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Hidden Nursery Haunts Downtown Theater

Employees at the National have heard about a chilling urban legend.

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It's one of the creepiest rooms in the city, hands down, yet relatively few people have seen it. Once you do, it's difficult to forget.

A formerly hidden nursery room upstairs at the National Theater, located next to the plush VIP bar, was rediscovered after a wall was knocked down during the building's restoration in the early 1990s.

Employees were shocked to find the nursery walls featured the faded, "Grimms' Fairy Tale"-style paintings of Victorian children, painted holding long ropes with child-like dolls, toys and animals hanging by their necks.

But it's even more spooky if you've heard the urban legend.

As visitors on WRIR-FM's music-history tour learn, attendees used to leave their children in the nursery room during the early heyday of the theater in the 1930s and '40s; back when Hollywood luminaries like Orson Welles and Eddie Cantor performed at the theater. The National's general manager, Clay Dabney, explains the unnerving legend that circulates today among employees.

"We heard the original owner was in love with the theater and spent a lot of time here. He was allegedly having an affair with a box office girl, " he explains. "Supposedly, his wife found out and hung herself in the musicians' closet in the basement. Our old sound guy said the painter of the nursery walls was a friend of the wife, so that's why she painted those creepy scenes."

Style Weekly couldn't confirm any of this information at press time. Employees at the Historic Richmond Foundation, which was heavily involved in the restoration efforts, had never heard of the story.

But a local historian says that it is possible the vengeful myth began due to a similar incident recounted in the book "Celebrate Richmond Theater," by Wayne Dementi, Elisabeth Dementi and Kathryn Fuller-Seeley. It mentions a vaudeville performer who hanged himself at the National in 1928, and whose ghost allegedly "unscrews the lightbulbs backstage as quickly as they're put in."

During a visit last week, a Style reporter navigated the labyrinthine maze of low-ceilinged hallways beneath the stage in search of the paranormal. All I could find was a narrow, crooked, brick-walled closet with a few drumheads stacked in it; no loose screws anywhere. A half-amused National employee walked by and said he had neither seen nor heard anything unholy backstage at night. Clearly he's never been backstage at a Gwar show, I thought.

But Dabney can't shake the feeling of something ghostly.

"If you're in here at night, you do get a creepy feeling," he says. "The caverns in the basement and anywhere you go ... you feel like you're being watched."