A brief history of the ghosts, both famous (Judy Garland!) and non, who reportedly hang out at this former vaudeville house
The sightings of spirits, ghosts, and ghouls are a common occurrence in New York City buildings, and one such haunted spot is Times Square’s Palace Theatre. It’s said to be home to a variety of ghosts—both friendly and frightening—many of whom once graced its legendary stage.
Located at Broadway at West 47th Street, the theater was built in 1913 by the Milwaukee-based architecture firm of Kirchoff & Rose. They were somewhat limited in their design potential, thanks to the fact that the theater was located within a ten-story office building and surrounded by existing buildings on each side. They designed a three-level auditorium with 16 parquet-style boxes arranged along the walls toward the stage, “under a graceful arch forming a stylized sunburst above them on either side.” Designed in the Neo-Classical style, the building featured “moldings of such as fruit festoons and bead-and-reel to outline the panels into which the walls and ceiling were divided.”
From 1913 through 1929, the Palace would become known as the world’s foremost vaudeville stage, hosting headliners like Ethel Barrymore (1913), Will Rogers (1916), Lillian Russell (1918), and the Marx Brothers (1920), along with performers like Sarah Bernhardt, Bob Hope, Mae West, Fred Astaire, and Bing Crosby. This lent credence to the famous adage of the time: “to play the Palace” signified that you officially made it in show business.
Alas, that didn’t last long: around the time of the Great Depression, the public became disinterested in vaudeville, seeking entertainment through the new mediums of radio and film. As a result, the theater converted into a cinema and was renamed the “RKO Palace” in 1932. The Palace would still stage sporadic revues over the next few decades, including a few last attempts to bring vaudeville back to the stage. It also attracted stars like Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, and Judy Garland, whose final New York performances happened at the theater in 1967.
Although it had disappeared from the Palace stage, a certain vaudeville “presence” was reportedly still felt in the decades to come. According to Playbill, more than one hundred ghosts are said to haunt the Palace:
“including a white-gowned cellist who plays in the pit (and who last appeared to Andrea McArdle when she was doing Beauty and the Beast there), a sad little girl who looks down from the balcony, a man in a brown suit who walks quickly past open office doors light at night, a boy who rolls toy trucks on the landing behind the mezzanine.”
It is also said that Judy Garland herself haunts the theater, and her “presence is felt near a door that was built especially for her at the rear of the orchestra.”
However, not all ghosts are as seemingly benign. According to various sources, the ghost of acrobat and tight-rope walker Louis Borsalino is said to haunt the Palace. Different versions of the story suggest that he fell to his death during a performance. Stagehands have claimed that “when the theater is empty, his ghost can be seen swinging from the rafters” and “he lets out a blood-curdling scream, then re-enact his nose dive.” Other sources have seen him walking a tight-rope from the house-left box up to the mezzanine. (A New York Times article from 1935 seems to dispute this fact, reporting that there was an accident involving Mr. Louis Borsalino at the Palace—however, he was listed as only “badly hurt” and did not succumb to a fatal injury.)
In 1965, the Nederlander Organization purchased the Palace from RKO Theatres and reopened as a playhouse, where shows like La Cage aux Folles and Sweet Charity premiered. During the 1980s, a towering hotel was built atop the theater (now the DoubleTree Suites). Currently, the theater’s facade is almost entirely covered by billboards, with only the marquee visible.
In 2015, the Nederlander Organization, partnering with Maefield Development, announced plans to renovate the theater to the tune of $2 billion. This renovation will include a new facade, lobby, and marquee along West 47th Street as well as dressing rooms and other amenities for patrons. The project, which is expected to take at least 30 months, will not commence until the show currently running at the Palace, An American in Paris, closes its doors.
Despite all of the outward changes that the theater has endured (and will continue to endure in the face of the new renovation plans), the interior has remained unchanged, thanks to the fact that it’s an NYC interior landmark. Perhaps this explains why its vaudeville ghosts have remained; it’s easy to still feel a connection to a place that still exists as you remembered it.
Although the ghosts of the Palace Theatre are well documented, they are not the only ghosts inhabiting the historic theaters of Times Square; there have been sightings at the Belasco Theatre, the New Victory Theater and the New Amsterdam Theatre. So if you want to get into the Halloween spirit and search for the frightening and the fantastic, wander through the theater district—if you dare.…