Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Rooftop Ghost

I've just booked a ticket to New York City where I used to live. After so many years away, it will be interesting to visit my old haunts, one of which is said to be haunted. The New Amsterdam on West 42nd Street is the oldest surviving theater on Broadway and, according to Wikipedia, “the first concrete example of art nouveau in NYC”. The New Amsterdam was, for many years, the home of the Ziegfeld Follies. During the Depression it became a movie house, but by the late 70s it was derelict. It was only returned to its former glory in the 1990s when the Disney corporation spent a rumoured $34 million to restore it. It reopened in 1993 with The Lion King and is currently the Broadway home of Mary Poppins.

I went to the New Amsterdam’s old rooftop theater in the 80s to see a showcase evening of what was eventually to become the movie, Popeye, starring Robin Williams. On the way up to the miniature theatre where the naughtier version of the Ziegfeld Girls used to perform, the elevator operator told me an intriguing story. The place was haunted by a ghost called "Olive" who had been a famous Ziegfeld star. He said she had killed herself by overdosing on her two-timing husband’s pills.

During research for this blog, I read a Playbill article by Robert Viagas that said that not long after she committed suicide, stagehands at the Rooftop Theater started seeing Olive wearing her green beaded Follies’ dress, her beaded headpiece and sash. She was carrying a big blue bottle which had held the mercury bichloride pills her husband had used to treat his syphilis. During the Disney restoration, a security guard was patrolling the building and saw someone on stage in a Twenties’ dress. He yelled at her and was terrified to see Olive’s ghost vanish through a stage wall on the 41st Street side.

I didn't see Olive when I visited "the Roof", but the dilapidated theatre with its dusty seats and flaking gilt felt distinctly ghostly. The place was so atmospheric I decided to write a story with its setting there, something unusual for me, because I usually start with character. I don’t know where the narrator, Ruby McGuire, came from, but maybe Olive wanted someone’s story to be told, if not hers. “Roman Candles” which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was the result. Click here if you’d like to hear it. 

Stay tuned . . .

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