The Phantom of the Ottawa Little Theatre Martha the Ghost is said to haunt the theatre, but where has she gone?

by Mia Jensen and Michelle Liang

She vanished as mysteriously as she appeared.

For decades, Martha the Ghost has wandered the halls of the Ottawa Little Theatre on King Edward Avenue. But despite her storied presence, it's been 10 years since she was last spotted.

Martha’s involvement with the theatre began when the theatre was established, inspiring customs unique to the theatre and giving a wealth of stories for workers to share. With her sudden disappearance after so many years, no one knows where she’s gone.

The company's crew and volunteers started reporting strange activity around the theatre in the early '70s, following its reconstruction. The original structure belonged to the Eastern Methodist Church, which the Ottawa Little Theatre purchased in 1928 and renovated into a performance space.

In 1928, the Ottawa Little Theater purchased the original building (left), which was destroyed in a fire in the early '70s. When the new build opened two years later, staff and volunteers started reporting strange activity around the theatre. Left: Archive image, supplied. Right: Michelle Liang, Nov. 13, 2019.

A fire destroyed the original building in 1970, which led to the total demolition and reconstruction of the theatre. During the excavation of the old site, workers found a gravestone marked simply with a name: Martha.

When the new building opened two years later, volunteers started noticing the first signs of a haunting. They began sharing stories of flickering lights, footsteps, and creaking doors. Some volunteers even recall seeing a mysterious woman in a long, white nightgown wandering the green room or staring down at them from the sound booth above the stage

Soon it seemed like there was only one explanation: Martha was haunting the theatre.

Actors have said Martha looks down at them from the sound booth during performances (left, lower right) Volunteers working in the both have also heard her walking along the hallway towards them (upper right). Photos by Michelle Liang, Nov. 13, 2019.

Tom Pidgeon, the company's technical director, has been with the Ottawa Little Theatre for 32 years. He is one of the staff members with plenty of stories to share.

According to him, when the old site was excavated and Martha's gravestone unearthed, there was little concerned for the consequences of disturbing her.

"They didn't want to halt construction," he said. "They just disposed of the stone to the dump and Martha stayed here and the stone went. Martha's been here ever since."

Tom Pidgeon, Technical Director at the Ottawa Little Theatre, cutting wood for a stage set. Photo taken by Michelle Liang, Nov. 13, 2019.

Pidgeon has had numerous personal encounters with Martha over the years. He recalls several occasions where he could hear one of the building's exit doors opening and footsteps coming up the stairs. But each time it happened, there was nobody there.

His most significant memory, however, is from a 2004 performance of Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie".

In the middle of a performance, he said, "out of nowhere, someone walked back behind one of the scrims. Just a shadow. Everybody knew it was there, but there was nobody there. Just a shadow walking past the scrim."

Glynis Ellens has volunteered for theatre's props and wardrobe department on and off since 2003. At first, she didn’t pay much attention to the stories.

"I'd heard rumours that there was a ghost but I didn't believe in it so I didn't worry."

Her opinion changed, however, when she had an encounter of her own.

The prop storage room (left) and the green room (right), both located on the bottom level of the theatre. Martha's gravestone was found in this area when the old theatre was excavated. Photos by Michelle Liang, Nov. 13, 2019.

She was a newcomer to the company at the time, and had been sent down to the props room to gather some things for a rehearsal. When she stepped in however, she made the mistake of shutting the door behind her.

"I no sooner got there, then the lights went out."

Moments later, she said they came back up. But then it happened again.

"This was repeated several times," she said, "I stuck my head out the door to see if anybody was there. There wasn't a soul in sight."

Afterward, Ellens said she went back upstairs and told another volunteer what had happened.

"She looked at me in horror and said 'You closed the door? Martha doesn't like it if you close the door.'"

Now, to make sure no one upsets Martha, there’s a weight propping the door open.

The weight that keeps the prop room door open. Martha would turn lights off or lock the door whenever the prop room door was shut. Photo taken by Michelle Liang, Nov. 13, 2019.

J.T. Morris, patron services manager of the theatre, has never seen Martha, but even he finds her story fascinating.

"I'm a little skeptical to be honest, but I'm just skeptical about all these things in general."

J.T. Morris, Patron Services Manager of the Ottawa Little Theatre, working in his office. Photo taken by Michelle Liang, Nov. 13, 2019.

But even with the skeptics around, Martha still finds a way to make her presence known. Morris recalled an instance where Martha rose up to challenge an unconvinced volunteer.

“Another volunteer, during a rehearsal when it was a few days before opening, came out into this lobby area where we are now, and I think may have been skeptical too, so started repeating quietly ‘Martha, if you’re real, prove it. Martha, if you’re real, prove it,’ and just kept saying it over and over again."

In that moment, all the lights shut off in the building.

The volunteers later went up to the lighting board to speak with the lighting director.

“The lighting operator at the time was like, ‘We have no idea what happened, there were no power outages recorded,” said Morris.

The second floor lobby area of the theatre. A skeptical volunteer called for Martha in this area. Photo taken by Michelle Liang, Nov. 13, 2019.

According to Morris, the last account of Martha’s presence is from 10 years ago, back in 2009. The staff has no idea if she’s disappeared or if she’s just become comfortable with the people and operations of the theatre.

Although there have been no new sightings since, Martha’s influence and legacy has been ingrained into the customs of the Ottawa Little Theatre, which are still practiced to this day.

“Whenever anybody leaves the building at night, you’re supposed to say, ‘Goodnight, Martha’ to sort of ease her mind, and almost everybody follows that rule,” said Morris.

Regardless of whether Martha still wanders the halls of the Ottawa Little Theatre, those who work there will continue to respect her legacy by leaving the prop door open for her and bidding her farewell every night.

The original stage door destroyed in the fire (left) has now been replaced with a shiny new one (right). The last person locking up for the night always has to remember to wish Martha a good night. Left: Archive image, supplied. Right: Mia Jensen, Nov. 26, 2019.

This article was written for Carleton University's JOUR 2202 class in November 2019.