Rollins

The Haunting of Annie Russell

September 01, 2011

By Mary Seymour

If you’re looking for campus ghosts, head straight to the Annie Russell Theatre (https://www.rollins.edu/annierussell/index.html), 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?

Rice Versus Rollins

In 1930, Rollins President Hamilton Holt hired John Rice, a brilliant scholar and maverick teacher, as professor of classics—a decision Holt would come to regret.

Rice was one of several progressive educators Holt hired in his push to put Rollins on the cutting edge of innovative education. Other “golden personalities” (as Holt called his hand-picked stars) included professors Frederick Georgia, Ralph Lounsbury, and Theodore Drier.

In short order, Rice became a major campus figure. He served on several key committees and was a catalyst for academic reform. His classroom style was iconoclastic: rather than teach Greek or Latin, per his contract, he riffed on Greek art, literature, and philosophy. Students typically exited his classes as ignorant of classical languages as when they entered. They did, however, get a unique Socratic-style education. For example, one day Rice put a calendar pinup of two nearly naked women on the classroom wall. When a student asked what his purpose was, Rice replied, “Why, don’t you like them?” The student’s negative reply engendered a two-day discussion of the meaning of art.

Rice attracted a small, devoted group of followers, but many students loathed and feared him. If he deemed someone slow-witted or contrary, he was openly disparaging. Rice was, at least, egalitarian in his approach: he was equally cutting to faculty and students alike. His personal habits didn’t help—he dressed carelessly, with a tramp-like presentation. Rice’s habit of wearing brief swim trunks led to the charge that he paraded around in nothing but a jockstrap. Rumors flew that he was having affairs with students.

Given his penchant for going against the grain, Rice rapidly lost credit with the administration. He and fellow faculty reformists declared that Rollins’ fraternity system should be abolished because it deterred individual development. He also advocated scrapping the College’s two-hour classes and eight-hours-a-day schedule (known as the “conference plan”), which was Holt’s proud creation and trademark. Rather impoliticly, Rice and his fellow golden personalities recommended a more elastic plan.

President Holt was shocked at his protégé’s mean-spiritedness and insurrection. He met with Rice in February 1933, suggesting that he undertake “an old-fashioned religious conversion; that is, get love in your heart and banish hate.”

Rice, a firm atheist who called the first Christmas service at Knowles Chapel “obscene,” had no interest in conversion or compassion. Since Rice would not yield, Holt sent him a formal letter of non-reappointment March 21.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) caught wind of the matter and began investigating whether the firing was legal. In the AAUP’s eyes, Rice hadn’t received an impartial hearing—rather, he was the victim of Holt’s lordly dismissal. After its investigation, the AAUP issued a report criticizing the College’s “ill-defined” tenure policy and Holt’s autocratic methods.

Holt had no interest in kowtowing to the AAUP. Instead he called Rice’s supporters into his office one by one and asked them to make a loyalty pledge. Those who agreed kept their jobs. Those who resisted did not. All in all, eight faculty members resigned or were dismissed.

There was one positive outcome from the Aeschylean drama. Former Rollins professors Drier, Georgia, Lounsbury, and Rice—all casualties of the loyalty pledge—gathered during the summer of 1933 and decided to found their own college. In an astonishingly short time, they pulled off their vision by creating Black Mountain College.

The college opened that fall on the campus of the former Baptist Summer Retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with 21 students—including several from Rollins. In the next decade, the college garnered national attention for its experimental approach, which included democratic self-rule, extensive work in the creative arts, and interdisciplinary study.

Although John Rice was the founder of Black Mountain College, his tenure ended in 1940, at the faculty’s request. His plainspoken, polarizing personality was once again the culprit—apparently “an old-fashioned religious conversion” continued to elude him.

Black Mountain College folded in 1956, a noble experiment whose influence is still felt in colleges such as Goddard, Hampshire, and Antioch. As for Rice, he forged a second career as a writer. He penned a memoir, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, and wrote short stories for magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper’s until his death in 1968.

The Football Game That Wasn’t

Here’s a trivia challenge: What was the final score of the Ohio Wesleyan-Rollins football game in November 1947?

