the largest city and seaport in the state at the time. Over the past 161 years, Thalian Hall has hosted many renowned entertainers, including Maurice Barrymore, Buffalo Bill Cody, Edwin Forrest, Catarina Jarboro, Joseph Jefferson, Lillian Russell, Agnes Morehead, John Phillip Sousa and Tom Thumb.
Talk of Thalian Hall being haunted intrigued me. If spirits walked there, I wanted to see them. About two weeks shy of my 16th birthday in May 1969, I asked my mother to take me to see the ghosts, if they really existed. Access to the theater, she replied, could only be gained through Tatum Robertson, president of the Thalian Association.
When I phoned Tatie, she readily agreed to take me and four of my equally curious friends — Bill Cameron, Sam Eckhardt, Kent Raphael and Tom Saks — the following Sunday afternoon.
As we entered the building through the back stage door, “Tatie” cautioned us that the ghosts did not appear on demand and were more than likely not to be seen. Enough natural light filtered in through cracks and under doors of the old building that our eyes soon adjusted, enabling us to walk around without bumping into seats, stage props or each other.
Tatie gave my friends and me a brief history of the theater as we passed through the arena and the lobby, its walls lined with photographs of actors and actresses who had performed there. After making our way to the first gallery, she pointed out the area where the specter of the woman was usually seen. We then carefully ascended a narrow, darkened staircase leading to the top balcony, which had been off limits to theater-goers for years, as it was in a state of disrepair.
We eventually came back downstairs, disappointed that we had not encountered something supernatural. But standing in the foyer of the lobby looking toward the stage, our group suddenly sensed an eerie presence nearby. It took no distinct form, more of a glowing light, but it was definitely something we were aware of. Even so, it was too undefined to convince us that it was a ghost, and it slowly faded from view.
Our intrepid band of ghost hunters made its way back to the stage and prepared to leave the theater. Before our departure, Kent realized he had dropped his hat in the top balcony and, accompanied by Bill, went back up to see if he could find it. Sam, Tom, and I sat down on a sofa onstage to wait for them. Soon growing anxious about Kent and Bill, Tatie thought it best to check on them. She descended a small flight of steps at stage right, walked in front of the orchestra pit, and then turned up the arena’s center aisle that led to the lobby.
As she passed the second row of seats on the right-hand side, I saw a man stand up from the second seat, and step into the aisle. He quickly turned his back to us onstage as he followed Tatie so closely he could have touched her. I have no idea where he came from, but I discerned a tall, slender figure wearing a frock coat and knee-high boots in the Edwardian style. I watched in silence as Tatie and her ethereal escort walked to the lobby, where she turned left and he right and out of sight.
When the macabre experience ended within a matter of 15 seconds or so, I began laughing hysterically. So did Sam and Tom, both of whom described exactly what I had witnessed, whatever it was. We agreed that the encounter was more than a visual sighting, though. It was surreal, spine-tingling, indescribable. We called out to Tatie, who quickly returned to the stage with Kent and Bill in tow. When we told her what we had seen, she replied that she had never even sensed the specter’s presence. “The ghosts were friendly,” Tatie recalled before her passing in 1996. “They did things to help us in the theater, and sometimes they just wanted to watch.”
Exactly what I encountered at Thalian Hall all those years ago I do not know. A forlorn spirit from the dimension of life after death? The residue of energy from a past event activated by environmental conditions? Something that slipped through a vortex in a parallel universe?
I have attended many performances at, and led many of my UNC Wilmington classes on, tours of Thalian Hall since that fateful day in May 1969, but I never saw another ghost. Perhaps there is a rational explanation for my singular supernatural experience in the wonderful old theater, but nothing I have come up with in the past 50 years makes sense. I can only say with certainty that my senses encountered something strange that day I cannot explain.
I hope it stays that way.
Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. is professor emeritus in the Department of History at UNC Wilmington. A Civil War and Cape Fear historian and author, he is the recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine for distinguished service to the State of North Carolina.