Located just down the Ohio River from Cincinnati, the Washington Opera House of Maysville, Kentucky, has seen its share of drama and tragedy, both onstage and off.
The theater tradition in Mason County dates back over two centuries. Performances at the Washington, Kentucky, “Court House” were announced in the local newspaper, complete with play titles, performance dates and prices – the first record of a stage performance west of the Allegheny Mountains. By 1817, a theater had been built in nearby Maysville at the corner of Second Street and Fish Street, now Wall Street.
In April 1850, a fire destroyed most of West Second Street, taking with it, among other buildings, the original theater and the Presbyterian Church, known as the Old Blue Church. The church congregation decided to relocate to Third Street, and The Opera House, a very elegant theater, was built on the lot they left vacant. At this time, two fire companies were formed, one named the Washington Fire Company, in the hopes another disaster of the fire’s magnitude could be avoided.
Unfortunately, fire struck again on January 30, 1898, and The Opera House was gutted. The Washington Fire Company, regretful they couldn’t save the beautiful theater, vowed to restore it. Construction took almost 10 years and cost $24,000, and the Washington Opera House, as it came to be called, reopened in 1908.
Now the fifth oldest performing arts theater in the United States, the Washington Opera House has presented performances by notables such as Marguerite Clark, Tom Mix and John Philip Sousa and his band. It even hosted the premiere of George Clooney’s The Leatherheads in March 2008. (Maysville holds a special place in George Clooney’s heart. It was the early home of his father, Nick, and his aunt, actress Rosemary Clooney. He named his production company Maysville Pictures, and the company logo is a sketch of Maysville’s iconic bridge across the Ohio River.)
But the Maysville Players, in residence since 1962, aren’t the only performers to call the Washington Opera House home. While the story has changed over the years and varies according to who is telling it, almost all agree that Loretta still performs there as well.
Loretta (Laura) Stambo was said to be a singer or dancer in a local traveling troupe that regularly performed at the old Opera House. Sometime shortly before the Opera House burned, the troupe passed through again, and Loretta, ill with pneumonia, vowed to go on, as the venue was her favorite. Sadly, she collapsed on stage and died a short time later, some say in a nearby hotel room while others say she passed in her dressing room. Either way, Loretta’s dying wish was to be buried beneath the theater she loved, the Opera House.
It’s not known if Loretta’s wish was granted as no records were kept or stories reported. However, legend says it was and that she was buried beneath the floor of the dressing room, directly under the stage she loved so well.
While the fire may have destroyed any evidence of Loretta’s grave, it did not deter her presence, and she’s been a resident of the Washington Opera House since its opening. Some of the paranormal activity attributed to Loretta includes disembodied voices, levitating objects and exploding bottles. She’s even reported to have attempted to drop an overhead stage light on a group of people who had gathered on the stage to discuss the possibility of buying the theater and tearing it down.
Other stories of Loretta depict her as being quite helpful to performers and stage hands. During one dress rehearsal, a wooden beam came dislodged and fell toward the stage below, but it suddenly slowed its descent, as if guided by ghostly hands, allowing the people under it to escape harm. Loretta was given thanks. She was also thanked when a stage hand asked another for a board, only to have it levitate and then gently deposited at her feet.
At least one paranormal group has investigated the Washington Opera House, and while they didn’t gather any video evidence, they did capture a couple of EVPs, or electronic ghost phenomenon.
If you get a chance visit the Washington Opera House in the picturesque river town of Maysville, Kentucky. Even if you don’t see Loretta, you might be able to catch a spirited performance by the Maysville Players.
Note: Loretta is featured in the children's book, Broomsticks The Halloween Spirit, by authors Sean McHugh and Katie McHugh Parker, both natives of Maysville.