Photos Cameron Flaisch
You feel a shiver down your spine, from a whisper you swear you heard. In the dimly lit backstage hallway, you catch an unmistakable glimpse of a shadowy figure in the corner of your eye, running past, but just barely out of sight.
For frequenters of the Historic Desoto Theatre in Rome, these experiences are anything but rare. In fact, actors and artists of the Rome Little Theatre – the DeSoto’s resident theatre group, describe a plethora of paranormal encounters which have happened over the course of decades in droves.
As one of the oldest buildings in the Historic Between the Rivers District, the DeSoto has had a nearly century of film and theatre enthusiasts pour in and out of its vast four walls.
And it seems some never quite left.
The Legend of Ruby
The most notorious phantom haunting the DeSoto Theatre is the ghost of a child named Ruby.
Through Ruby’s eyes, the DeSoto towered over other buildings on Broad Street, dazzling passersby with its glittering, art deco marquee. The theatre was constructed by H.C. Lam, who had purchased the run-down building in 1908 from the Freedman’s Bureau. Lam worked tirelessly, transforming the building until its completion in 1927. It was the pride of Rome, Ga., the first theatre in the Southeast designed for “talkies.”
During the 1930’s, Ruby rode the trolley down Broad Street to the DeSoto and would spend the day watching as many films as her heart desired. One day, Ruby dismounted the trolley and was hit by a car. “A crowd gathered around her and she was perfectly still, then suddenly, she sat up and the crowd applauded,” says RLT Office Manager Mary Ortwein, keeper of Ruby’s Legend. “Ruby quickly got her child’s token to come into the theatre.”
Sitting up in the balcony, Ruby watched film after film that day. At night, when patrons were heading toward the exits, Ruby didn’t stir. An usher discovered that during the course of the day, Ruby died in her seat.
“She died in a place that she loved, enjoying the magic of film,” says Ortwein. Childish Antics
After the DeSoto closed its doors to showing feature films in 1982, the Rome Little Theatre moved in to take the stage.
Throughout the years, numerous reports of childlike pranks pester both the backstage area and second story hall of the theatre, and RLT actors and volunteers point their fingers at Ruby, believing her ghost lingers at the DeSoto.
“She has locked me outside of the backstage door several times when I was the only person at the theatre,” chuckles Ortwein. “I blame Ruby for that.”
Perhaps it’s because she was a child at the time of her death, but numerous reports suggest Ruby is most active during RLT Jr. shows. Her tricks involve hiding and stealing costume pieces and props from RLT folks from right under their noses.
Mandy Maloney, who has acted, directed and served as a costumer for years, details several of these experiences. During the production of RLT Jr.’s The Little Mermaid in 2014, Maloney was in the upstairs dressing room backstage working on costumes.
“It was one of those days I’d been at the theatre all by myself, working away,” she says. “I laid some blue ribbon out on the couch, walked into the other room, went back and it was gone. I spent an hour looking everywhere. It was completely gone.”
Also in 2014, Maloney recalls when a child’s shoe went missing during RLT Jr.’s production of Beauty and the Beast.
“We looked everywhere for it backstage. Finally, the shoe was seen by someone so high up on top of an open door. It was balanced perfectly, right on top, in plain sight. No one in the cast could have reached it; no one could have put it there. That wasn’t normal.”
Back in the early 2000’s, Quentin Brown had a similar occurrence.
“Back then, the costumes were kept in the rooms upstairs behind the auditorium,” Brown explains.
“We were trying on costumes for a show, and when I had something that fit, I left all my street clothes crumpled up off to the side, and went down to the stage to get my costume approved.”
Brown says when he got back up to the costume shop, his t-shirt was missing. After looking everywhere in piles of clothes, he decided to call it quits.
“Before I left the hall, I looked around and said, ‘You know what? It’d be really nice if you gave me that shirt back.’”
However, at the end of the show’s run when the actors were putting their costumes back in the shop, Brown had an eerie surprise.
“I see my t-shirt I had worn sticking out from a pile of clothes that had been untouched, neatly folded up,” he says. “I just take it, look around and say ‘thank you’ and I take it back home with me.”
But Brown’s paranormal experiences peaked when he says he says he once saw Ruby with his own eyes.
“It was late and I was heading to the backstage exit door to close up, when, at the proscenium, I see a little girl in this dress and her face did not look real,” he says. “It looked almost doll-like. I saw it from the corner of my eye and all the blood runs out of my face. I turn to face this thing and the minute I do, I don’t see it anymore.”
