The Ghosts of Le Petit Theatre

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The Ghosts of Le Petit Theatre - Photo

Why do so many theatres seem to be haunted? Must be that ghosts have a taste for the fine arts. Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans has enough spirits floating around to fill up the seats. The theatre staff say that at least 40 wandering souls reside in the building. Le Petit Theatre dates back to the early days of New Orleans, and the building is older than the city itself. Before becoming a theatre, the building was used for a variety of different purposes. It was the home of Louisiana’s last Spanish governor and was later used as barracks for Union soldiers during the Civil War. The theatre owes its existence to the Drawing Room Players, a local performing arts troupe. As their popularity was exploding in the 1920s and 30s, they needed a larger venue. They bought out the building that would soon be known as Le Petit Theatre. The Drawing Room Players began their renovations and incorporated a Spanish Colonial building on the corner of St. Peters and Chartres. Over the course of its hundred-year history, the Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré has entertained thousands and played countless shows. The building has also picked up a few ghosts along the way, many of which predate the theatre. The Union soldiers who once occupied the city haven’t left the building. Witnesses often see the ghosts of the soldiers wandering about in full uniform. At least two deaths have taken place in or near the theatre, one of which was a suicide, and their ghosts have been seen around the building. Tourists and staff have taken numerous photos inside the theatre and have captured strange phenomena like floating orbs and hazy apparitions. Many also report abnormally cold areas in the building, where the air becomes icy and frigid as if the air suddenly dropped to below freezing temperatures.

The Building on St. Peters and Chartres

The first building to be built where the theatre is today was built in 1789. Only 5 years later, the Great Fire of New Orleans severely damaged the structure. The building was rebuilt in 1797 for the last Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Don Manuel Mayoso de Lemas.

The Spanish later evacuated Louisiana after it again fell under French control. Then after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the building was rented and bought out by several different people. The building saw a variety of uses. When the Civil War broke out, the Union soldiers used the building as a barracks. Union General Benjamin Butler saw the building as a strategic location. His men had rooms with a clear view of Jackson Square while staying unseen. Jackson Square was a major military objective in the city.

After the war, the building became a cafe. The Cafe de Louisiane was a popular brunch spot in the city for a decade or two. After the cafe closed down, the building was abandoned and fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until 1922 when a ragtag performing arts collective bought the building and turned it into a thriving arts venue.

The Drawing Room Players and Le Petit Theatre

In 1916, a small theatre troupe organized itself in the New Orleans Chapter of the Drama League of America. They began by performing in the drawing room of one of their members, prompting them to name themselves the Drawing Room Players. Their performances began to reliably bring a good crowd, so they rented the 1st floor of the Pontalba Building on Decatur St, also known as the French Market Inn. As their popularity grew further, it was clear that they needed a theatre of their own. One that accommodated their increasingly large audience.

The Drawing Room Players bought out and remodeled the building on 616 St. Peter Street. They tore down some of the old structures and used them as foundations for the new building. Architect Richard Koch designed the new theatre in the Spanish Colonial style.

The original members of the Drawing Room Players were relatively well-respected people. They were artists, politicians, and other well-to-do members of society. Most of their audience was upper-class, although they claimed to be an all-inclusive group. In its early days, Le Petit Theatre wasn’t open to the public.

The theatre underwent financial difficulties in the 1940s, prompting then director Bernard Szold to quit. Charles Meredith took his place. Meredith made some sweeping changes to Le Petit Theatre, improving the quality of the building and its performers. He bolstered the ranks of its members to 3,000, increased the number of productions, and created a school for the theatre. In 1963, another stage was added, as well as more dressing rooms, offices, and space for wedding receptions which came in from the nearby St. Louis Cathedral.

Le Petit Theatre fell on hard times during the 2000s. The board of directors and staff were laid off in 2009. An attempt at a management deal with a large production company fell through, and the theatre canceled its 2011-2012 season. Le Petit was saved when it received a multi-million renovation in 2013, in exchange for a part of the theatre becoming a small restaurant, named Tableau.

The Ghosts at Le Petit Theatre

Staying true to the spirit of New Orleans, Le Petit Theatre is home to numerous ghosts and spirits. Though many haunted houses may only have a few ghosts within their walls, Le Petit Theatre has about 40 known spirits, and possibly many more. Witnesses say they often feel icy cold air in certain areas of the building. People who have taken photos in the theatre often capture strange optical phenomena, like floating orbs or strange ghostly silhouettes.

The most common ghosts are those of the Union soldiers. The soldiers are often seen marching around throughout the halls. Sometimes you only hear their boots as they march on by. Witnesses have said they’ve heard the soldiers discussing military strategies, but upon further investigation, couldn’t find the origin of the conversation. One particularly aloof soldier has been seen on multiple occasions standing in front of a wall, fixing his uniform as if he was looking at a mirror. Some say that a large mirror was once fixed onto the wall in that very spot.

Courtyard of Le Petit Theatre adorned with flowers against a red brick wall
Don’t let its beauty fool you, Le Petit Theatre is quite the spooky place.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia/David Ohmer

A few of the ghosts at the theatre are quite angry. The ghost of a nun has startled the cast quite a few times, especially when they were performing “Saturday Night Catechism”, which features a nun as the main character. She was often mistaken for the star of the show, but cast members were often startled when the nun mysteriously appeared behind them, only to give them a slap on the back before disappearing into thin air.

One of the more frightening ghosts is that of an ex-theatre manager who committed suicide. He shot himself while sitting in the office lounge. Employees who work late nights get the unnerving feeling of being watched by his angry spirit. They’ll get chills when in the office lounge, and might hear someone banging on the doors and drawers when the room is otherwise empty. He’s also been known to steal personal belongings. A man’s wallet went missing from his desk drawer overnight, only for it to reappear on the soundboard early next morning, although nobody had overnight access to the theatre.

The ghost of Caroline haunts Le Petit Theatre after her tragic death during the theatre’s early years. Caroline was an actress who was seeing one of the theatre’s maintenance men. One night, the two decided to get busy high up on the catwalk. One thing led to another, and Caroline somehow fell from the catwalk. Her neck broke upon impact, killing her instantly. She was found tangled in a mess of wiring, with the curtains covering her naked body. The maintenance man disappeared shortly afterward leading many to believe that the incident may have been a murder. The ghost of Caroline is often seen floating along the catwalk high above the stage. Her semi-transparent apparition has also been seen walking around backstage. Those who have seen her spirit say it’s accompanied by an icy cold breeze.

The spirit of a Black servant is commonly seen just outside of the theatre entrance. During the early days of the theatre, servants were forced to wait outside while their master enjoyed a show. This poor man in particular has been forced to wait outside even in the afterlife. Perhaps his master’s ghost is eternally stuck inside Le Petit Theatre.

Some theatre patrons may hear the gentle sounds of a piano echoing through the halls. Those who investigate the sound never seem to find its origin. Many have speculated that it’s the ghost of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who played music in the theatre when it was a dance hall in the 19th century.

Learn about the haunted history of New Orleans!

There’s no shortage of hauntings in the Big Easy. Spend a night on the 14th floor of the Hotel Monteleone for a real fright night. You should also swing by the Old Absinthe House to grab a drink with the ghost of Jean Lafitte. If you want to learn about Voodoo in New Orleans then read up on Marie Leveau, also known as the Voodoo Queen. You can also read about the top ten most haunted spots in New Orleans right here!

Main Image Source: Wikimedia/Infrogmation of New Orleans