It’s been a while since I posted, but with summer half over I thought a posting on a summer haunting would be fun. And what better haunted site than the Olney Theatre Center (OTC), which started as a summer stock company. Summer stock theaters, for those who don’t know, were theater companies that would stage productions in the summer months. Famous stars of stage, film, and television would work in the summer at these theaters when Broadway was dark and many production companies went on summer hiatus. Frequently these productions were an affordable way to bring quality theater to the masses. O TC, which started in the summer of 1938 was no exception. Theater goers were treated to memorable performances by such luminaries as Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Olivia de Havilland, Chris Sarandon, Carol Channing, Burl Ives, and John Slattery, just to name a few. Guests included Washington elite such as presidents and congressmen.
While Olney Theatre dates back to 1938, the property itself is much older. Knollton, the home base of OTC, was built in 1898 by Henry and Elizabeth Davis. As Quakers, the Davis’ believed in modest living. When Elizabeth died in 1925, she requested that there be no memorials ofany kinds written for her. It is easy to see that the lifestyles of the actors who moved into Knollton every summer would not have met her approval (in particular the rabble-rousing of Tallulah Bankhead might have been particularly distressing. Tallulah was so raucous she was asked to stay elsewhere by her fellow castmates.) Could Elizabeth be one of the apparitions seen by the managing director one night when he was stay in the house alone? He described the sight as a smoky white substance that seeped under the door only to materialize as faces that swirled around his head.
With so much history and people linked with the place, it stands to reason that OTC is no stranger to tragedy. One of the most heartbreaking involved Mary MacArthur, daughter of Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur. In the summer of 1948, Mary was at Olney preparing for her Broadway debut when she became unexpectedly ill. The infection moved rapidly and she died soon after, cause unknown although polio was suspected. If a person is dramatic in life, does their soul stay on, dramatic in death? Unfortunately, spirits rarely take the time to inform us of their living name, probably because they are too busy with their after-life activities.
I’m sure many of you readers will be attending one of OTC’s summer productions. When you do, I hope you keep in mind its long history and the spirits who have chosen to call it home.