If you guessed two numbers, you were wrong. In fact, there was no score because there was no game.

In fall 1947, Rollins’ football schedule included a November 28 homecoming game with Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU). Homecoming was the social event of the season, and the Rollins-Ohio Wesleyan game was to be the pinnacle.

Several weeks before the game, it became known that OWU’s football team included an African-American player named Kenneth Woodward. Rollins President Hamilton Holt, a progressive who advocated diversity and acceptance, regretfully acknowledged that a black player on the field would create a firestorm in the Deep South—especially since the game was to be played in Orlando Stadium, managed by the staunchly conservative American Legion. Furthermore, Holt and other Rollins administrators were told in no uncertain terms that if an African-American player placed even one cleated foot in Orlando Stadium, trouble would ensue.

Arthur Enyart, who served as Dean of Men at Rollins, happened to be an OWU graduate. At Holt’s behest, he wrote a letter to authorities at his alma mater, explaining Rollins administrators’ fear that a racial crisis might ensue if Woodward played in Orlando Stadium. The president of Ohio Wesleyan’s student body presented Enyart’s arguments to the student council, which voted 1,500-20 to leave Woodward out of the November 28 game.

Problem solved, it seemed. Except Ohio Wesleyan’s trustees caught wind of the kerfuffle and were understandably indignant that Woodward was being benched because of his skin color. The OWU trustee who blew the whistle was Branch Rickey, the Dodgers manager who had put Jackie Robinson on the field in the summer of 1947, making him the first African-American major league baseball player. After taking all sorts of abuse for that move, Rickey wasn’t going to stand by while Rollins excluded an African-American OWU student from the game. The Ohio Wesleyan trustees voted to allow Woodward to go to Florida and play against Rollins. The hard-working Dean Enyart flew up to Ohio to try to negotiate a mutually agreeable outcome, but his efforts failed.

The matter had become its own kind of football match, with trustees of both institutions passing the ball and executing offensive maneuvers. The Rollins board of trustees relentlessly pressured President Holt to ditch the homecoming game. On November 24, the Rollins student council voted unanimously to cancel the Ohio Wesleyan game.

Four days later, President Holt gathered Rollins students and faculty in the Annie Russell Theatre and spoke at length of the nearly impossible decisions leading up to the game’s cancellation. His liberal heart was clearly in tatters.

May I say this to you students; you will probably have critical decisions like this to make as you go through life—decisions that whatever you do, you will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, and reviled….It seemed to all of us that our loyalties to Rollins and its ideals were not to precipitate a crisis that might and probably would promote bad race relations, but to work quietly for better race relations, hoping and believing that time would be on our side.

And so Orlando Stadium stayed empty November 28, free of possible turmoil as well as the opportunity to advance civil rights for African-Americans. As for Kenneth Woodward, he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan (later serving as a trustee), went to medical school, and led a distinguished career as a doctor, administrator, and teacher until his death in 1996.

A Platform of Equal Rights

President Hamilton Holt, a committed champion of equal rights, was deeply disturbed by the Rollins board of trustees’ decision to cancel the 1947 Rollins-Ohio Wesleyan football game rather than allow an African-American player on the field. Not one to roll over when it came to fair principles, Holt immediately turned around and offered educator and civil-rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune an honorary degree.

When the trustees caught wind of his plan to put an African-American on the commencement platform—something no private college in Florida had ever done—they put their collective feet down.

Holt had to inform Bethune that the board refused to recognize her. “I’m going to give you the degree anyway,” Holt tearfully told her.

She looked at him with the wisdom of hard experience. “Dr. Holt, what you stand for and what you do is so important, I’m not going to let you risk your leadership at Rollins. I decline the degree.”

Holt found his own way to stick to his principles. At commencement June 2, 1948, he conferred the Decoration of Honor on Susan Wesley, an African-American housemaid who had worked at Cloverleaf Cottage since 1924, helping nearly 1,500 freshman girls through the ups and downs of college life. With all eyes on her—including the trustees’—she proudly stood on the commencement platform to receive the honor.

