The Garden Street Theater is a remnant of a by-gone era. When it opened on January 14, 1918, patrons eager to view vaudeville acts and the latest silent movies paraded into a garden of hanging baskets, trellises, and caged canaries. Musical accompaniment was provided by a specialized organ called a “fotophone,” which could produce amazing sound effects, such as the creaking of a door and the firing of a pistol. Beginning in1929, only movies made using the Vitaphone process were shown at the Garden Theater. Stage shows as well as movies were shown at the Garden Theater after the Victory Theater was razed in 1946. The Garden Theater continued to offer movies and stage shows throughout the 1950s. Schools, churches, and various other organizations used the Garden Theater in the 1960. The College of Charleston and the Charleston Opera Company used the theater as well during this period. The theater was closed temporarily in the 1970s. The Garden Theater underwent extensive remodeling after the City of Charleston leased the theater in 1977. One year later, the 650-seat theater reopened with movies and five stage shows.
In the 1980s, the Garden Theater transformed into a performing arts space after it was used for performances during the Spoleto Festival. In 2002, the City of Charleston decided not to renew its lease, so the Garden Theater was sold to a group of investors. In 2003, the decision was made to convert the Garden Theater into a retail store. In 2004, the seats, curtains and rigging were donated to an opera company in Pennsylvania. At the time of this writing, the only original parts of the theater that remained were the façade, the interior detail, and sad memories from Charleston’s racist past.
In the 1980s and 1990s, rumors spread that the Garden Theater was haunted. Janitors refused to work alone or at night. The balcony, they said, was the scariest part of the theater. The most famous sighting at the Garden Theater occurred late one evening in the summer of 1994. A janitor was about to turn the breakers on, and he saw a sitting in the fourth row. The man appeared to be an African-American male in his sixties or seventies. The janitor walked down to the fifth row, shined his flashlight in the man’s face, and asked him what he was doing there. The man immediately stood up and ran to the back of the theater. Two weeks later, the janitor saw the same intruder; this time, the man was sitting in the front row. The janitor walked behind the seat where the man was sitting and informed him that he was trespassing on private property. When the man turned around, his eyes were bloodshot. Sweat trickled down his face. The janitor was so shaken that he dropped his flashlight and left. He refused to return to work, despite the entreaties of the manager.
The ghost’s strange behavior can be explained by the fact that until the 1970s, African-American patrons were restricted to the balcony, which was hotter in the summer than any other part of the theater. Quite possibly, the spirit of the black man was reveling in his freedom to sit in the lower level of the theater late at night when he was the only one present.