Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Palace Theater Ghost

Palace Theater - 1920's from Wikipedia

H&H felt a bit artsy today, and where better to scratch that itch than at the Great White Way?

We pointed the jalopy towards Manhattan and the Palace Theater. It can be found in the heart of Broadway, between 46th & 47th Streets, near Times Square, at 1564 Broadway.

The structure is kinda blah now, dwarfed by the Marriott Marquis hotel built in the 1980s on one side and a commercial building on the other. Indeed, the theater is practically invisible behind a tidal wave of huge billboards, tucked under the skyscrapers surrounding it, and only its marquee is easily visible from the street. But it is magnificent inside, fully restored to its 1913 classical splendor, and can handle 1,784 patrons.

The Palace opened on March 24, 1913, as a vaudeville showcase. It was built by promoter Mark Beck, who called the finished theater, "the Valhalla of vaudeville."

After a shaky start, the popularity of the theatre skyrocketed after Sarah Bernhard was booked to perform there, putting it on the show biz map. From 1915-1930, all the top stars, including Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Helen Keller, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Harry Houdini and Fanny Brice tread its boards, among many other top rank show-stoppers.

And not just the biggies showed up. Lesser acts from across the country shared the dream to "play the Palace" in Times Square. Jugglers, comedians, dancers of all stripes and even animal acts would do their thing on the sidewalk in front of the Palace, hoping to catch the eye of a promoter or booking agent.

Radio, movies, and the Great Depression took their toll on the genre, though. In 1931, despite high powered acts such as Kate Smith, Burns and Allen, Sophie Tucker and William Demarest, the theater owners saw the writing on the wall, and the Palace became a movie house.

In the 1950s, an attempt to revive live entertainment was made, and stars like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland were booked, but it wasn't enough to pay the bills. It looked like curtains for the old vaudeville house.

But in the 1960s the Palace Theater was renovated, and it reopened as a true theater in 1966, hosting musicals. The opener was "Sweet Charity," and it just recently finished a long run of the stage edition of "Legally Blonde." And that's cool, because the aura of the old acts still remain, and they again have an audience.

And we're not talking about septuagenarian hoofers on the oldies circuit - we're talking the 100 or so ghosts that are supposed to haunt the Palace Theater.

There are said to be a couple of spooks in the orchestra pit. One is a white-gowned cellist who still plucks her ghostly strings, and who was spotted, accorded to industry lore, by actress Andrea McArdle when she was performing "Beauty and the Beast" at the Palace in 1999.

Another phenomena from the band's seating area is the phantom pianist. The Steinway starts to play, while the keys can be seen dancing up and down. The only thing missing is someone on the bench!

The Palace is home to a pair of spectral kids who are still reliving their theater days. A sad-looking little girl who looks down from the balcony has been reported, along with a boy who rolls toy trucks on the landing behind the mezzanine.

Sightings have been claimed of a man in a brown suit who walks quickly past the office doors at night, no doubt a worried manager counting the house to this day. Who knows - maybe it's Mark Beck, keeping an eye on his house.

There's also the presence of George, a former manager that hung himself by the "fly door." It's reported that when you pass the spot where he ended it all, you can smell the burning cigarettes he used to chain smoke.

And, of course, we have one of the Theater's most famous spooks, Judy Garland herself. Apparently, she never made it over the rainbow.

Her eternal hang-out is near a door that was built especially for her at the rear of the orchestra, used for her private entrances and exits onstage. It's said that she can be seen peeking out the door before vanishing. She's still crowd-conscious after all these years.

One ghost you hope to never see is the spirit of a vaudeville acrobat who, according to Palace legend, fell and broke his neck. He's Louis Borsalino, better known as the infamous "Palace Ghost."

The story is that in the 1950's, a well known high wire act of the era, "The Four Casting Pearls," had a gig at the Palace . But tragedy struck when tight rope walker Louis Borsalino, who was performing without a net, fell to his death to the floor below.

Stagehands say that when the theater is empty, Borsalino's apparition can be seen swinging from the rafters. He lets out a blood-curdling scream, then re-enacts his nose dive. With any luck, you don't catch a glimpse of his ghost; those who do are rumored to die shortly thereafter.

But did he really meet his Maker at the Palace?

The real story, as written in the New York Times, reported that Borsalino was only injured when he fell 18 feet during his performance on August 28, 1935, before a crowd of 800. But hey, though the story of his death is a little more dramatic, the Times article doesn't rule him out of haunting the site of his greatest professional flop.

Some believe that the restless spirit of Louis Borsalino is still embarrassed because he fell in such a famous venue, and will keep on trying to wow the crowd and finish the act to restore his rep, even in death. No luck yet, but we hope he'll keep on plugging away until he reaches the other side.

The show must go on at the Palace.

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