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Hidden Nursery Haunts Downtown Theater

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Some think a creepy old nursery at the National may be haunted by a jilted lover who allegedly hung herself in the basement of the theater. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Some think a creepy old nursery at the National may be haunted by a jilted lover who allegedly hung herself in the basement of the theater.

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

The once-hidden nursery room upstairs at the National Theatre, next to the plush VIP bar, was discovered after a wall was knocked down during the restoration of the building in the early 1990s. Employees were shocked to find the nursery walls still featured the ghostly, "Grimms' Fairy Tale"-style paintings of Victorian children holding long ropes with dolls (that resemble children), toys and animals hanging by their necks.

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

As visitors from WRIR-FM's music-history tour find out, attendees used to leave their children in the nursery room during the early heyday of the theater in the 1930s and '40s. The National's general manager, Clay Dabney, says there's an 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. Supposedly, his wife found out and hung herself in the musicians' closet in the basement," Dabney says. "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 these reports at press time. Employees at the Historic Richmond Foundation, which was heavily involved in the restoration efforts, had never heard of the story.

It is possible the 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, 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 to find a crooked, brick-walled closet with a few drumheads sitting in it. No loose screws anywhere. A half-amused theater employee walking by says he's neither seen nor heard anything unholy backstage at night. Clearly he's never worked a Gwar show.

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."

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