The Ghosts of Rollins (and Other Skeletons in the Closet)

By Mary Seymour ’80

The Haunting of Annie Russell

If you’re looking for campus ghosts, head straight to the Annie Russell Theatre, whose spectral history is legendary. The fact that theater folks, with their flair for drama and suspense, are keepers of the ghostly lore may have something to do with its longevity and profusion.

Every fall the Department of Theatre & Dance holds a “Getting to Know You” party to welcome new students; the festivities include handing down Annie Russell Theatre ghost tales. Rollins marketing communications coordinator and former theater major Olivia Horn ’02 heard these stories when she was a wide-eyed, first-year student and has had a strange experience or two of her own in the building. She offered the following stories as proof of the theater’s phantasmic past and present.

The Annie Russell Theatre was a gift of Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist in 1931 in honor of her close friend, internationally known actress Annie Russell. After retiring from her stage career, Russell taught at Rollins, acted in college stage productions, and served as director of the eponymous theater until her death in 1936.

Russell’s affection for the theater apparently transcended her earthly tenure. Her favorite theater seat (balcony, right side, third row down, second seat over) is said to fold down independently and stay in that position whenever her ghost particularly enjoys a production. Some have heard rocking sounds emanate from the seat, while others rehearsing alone at night have experienced a lone, invisible clapper. Former lighting designer and production manager Jim Fulton often brought his golden retriever to the theater; on several occasions, the extrasensory canine ran into the balcony, where he sat and stared at Russell’s former seat.

Russell had a private dressing room above the stage, reachable only by a staircase. At some point after her death, workers removed the staircase and turned the space into a locked electrical closet, reachable only by a portable ladder. According to lore, the door occasionally opens during theater productions—another sign that Russell approves of a show. When Horn worked on the crew of Enter Laughing as a first-year student, she was “hyperaware” of that door because of the stories she’d heard. One evening, as she helped prepare for the night’s show, she looked up at the door. Somehow, despite being bolted shut, it had crept open. Her reaction? “I got really freaked out,” Horn recalled.

Apparently Russell’s ghost is a good Samaritan as well as a theater critic. According to Horn, someone spray-painted an ominous message on the stage-right wall in 1962. Air conditioning ductwork obscures some of the words, but “electrocuted” and “broke his back” are still visible. They bear testament to the night two male students were working by themselves on a stage set. One of them climbed a ladder to hang lights while the other worked in another part of the building. Suddenly the young man on the ladder felt a tugging on his pants leg. He turned around, expecting to see his friend, but no one was there. As he reached for the next rung, he accidentally grabbed a live wire. The shock sent him reeling off the ladder. The other student heard the commotion, rushed out, and saw his friend lying unconscious on the floor. He called the nearest hospital and asked them to send an ambulance to the Annie Russell Theatre.

“An ambulance is already on the way,” the voice on the line replied.

“How is that possible?” the student asked.

“Why, an elderly lady called it in a few minutes ago.”

The student who fell off the ladder had a fractured spine but survived, thanks to the ambulance’s quick arrival. Who had tugged on his pants? Who called for help before the accident even happened? Many believe it was the ghost of Annie Russell.

Last summer the Annie Russell Theatre underwent extensive renovations, including removal of the old seating. To document the project, Horn set her digital camera on a ladder onstage and took a series of negative-exposure photos. When she uploaded them on her computer, she noticed an anomaly in one photograph: a ray of light that emanated from a seat and arced sharply toward the aisle. Horn showed it to the renovation crew, who were as baffled as she. Horn’s curiosity got the better of her: after workers removed all the seats, she poked around in the area where the light beam originated. What did she find? A rolled-up theater program dated Friday, November 13, 1981.

Several ghost-hunting investigators have spent time in the Annie Russell Theatre, looking for evidence of supernatural activities. In January 2005, White Light Investigations dispatched two teams equipped with flashlights, electromagnetic field detectors, cameras, and digital recorders. They noted and photographed multiple “orbs”—otherwise known as balls of light—and felt a steep temperature drop as they entered storerooms beneath the stage. The conclusion to their report stated:

There is obvious paranormal activity within the walls of the Annie Russell Theatre.

The air itself was thick with the evident, mingled characteristics of many deceased individuals whom in life loved the theatre, this one in particular. We believe Annie does yet live on here and if we were able to witness with the eye what our equipment can detect, I’m more than sure we would be able to see for ourselves the acting prowess which made Annie such a beloved star.

One year later, Peace River Ghost Tracker, a Florida paranormal investigation team, got in on the act. During their weekend exploration, investigators noticed Annie Russell’s seat folded down, then up, several times. The team also heard shuffling feet and saw what looked like mist passing in front of the camera. Alas, as the online report states, “Unfortunately we had a very long weekend doing two investigations and by accident the theater video/audio evidence was deleted.” The question remains: was it supernatural intervention?

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