The following year, Holt presided over his last convocation before retiring from Rollins. He may have lost some battles with the trustees, but that day he won the war: Holt awarded Mary McLeod Bethune an honorary doctorate for her groundbreaking work on behalf of integration and civil rights, making Rollins the first institution of higher learning in the South to award an honorary degree to an African-American.

Prime Beach Property

If you poke around the flowerbeds next to the Beal-Maltbie Building, you’ll come across the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Rex Beach. A marble slab obscured by bushes marks the place where the Beaches’ ashes lie.

Though his reputation is equally obscure today, Beach was once the literary sensation of America. A member of Rollins’ Class of 1897, he prospected for gold in the Klondike and discovered a far greater fortune in the written word. He penned a novel, The Spoilers, drawing on his experiences in Alaska; it became one of the best-selling novels of 1906 and was made into a movie five times, with one version starring John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. He went on to write 33 novels, hundreds of articles, and two plays. In 1907 he married Greta Edith Crater, future sister-in-law of the actor Fred Stone, for whom the Rollins black box theater is named.

Although Beach never graduated from Rollins—he left in 1896 after two years to enter law school—the College awarded him two honorary degrees. He served as president of the Rollins Alumni Association from 1927 to 1940.

In middle age, Beach bought 7,000 acres of wilderness near Sebring, Florida, where he launched a successful farming business and made a second fortune raising gladiolus bulbs. His eyesight faded in his later years, and he developed throat cancer. When his wife died in 1947, Beach became profoundly depressed: he shot himself two years later at his home in Sebring. His ashes were combined with his wife’s and buried near the Beal-Maltbie Building, where flowers shelter their quiet, semi-hidden plot.

If you poke around the flowerbeds next to the Beal-Maltbie Building, you’ll come across the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Rex Beach. A marble slab obscured by bushes marks the place where the Beaches’ ashes lie.

Though his reputation is equally obscure today, Beach was once the literary sensation of America. A member of Rollins’ Class of 1897, he prospected for gold in the Klondike and discovered a far greater fortune in the written word. He penned a novel, The Spoilers, drawing on his experiences in Alaska; it became one of the best-selling novels of 1906 and was made into a movie five times, with one version starring John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. He went on to write 33 novels, hundreds of articles, and two plays. In 1907 he married Greta Edith Crater, future sister-in-law of the actor Fred Stone, for whom the Rollins black box theater is named.

Although Beach never graduated from Rollins—he left in 1896 after two years to enter law school—the College awarded him two honorary degrees. He served as president of the Rollins Alumni Association from 1927 to 1940.

In middle age, Beach bought 7,000 acres of wilderness near Sebring, Florida, where he launched a successful farming business and made a second fortune raising gladiolus bulbs. His eyesight faded in his later years, and he developed throat cancer. When his wife died in 1947, Beach became profoundly depressed: he shot himself two years later at his home in Sebring. His ashes were combined with his wife’s and buried near the Beal-Maltbie Building, where flowers shelter their quiet, semi-hidden plot.

Wagnerian Opera

When Hamilton Holt retired as president of Rollins in 1949, he left giant shoes to fill. An innovator and visionary thinker, he’d positioned the College as a progressive institution on a par with Antioch and Sarah Lawrence. Rollins wanted a successor who would bring to its future what Holt had brought in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Enter Paul Wagner, a 33-year-old wunderkind who specialized in using audiovisuals as a teaching aid. He created the Navy’s first audiovisual lab during World War II, then became PR director at Bell & Howell. Despite his work in the military and corporate worlds, education remained his true passion.

According to College Historian Jack Lane’s centennial history of Rollins, Wagner flew to Florida as soon as he learned about the search for a new president. He breezed into Holt’s office unannounced while the president was interviewing a prospective candidate. Holt grudgingly interviewed Wagner later that day, expecting to dislike this brash, young go-getter. One hour later, Holt was sold on the idea of Wagner as the ninth president of Rollins. Wagner equally enchanted faculty, students, and trustees during a series of interviews; on May 31, 1949, the board of trustees unanimously elected Wagner president of Rollins. His new job made him the nation’s youngest college president and occasioned articles in Newsweek and Collier’s, the latter of which deemed him “Education’s New Boy Wonder.” With his good looks and megawatt smile, he resembled a movie star more than an academic.

