Grand Opera House

Wilmington, Delaware | C.1871

Photo Credit: Evan Lober

For almost 150 years, the Grand Opera House has stood as a landmark and a source of both nightlife and pride for the people of Wilmington, Delaware. It was originally a temple for the Grand Lodge of the Masons—hence the Masons’ imagery that still adorn its exterior, and the Eye of Providence at its center. The entire facade is created from cast iron that was painted white, to imitate marble, while the architecture references the numbers 3, 5, and 7, all significant in Masonic symbolism. (For example, there are five sections to the facade, each with three arches and three keystones.) Though ownership has changed hands, the Masons still have offices in the building.

As a performing arts center, The Grand has hosted thousands of entertainers, from vaudeville shows to world-class symphonies. In the early twentieth century it became a movie theater, but as the decades wore on and competing venues started eclipsing it in sales, it was forced to close in 1967.

Prominent citizens of Wilmington wouldn’t have it. “To destroy it would be a crime, to restore it would be a triumph,” trumpeted one news anchor. Just before Christmas 1971, for its hundredth anniversary, the Grand Opera House reopened its doors. Excited citizens flooded in and plans for its renovation were unveiled. The Grand was rededicated two years later, in what prominent Delaware historian Carol Hoffecker described as “the most spectacularly successful preservation effort in Wilmington’s history.”

Many among the Grand’s staff would argue that efforts to protect the venue were a collaboration between determined citizens and a few otherworldly inhabitants; its executive director even wrote an article describing the phenomena for Out and About of Greater Wilmington. According to the accounts of several people who have worked the graveyard shift, late-night work is often accompanied by murmurs and the clinking of glasses, or the general sense of being in the presence of inexplicable, intangible company.

The head custodian has caught sight of ghostly phenomena such as buckets and mops changing rooms, shaky lights, and chairs repositioned, all without explanation. His most frightening encounter occurred when he was attempting to unscrew a burned-out ceiling bulb. After several tries, he insists that he watched as “the bulb unscrewed itself and floated…slowly…almost to the ground. Then, it dropped the last few inches and shattered.” He continues to sense unexplained movements or mysterious sounds. “I have learned to announce myself to the building. I say who I am and what I am doing, and then they’re fine,” he says.

The master electrician corroborates, adding that these otherworldly lingerers have been perceived by people other than staff at The Grand. Roadies “have asked me who the woman in the balcony is,” she says. “They see her just sitting there in period garb. I say good night to her every night as I leave, because if I don’t, something usually goes wrong the next day. I think of her as the spirit of The Grand itself.”

Finally, there are rumors of “Tom,” seen slumped in a specific chair in a lobby outside the Masonic offices. The electrician has been told that he was a former Mason secretary who used to leave the office every night and sit right there, often taking a snooze. “He doesn’t like people being in the lobby, but I acknowledge him now, and he’s much nicer.”

The custodian appreciates the loyalty and protection that these souls offer. “A lot of them care about The Grand,” he says, “just like we do. They monitor the building, and if you have the wrong attitude, they’ll let you know.”

Full Story Pg. 46 & 47

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