It seems that Patti, who is an ace reporter for The New Haven Register, had been invited by Valley Arts Council President Rich DiCarlo to go ghost-hunting in the old Sterling Opera House in Derby on Halloween night along with several other invitees. Not knowing a thing about the Sterling Opera House I did a little quick research that revealed to me that the Sterling Opera House was the first structure in Connecticut to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (very cool) and that it was in the process of being renovated after quite a few years of standing empty on Elizabeth Street in downtown Derby, the smallest city in Connecticut.
Built in 1889, the theater opened on April 2nd of that year and remained in use until 1945. As one of the premier vaudeville houses in the area, the Sterling Opera House can boast a pretty good list of "people who performed here" including Harry Houdini, George Burns, Enrico Caruso, Lionel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, Red Skelton, and even the former ex-heavyweight champion boxer John L. Sullivan who performed the role of Simon Legree in a production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin". In 1936 the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart addressed the local Women's Club there and one of my favorite dancers, Donald O'Connor, once upon a time tripped the boards of the Sterling's stage.
The building was designed by H.E. Fricken, one of the creators of the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City, and he combined several different architectural styles in designing the Sterling. He used the Italianate Victorian style for the exterior and roof-top as well as the interior walls and doorways; the interior seating plan, influenced by German composer and theater director Richard Wagner, is in a triangular arrangement which gives all seats an unobstructed view of the 60-by-34 foot stage; and acoustics at the Sterling were second to none with even just a whisper being clearly heard from all areas of the auditorium.
All in all the Sterling was quite the place in its day but after its closing it pretty much fell into disrepair and is now undergoing the lengthy process of renovation. The outside is looking pretty good but as for the inside ... well, let's just say that it could use a good dusting for starters but the architecture and design are absolutely beautiful - something I found out first-hand on a somewhat dark Halloween night!
Of course I just had to take up Patti's offer to explore the building with her but first I asked if I could take my friend Amy along as Derby is a bit of a drive from Norwich and if I was going to go into an old and dark building that possibly had a ghost or two on Halloween night I wanted some company on the ride home "just in case". Plus I knew that Amy would be totally up for going along! Patti checked with Rich who said that it would be no problem - just make sure we brought along flashlights and cameras - so after making sure that Amanda was all set for her Halloween plans with friends, off we went.
Amy and I met Patti in the parking lot of the rather old Derby train station just at the time the heavens really decided to open up and drop some serious rain on top of us. But of course! Once it slowed down some, we followed Patti over to Elizabeth Street and parked outside of the Sterling Opera House which looked rather ominous in the darkness.
The plan was to meet everyone else at 10:15 so in the meantime we walked around the Derby Green a little bit as the rain had miraculously stopped and Patti filled me in on a bit of the history of the area.
Apparently there was supposed to be a psychic along for the evening along with a paranormal investigator but the psychic must not have known h/she had other plans when they agreed to come out for the evening as h/she never showed up. With that absence, there ended up being just the three of us along with Rich DiCarlo, Mike - another Derbian whom Patti was very familiar with - and the paranormal investigator whose name I never got!
As Rich unlocked and opened the doors the first thing we were met with was the smell of old ... really, really old. Ah, I thought, this should make for quite an interesting evening -and blog post, too! With flashlights in hand we made our way up the first rather steep staircase after being told by Mike and Rich to be careful where we walked as there were soft spots and holes in the floor. Did I mention the place was old?!?
Once we got upstairs we all gathered in what was the orchestra section of the theater and waited while Mike turned on what few utility lights they had rigged around the room. Following that, Amy took off with Paranormal Guy and Rich while Patti and I made our way up to the first balcony with Mike. Even though we were there to try to find a ghost or two, I have to say that I wasn't really at all scared - just more fascinated with the building than anything. Even though the place had definitely seen better days, it was easy to picture what a grand and glorious place it must have been when it was open and patrons were filling the 1,250 seats.
