Olive Thomas and the New Amsterdam Theatre
by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
In 1913, for his sixth annual production of The Follies, Florenz Ziegfeld moved the show to the extravagant New Amsterdam Theatre. The theatre’s Art Nouveau design, sweeping staircases, lush lounges, and large auditorium, plus fully-enclosed rooftop ‘garden theatre’ were a perfect fit for Ziegfeld’s decadent tastes. In its original days of grandeur, the playhouse was dubbed “House Beautiful” by The New York Times when it first opened in 1903. It was upon this stage that future film star, Olive Thomas, auditioned for and performed in The Follies of 1916. She also starred in the Midnight Frolic, a more risqué show that took place on the rooftop stage after hours.
The Frolic began in 1915 when Ziegfeld decided that he would rather continue to profit off of the after-show crowd than have them toddle off to another nightclub. The rooftop venue featured a glass dance floor that enticed patrons from the establishment below to sneak a peek up the dancers’ dresses. Although the Follies themselves were a couples function, the Frolic drew an almost exclusively male clientele. Chorus girls walked amongst the audience, dressed in costumes comprised mainly of balloons, which errant cigars eagerly popped. While the shows below served up a luscious palette of scantily costumed ladies, their decorum was always of utmost importance. On the rooftop, however, free and loose modernity roared its way into the twenties.
Featured in this advertisement for the Frolics, painted by popular artist Harrison Fisher, is a wanton Olive smoking a cigarette, with her hair falling loosely about her and her gown slipping off her shoulders. While a little artistic license was taken in depicting Olive as a redhead rather than a brunette, the ‘anything goes’ atmosphere of the rooftop garden is made pretty clear. It seems that stage door Johnnies often bought their jollies with expensive gifts for the rooftop chorines.
Harrison Fisher’s models, much like Charles Dana Gibson’s and Howard Chandler Christy’s, were known as Fisher Girls. In fact, Olive also ranks among the Christy Girls, and it was a competition held by Christy in 1914 that put Olive on the road to stardom. The competition, which she won, was to find “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City.” It led to Olive’s modeling for several successful artists and catching the eye of the foremost aficionado of beautiful girls, The Great Ziegfeld. According to Mary Pickford (Olive’s future sister-in-law), “The girl had the loveliest violet-blue eyes I have ever seen. They were fringed with long dark lashes that seemed darker because of the delicate translucent pallor of her skin.”
Born Oliva R. Duffy in 1894, Olive married her first husband, Bernard Thomas, at the age of 16. After a couple of years, however, she left Pennsylvania and her husband for the bright lights of New York City. After that, Ollie’s life was a fast affair, and sadly, short. She divorced her husband and became one of Ziegfeld’s many impressive mistresses. The Alberto Vargas painting below, which she posed for shortly before her death hung in Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam office for many a year, much to his current wife’s displeasure. The painting, ‘Memories of Olive,’ does not depict the innocent ingénue that the Hollywood press had been serving up, but rather a return to Ollie’s wilder image as a Frolic dancer. In late 1916 Olive had been signed to Triangle film studio and in 1919 she was signed by David O. Selznick for $2,500 per week. She made over twenty pictures and her last film, 1920’s ‘The Flapper,’ was the first film to use the term flapper.
With Olive’s move to tinsel town came love and a second marriage, to Jack Pickford, Hollywood heartthrob and brother of leading lady Mary Pickford. The couple eloped to New Jersey in October of 1916 and Ollie in a later interview for ‘Motion Picture’ magazine, quoted “Jack . . . is a beautiful dancer. He danced his way into my heart. We knew each other for eight months before our marriage, and most of that time we gave to dancing. We got along so well on the dance floor that we just naturally decided that we would be able to get along together for the remainder of our lives.” And so they did, although for Olive, that was to be just shy of four years, and the relationship was certainly filled with excitement. By all accounts, their marriage was a passionate and volatile one, full of fighting and making up, interspersed with expensive gifts, wild parties, and reckless driving.
The couple endured long separations due to their respective film careers and the unfortunate interruption of World War I. Jack, a Canadian, decided to join the U.S. Navy rather than be drafted into Canadian service, but he managed to avoid any threat of danger by using his film star status to recruit amateur actresses into service for his superiors. This practice eventually landed him a dishonorable discharge, which likely didn’t bother him one bit.
And so, in September of 1920, Olive and Jack set out to Paris to celebrate a second honeymoon after their time apart. Lamentably, a raucous night out on the town brought an untimely end to the rendezvous, and Olive’s life. At this point in the story, things get a little fuzzy and the truth of what really happened that September 6 will never be known. The original doctor’s report and initial press reports do not match later accounts, nor did Jack’s testimony about the event quite add up. America was awash with theories as to Olive’s demise- that she had been indulging in drug use (as did her husband), that she had committed suicide upon finding out that Jack had been stepping out on her, that Jack had killed her for her insurance money, that it was simply an accident due to her drunken state and lack of familiarity with French labels… this list went on and on. What everyone did know for sure was that Olive died from ingesting mercury bichloride, a then-common, topical treatment for syphilis. Reports indicate that she was searching for something to soothe her headache and help her sleep when her hand alighted on the fatal blue bottle.
Why she swallowed such a large dose, however, remains a mystery. Although Jack woke and quickly forced her to swallow raw eggs in an attempt to induce vomiting and the first doctor on the scene pumped her stomach several times, she could not be saved. After days of pain, paralysis, and blindness, slipping in and out of consciousness, Olive was pronounced dead at the American Hospital of Neuilly. Her body, and her spirit with it, was transported back to the states for burial. But her spirit would not rest; instead, she returned to the scene of her first showbiz success, the New Amsterdam Theatre. In short order, patrons of the theatre began to sight her specter in its various lounges, as well as backstage.
Although the once-magnificent theatre became a movie house after the stock market crash of 1929 and eventually fell into disuse, and disrepair, Olive never left it. One of her most notable appearances came in 1952 when a caretaker who had previously been a Follies crewmember saw her, twice, and recognized her as the former Follies filly he had once adored. The shade generally shows up dressed in her beaded Follies costume, wearing a gold sash with her name on it- a demand that she not be forgotten. Finally, in 1993 Disney purchased the New Amsterdam for $29 million and began renovations, which delighted Olive’s apparition, and scared the daylights out of at least one night watchman.
She has since shown herself to multiple members of the cast and crew, sometimes whispering flirtatiously and always carrying with her the damnable blue bottle. She has been known to turn out lights and shake sets and sometimes floats about on the rooftop stage. Whenever the last living Ziegfeld girls would pay a visit, she always managed to make an appearance as well. If you attend a performance of Mary Poppins at the New Amsterdam theatre, you might also get to see Olive.
For more information on the Olive Thomas haunting, see Tim Ogden’s book, ‘Haunted Theatres: Playhouse Phantoms, Opera House Horrors, and Backstage Banshees. A documentary about Olive is also available, ‘Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart.’