Death records in Floyd County from 1930’s reveal only two children fitting Ruby’s description and both are cited to have died of natural causes.
Ruby Ricks, 14, died in 1934 of a ruptured appendix and Ruby McGinnis was 8 when she died of a stroke. Neither certificate specifies the deceased having been killed in an accident.
Could Ruby have been a nickname of the child who passed away in the DeSoto? Or could she simply be a theatrical legend?
Though Ruby is the most well-known ghost of the DeSoto, there seem to be more sinister presences moving through the rows of seats. Several people report having seen the shadow of H.C. Lam lurking in the projection room as well as paranormal activity happening near that general area.
Andi Rouse Beyer and her husband moved to Rome in 1986, where they rented office space upstairs in what would later become the costume shop.
“All kinds of weird stuff would happen all the time,” Beyer says. “Doors would be open one minute and closed the next.”
Beyer also says voices could be heard in the corner of the theatre to the left of the old projection booth, if you’re facing Broad Street.
“You’d hear whispering in the corner near where the projection room used to be,” she says. “There wouldn’t be anybody there but you could hear what sounded like people whispering.”
The whispering Beyer remembers possibly belongs to two resident ghosts. Affectionately nicknamed Statler and Waldorf after the ornery Muppet duo, Mark Van Leuven calls them the most reliable pair of DeSoto ghosts.
“If you sat in the seats at the theatre at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. as producers often do, and it’s dead quiet, you could absolutely hear not one, but two distinct voices up near the projection booth, down to the left a little bit,” Van Leuven says.
Occupying the balcony where seats T4 and T6 are currently today, Van Leuven says the voices were audible, but not discernible.
“It could audibly be perceived as distinct human-formed words, but not quite where you could figure out what they were saying,” Van Leuven says. “But they would talk back and forth, deliberating about the show or having a giggle or sometimes growling about something.”
“When you work on theatre productions, you have to go everywhere in the building,” says Van Leuven. “You’d go up on the catwalk to hang lights; you’d go into the basement to find old props. But the one place you didn’t want to go to by yourself was the old costume shop.”
The costume shop, he says, was jam-packed with fabrics, as dark as a crypt and absorbed every iota of sound. It was a sequence of three, claustrophobic equally-sized rooms, each with its own door.
“I was just trying to get stuff done one day and I went up there without thinking,” Van Leuven says.
“I was standing at the first door. Toward the far end of the shop, past that third door, a wedding dress was upright. It was just standing on its own.”
Van Leuven merely thought it was propped up on a wire mannequin of sorts and continued to rummage through costumes.
“I look up a few minutes later and it wasn’t there,” he says. “But I saw what looked like the tail end of it being swooped up toward the rafters.”
Whenever he’s had a paranormal experience at the DeSoto, Van Leuven says he wasn’t aiming to have one. He was preoccupied when those moments would strike.
“I wasn’t thinking ‘I’m ready to see a ghost.’ I was always busy, only thinking about what I had to do, and it would happen,” he says. “I’m a skeptical person; I’m not a harem scarem kind of guy.”
For Brown, it’s the same story. Never was he looking to have an encounter when he actually experienced one. He describes one instance where during the production of Camelot, he saw eerie orbs.
“We would see floating lights in the basement of the theatre,” Brown says. “There was no source for them, but they were distinctly there.”
Brown isn’t the only one to describe this phenomenon. In late December of 2015, Dalton Urda was at the theatre by himself, hanging and programming lights for a show, as he’d done dozens of times in the past.
“I went up above the stage on the catwalk to get down where the lights hang,” he says. “As I was walking, I noticed in the far left corner of the catwalk what looked like a flashlight hovering at about waist level.”
Urda says at first, he tried to ignore the colorless light, but it began moving closer toward him.
“I got hives up and down my back, a chill literally went up my spine, the hair on my arms stood up. I got out of there, and when I started to leave the catwalk, the light disappeared.”
Urda says he doesn’t consider himself a believer of other-worldly activities, but that instance haunts him.
“It was menacing; it chilled me to the bone. I got out of the catwalk and made a beeline to get out of there. I did not want to be in that space anymore.”
The Ghost Light Stays On
“Sometimes you get this feeling,” says Beyer. “The hair on your neck stands up and you’re just like…
I’m getting out of here. I’m done.”
But despite these haunting encounters, one thing is for certain: theatre lovers keep coming back to enjoy performances regardless of whomever else may be lurking just out of sight.
“I will always support Rome Little Theatre,” says Urda, adding, “but I’d definitely never bring a ouija board to the Historic DeSoto Theatre.”