More than 50 college presidents attended Wagner’s inauguration at Rollins, and he sailed through his first months with flying colors. There were, however, a couple of early clouds on the horizon: he announced that the football program would be scrapped due to its $50,000 annual deficit. He also locked horns with Arthur Enyart, the College’s Dean of Men since 1911. When the old dean resigned, his many friends—including influential alumni—took an anti-Wagner stance.

Wagner created a new administrative team and debuted a style that relied less on faculty governance and more on executive say-so. He discovered that the College was listing under the weight of perennial deficits from the Holt era, with two added pressures: rampant post-war inflation and a decrease in enrollment caused by the Korean War draft.

Wagner commissioned a study that predicted financial disaster for Rollins unless expenditures were drastically reduced. Specifically, 15 to 20 faculty members had to be dismissed. The board of trustees agreed to this scenario, but when the ax began to fall, the academic community went into shock. The day of the dismissals—March 8, 1951—became known as “Black Thursday.”

Students and faculty were equally upset, both at the cuts and the seemingly undemocratic way they were conducted. Throughout March and April, Wagner and his staff plus the executive committee of the board of trustees squared off against faculty, students, the majority of trustees, and alumni. A storm of angry, accusatory meetings ensued, with both sides hardening their positions. Meanwhile, the national wire services picked up the story, which ran in the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, Time, and Life.

Wagner stuck to the presidency even as his authority began to crumble. On May 10, a majority of students walked out of classes and refused to come back until he resigned. On May 13 the board of trustees formally dismissed him as president and announced the appointment of Rollins art professor Hugh McKean as acting president. Wagner and his wife departed campus under police escort; the next day, when acting President McKean called an all-college meeting, the students lifted him on their shoulders and walked with him through campus shouting cheers of victory.

Wagner filed a $500,000 suit against the 11 trustees who had voted for his dismissal; in 1953, both sides agreed to a $50,000 out-of-court settlement. Wagner went on to become vice president of New York PR firm Hill & Knowlton, where he was occasionally called on to work with fired college presidents. Wagner and his second wife, Jeanette, live in New York City; they visited Rollins in the 1990s. This time there was no Sturm und Drang, just a peaceful campus populated by students and faculty who didn’t know or recognize the ninth president of Rollins, returning after 40 years and a lot of water under the bridge.

The Case of the Missing Cat

The fox statue that marks Fox Day once had a feline companion, now missing for than six decades. The cat statue’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Former Florida senator Murray Sams gave the statues to Rollins in 1934. They formerly graced his New Smyrna Beach home and were reportedly created in France in the late 1800s. The fox, which originally had a book resting on his leg, was said to represent the Catholic clergy, while the cat symbolized the populace bowing in submission to the fox.

The statues were installed as permanent fixtures on the walkway to Recreation Hall. President Hamilton Holt, who loved nothing more than creating a good campus tradition, started the “Cat Society” for female students and the “Fox Society” for young men. The societies had limited membership and an initiation ceremony that included the following incantation:

Preserve in us, Oh Magnum Vulpes,
The craftiness and cleverness,
And keep us forever sleek and soft,
Oh Felis Domestica.

Only official members of the Cat and Fox Societies were allowed to touch the statues. When Dean of Men Arthur Enyart was seen touching the fox one day, retribution was swift: society members tossed him into Lake Virginia.

The statues’ visibility and significance inspired numerous kidnapping schemes. After the fox went missing in 1948, President Holt received a letter informing him that a person or persons unknown had buried it by the tennis courts. The tip was accurate; a worker dug up the fox and re-cemented it to its pedestal.

As for the cat, tragedy struck in 1949, when some non-worshipper of Felis Domestica smashed the statue into pieces and disposed of the evidence. No one knows where its remains lie, though rumor has it they are at the bottom of Lake Virginia just south of the Rollins swimming pool.


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