Spirits of the Stage: Unveiling the Haunting Legends of Annie Russell Theatre
By: Rachel Simmons, Archivist
October 31, 2023
Winter Park is not known for its spooks and haunts, but in my historical meanderings, I have heard of one particularly ghostly place here. Did you know that the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins College is supposedly haunted? As a matter of fact, it reportedly has two ghosts: one friendly and one very unfriendly. Our story today is about Annie: The Friendly and Dramatic Ghost.
Annie Russell was born to poor, Irish parents in Liverpool, England who hoped that Annie’s talents would help them provide for their family. After one strained audition – Annie’s star began to rise. She remained an actress, galivanting across the world entertaining thousands for the next half-century. She finally settled in Winter Park in 1918. While she was on tour during her many plays in the United States, she became friends with Mary Louise Curtis Bok – if the name sounds familiar, her husband, Edward, was the creator of Bok Tower Gardens.
Perhaps you feel a creeping sense of dread; expecting these two friends to have a tragic falling out. I hate to disappoint our readers, but they remained friends for the rest of their lives. I mention Mary Bok because it was because of her funding that Rollins has a theatre at all. She chose to name it after her best friend. As a cherry on top of this happy ending, Annie was able to perform all her last performances in the theatre named for her and was able to pass along her talents to Rollins’ students. No, it just seems that Annie loved the theatre and Rollins so much she just… chose to stick around. To this day, if you ask the students performing at the Annie Russell Theatre, they still feel her presence to this very day.
Let’s start with Annie still enjoying the performances of her students. Visit the balcony, right side, third row down, second seat over and you will find Annie’s favorite seat. It has been known to fold down on its own and sometimes rock back and forth during performances. Students who have stayed late to practice have even reported hearing a lone person clapping, coming from the direction of the exact same supposedly empty seat.
She even has a vote on who gets picked during auditions. Behind the heavy velvet curtains on the stage – there is a door high in the top of the theater that no catwalk or stair reaches today. In Annie’s era – this was her dressing room and even today this is Annie’s Door. Despite having a strong antique latch, it has been known to swing open from time to time – students tell us this is a lucky sign. Annie is signaling her approval of a performance. Those who have the door open during their auditions are assured first role to the part.
Annie has even reportedly saved a student’s life. One night in 1960s, two students were working on a set in the old theatre. While climbing up a ladder, one of the two boys felt a tug at his pant leg. Upon turning around, he saw nothing. Shrugging it off, he continued up the old ladder only to grab a live electrical wire. The shock threw the poor fellow off the ladder, breaking his back. His companion, on hearing the noise and seeing his unconscious friend immediately called the nearest hospital to send an ambulance.
What was the hospital’s reply?
One was already on the way.
An old woman had already reported the accident. As far as the frightened student knew – there was no old woman there that night.
So the next time you go to one of the many wonderful plays at the Annie Russell Theatre – keep your eye on that balcony seat. You might be in for more than an ordinary performance, but then again, all the world is a stage.