We are going to discuss two famous haunted theatres in Tulsa, Oklahoma this week. Our first stop is the Tulsa Little Theatre. Thanks to three forward-thinking women, Tulsa Little Theatre was born. It had a modest start. Their first theatre was nothing more than a circus tent. But the theatre troupe had a “the show must go on” attitude and didn’t let this deter them. They not only used circus tents, but they performed in movie theaters, and even the American Legion, before they got their permanent structure. They would hold their workshops in the storage room of Palace Clotheir, which would become the Ritz Theatre. Their theatre group had amassed 300 members by 1925, and they had started to perform regularly at Alhambre Theatre. Despite the Depression, the theatre troupe continued to perform and their official building was built in 1932. Tulsa Little Theatre soon became the first community theatre to produce the shows All My Sons and Our Town.
The theatre has set quietly on Delaware Street amongst gingerbread-type homes, that are historic themselves, for 88 years. But in those 88 years, the theatre has seen its fair share of tragedies, both real and theatrical.
During the ‘40s the foyer and backstage areas underwent a renovation. Unfortunately, those renovations would be destroyed in a devastating fire that broke out after their third performance of The Women in 1965. It destroyed props, costumes, and clothing. Then, the very next year, the theatre saw yet another fire during their performance of South Pacific. The fire destroyed most of the upstairs, but the theatre stood strong. The stage and seating area is located underground in what would have been the basement, but because of the fires, the construction of the actual stage was never finished and it remains underground today.
Around 1989, the theatre troupe had outgrown their building and moved to the Performance Art Center of Tulsa where it is still the resident company. The old theatre building set empty for two years.
After the fires took place, several things have called the Tulsa Little Theatre home. It has been a Karmic church, Avondale Studies, and the Delaware Playhouse. These various companies brought in many different visitors and owners. There are some of those past owners who have left a lasting impression on the theatre and can still be felt today. There are plenty of people who have visited or performed at the theatre who will tell you that Tulsa Little Theatre is indeed haunted. Lights turn off and on, perfectly working equipment malfunctions, and faint voices or images can be seen. Tulsa Little Theatre may be a landmark, but it is much more than meets the eye.
By 2004, the theatre had fallen into disrepair. That’s when Bryce and Sunshine Hill bought the property and started some big renovations that took about 14 months to finish. The place was a mess inside and out. It had most likely been a makeshift home for people. During this restoration, they took great care to maintain the historical ambiance, but they also added a few new features to the theatre. Besides being a theatre, it is also the home to the law office of Bryce Hills.
One of the ghosts is of a little girl named Sarah. According to stories, Sarah was performing a recital and became upset and ran outside. As she tried to cross the street, she got hit by a car. Unfortunately, her injuries proved fatal. A previous owner said that neighbors would knock on the door and tell him that his daughter was playing in the street, but the man was single and did not have a child. People who pass by the theatre have said that they can hear a little girl singing and talking outside around the doors.
George, the former director of the Tulsa Little Theatre, is another ghost that roams the halls of the building. During a performance, he died suddenly of a heart attack. While alive, George was labeled a prankster, and many people have witnessed him still playing pranks even in the afterlife. One woman, who worked at the theatre as an actress, said that one time she was going to the prop closet to retrieve a prop and she found it completely empty. When she went to file a report about the missing props, she ended up finding all of the props placed all over the theatre in inconspicuous places. Sometime, the night before, when the theatre was closed, somebody had taken the time to move all of the props around. Many people believe that George was the culprit.
A common occurrence at the theatre is the appearance of a strange ball of light bobbing around the curtains of the old stage. People performing have stated that they have seen something standing behind them before simply vanishing.
There have been other occurrences at the theatre, including files being misplaced, equipment messing up, lights being turned on and off, and loud footsteps that sent three men running out the door. The sandbags they use to control the curtains have been seen swaying back and forth for no reason, and some have even fallen to the floor, narrowly missing people. Idle chatter and voices have been noted in the backstage area, and cameras have caught apparitions on film. Children, who tend to be more susceptible to the supernatural, have said that they have seen other children there who weren’t actually physically there. Others have noticed the silhouette of George sitting in what used to be his seat.
The Little Theatre is a one of a kind theatre and still proves to be popular. Let’s move a little deeper into Tulsa to visit our next theatre.
The next haunted theatre in Tulsa is the Brady Theatre. Also known as the “Old Lady on Brady” was once found on the corner of Brady and Main Streets in the downtown district of Tulsa. It was built in 1914. The theatre is a symbol of the cities vitality, energy, and problems. The atmosphere and acoustics of the theatre makes it a great venue for performances. The citizens of Tulsa, in the early 1900s, were proud of the fact that their city had become the oil capital and they wanted an entertainment venue to match their success.
Thus, the Brady Theatre was born. The five-story brick building could hold a whopping 3500 people and was one of the largest theatres west of the Mississippi. Today, the theatre still holds onto its charm of the past and the pictures on its walls share images of entertainers who once graced its stage.