From the first balcony we continued upstairs to what could definitely be called 'the cheap seats' on the second balcony. As Mike explained, these were the seats that were generally used by servants and such of those more wealthy patrons who attended performances at the Opera House. The seats were more like very narrow church pews and had to be horribly uncomfortable even back when people were smaller. Mike explained that in the renovations those seats would eventually be taken out and replaced.
Mike had to leave after he showed us the way back down from upstairs so Patti and I spent some time taking pictures from the stage before hooking up with Rich who then took us downstairs for a tour of the old Town Hall Offices and Police Station. I'll be doing a separate post on that part of the evening so as not to overwhelm you with too many pictures!
When we came back upstairs we found Paranormal Guy doing some filming and picture-taking on the first floor with Amy nowhere in sight. Uhm? Amy? Turns out she was upstairs on the second floor by herself (that girl is brave!) and when she came downstairs to join us she told us that we all needed to go upstairs and take a look at one of the staircases as she had been seeing some strange lights on it but wasn't sure what to make of them.
All five of us trooped up to the staircase outside of the first balcony that led up to the left-hand side of the second balcony as Amy explained that she had been watching different plays of light on the stairs. She didn't think that what she was seeing was a result of cars going past outside but she wanted our opinions on it - if the lights were to come back - so we all took up a spot in front of the stairs and stared intensely at them.
After a fashion a small light started to descend from the top and stopped in the middle of the stairs. There were no cars going past outside at the time so we knew that couldn't be it. Amy, who has no problems in speaking to those who aren't there, asked the light to repeat itself and after a short pause, another light came down the stairs from a different angle. Okay ... again there were no cars going past. Soon a car did come down Elizabeth Street and as we watched the play of light across the windows that were quite a distance above us, nothing appeared on the stairs. Hmm ...
Amy again asked for the light to reappear and a very short time later a much brighter light came down the stairs and this time turned the corner to go down the next set of stairs. Along with that light came a rather cold blast of air and Rich, who was closest to the stair railing, showed us that the hair on his arms was standing on edge. Again no cars were going past outside.
Rich decided to try to see if maybe there was some other light being reflected in from one of the other windows and as he tried positioning himself in various spots, the biggest light yet came down the stairs and stopped in the middle of the staircase as it sparkled and moved. Again, no cars were going by and another blast of cold air gave all of us goosebumps and made Rich's breath visible. There was no way that it was cold enough in the building for anyone's breath to be visible but Rich's was and the backs of my legs were getting darned cold.
Paranormal Guy was videotaping during this whole time but when the lights started really playing around with us, he started having battery problems with his video recorder. From what I've heard, that isn't all that unusual when dealing with spirits and both Rich and Patti had been having intermittent problems with their batteries all evening, too. I did manage to get one picture of a small bit of light on the stairs during all this but otherwise I had no pictures with orbs or anything else suspicious while we were at the stairs. Be interesting to see what Paranormal Guy got with his equipment - if anything.
Finally we decided that we had asked the light to show itself more than enough times and we went back downstairs where we snapped a few more pictures and then decided that, being as how it was around 12:30, it was time to call it a night. Amy and I had a long drive ahead of us and even though we had the whole daylight savings time hour to fall back on, I still had to be at work in the morning for my double shift and I wasn't going to be getting much sleep.
It was most definitely worth the drive, though, and I'm really glad that Patti invited us along with her. Even though I didn't get any pictures of shadowy figures like Rich got back in 2007 - which you can read about in Patti's article in The New Haven Register - I still had a good time exploring a place that was obviously seeped in history - and dust! Plus we had that whole "light on the stairs" experience to mull over. Was there something there? Well, all five of us saw the light and felt the cold and we just couldn't come up with a logical explanation for any of it so perhaps there was. Perhaps there are some opera lovers still hanging out at the Sterling waiting for the doors to reopen and some new talent to take the stage. You just never know!