The 1866 Native American Treaty paved the way for railroads to cross over their territory. By the 1880s a railroad crossed the Arkansas River, traveling northeast. Just a little more than a square mile of downtown Tulsa was paved in bricks that ran parallel to the tracks. Like nearly all Southern towns at the time, they had a white and black community. The tracks divided these communities. The theatre had been built just northeast of the white part of town. As the area grew into a city in the 1900s, 12% of their population were African Americans. When Oklahoma created their state constitution, they included Jim Crow laws. Nearly half of Tulsa’s African American population lived in the Greenwood district, and the other half lived with their white employers. Racial tensions commonly ran high.
Veterans returned from war and received less respect in Greenwood than they had in France. Black workers were also a part of the International Workers of the World, which was an organization that promoted communist equality. Their local lodge was constructed at the corner of Brady and Boulder Street, across from the theatre. In 1918, Tulsa police entered the lodge and arrested eight men for loitering, even though they were members and were simply playing cards. One of the men was white, he was fined and let go. The other seven were held over for trail. Later that night, those men were lynched.
The African American community was allowed to go to shows at the theatre, but they had to enter through the “blacks only” entrances on the west and east sides. They also had special facilities inside of the theatre and had to sit in a “blacks only” section in the balcony closest to the entrance. Ironically, those were some of the best seats in the theatre. The performers in the shows who were black were forced to use the smallest dressing rooms.
William Jennings Bryan was supposed to speak during the first week of June 1921. His event was canceled because some of the worst race riots in history had ripped through Tulsa. The theatre had a very important role in these riots.
There are two legends about the theatre at this time, and it all depends on what person you ask as to which one they believe actually happened. One legend says that a group of deputized white men went to Greenwood to gather a bunch of the black men from the community to take them back to the theatre where they would be protected. The other legend says that those men did gather up people, but instead of protecting them, they tortured them in the theatre. Photographs support the latter as you can see countless number of victims being corralled into the theatre at gunpoint. Dr. Jackson was killed on the way to the theatre, and another man was murdered just outside.
Several hundred men were forced into the theatre and the doors were locked. What actually happened inside the building that night remains a mystery. Legend has it that some 300 unaccounted for people were tossed into a coal-burning furnace while others were buried inside of the walls and floors of the basement. Late June 1, 1921, the people in the theatre were moved to what is known now as the fairgrounds and Old McNulty Park. The Red Cross came in and nursed the injured back to health, some staying up to a week. Almost all of Greenwood was burned to the ground during these riots. The theatre didn’t get harmed because it was owned by a white man. Public lynching’s took place. Men were also burned alive, hanged, beaten, and mauled.
As the Greenwood community worked to rebuild their homes, the white community tried to sweep what had happened under the rug. The theatre was back in business by late June. It is no secret that the Brady Theatre has witnessed a lot of horrific events. Its walls hold onto the secrets of the chaos that has surrounded Tulsa, and the spirits present in the theatre are a testimony of the horror that the building has witnessed.
The Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was one of the famous men that graced the Brady’s stage. He performed there October 17, 1920. Since he came from Italy, he had never seen an oil well before, so, he asked some of the men to take him to one. Tate Brady, and some of the other men, took Enrico to a nearby city to show him how the oil wells were created. On their return trip, all three of the cars they had taken broke down. This forced Enrico to have to walk all the way back to the theatre on a particularly cold and rainy day. It is believed that the show was sold out that night and it was one of Caruso’s best performances. Caruso, once he returned home, died shortly after. There were some that said he was already sick with pleurisy. But others say that the walk in the rain led to his death. It is believed that Enrico haunts the Brady Theatre because he blamed them for his death.
There are a lot of legends about the Brady Theatre. There is one story that says a stage manager hung himself in the rafters and haunts the theatre. Supposedly, his name was written up in the rafters only after he died, much to the surprise of the owners. It is said that the stage manager wrote his own name in the rafters after he died so that he could reach immortality and acknowledgment. There are some who say they see a distraught apparition walking the catwalk and believe that it is the stage manager. Cleaning crews have also heard slamming doors in the restroom while they are cleaning. Loud and faint noises alike permeate the building.
The theatre remained a prominent building and a prime venue up until the ‘70s when it was closed after the Convention Center opened. Up to this point, the theatre was known as the Convention Hall. Peter Mayo bought the building in 1974 and renamed it the Brady Theatre. Mayo made a lot of changes to the theatre, including getting rid of the segregated bathrooms because, and I quote, “They were creepy.” He also closed the segregated entrances and added a concession stand in the front lobby. This new front lobby has been the home of some creepy occurrences. The doors to the popcorn machines have been seen coming open, glasses clang together, and items end up falling off of the shelves for no apparent reason. The theatre experienced another name change in 2019 to the Tulsa Theatre due to Tate Brady’s connection with the KKK.
Are the victims of the riots the one’s still haunting the theatre? Is the basement actually a makeshift grave for the victims who never got to leave? Are the bricks that have been discolored evidence of the truth surrounding the building, or has time simply eaten away at the bricks, discoloring them? Is the shadowy figure that is seen in the theatre that of the distraught stage manager, or is it Caruso letting his presence be known? Nobody knows for sure, but the Brady theatre certainly has many stories to tell to anybody who is willing to listen.
To learn more, make sure you tune into the podcast this week where you can hear mine and mom’s thoughts one these two historic and haunted theatres.