GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE
GHOSTS OF THE RYMAN AUDITORIUM
The building that we know today as the Ryman Auditorium actually opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. It was the work of a man named Captain Tom Ryman, a steamboat captain and hellraiser who was known for his hard drinking and carousing on the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
One day, however, Captain Ryman found God and after hearing an evangelist speak, decided to give up his old ways and soon banned liquor and gambling on his steamboats and closed down a tavern that he owned in Nashville. He also began a project that would be dedicated solely to religious revivals and activities.
The Union Gospel Tabernacle opened in 1892, just a short distance from the city's notorious Black Bottoms District, as a place where people of all faiths could join together in worship. It was also used as a public meeting hall and in 1897, it hosted a large reunion of Confederate veterans. The gathering was so large that a balcony had to be added to the structure to accommodate the crowd. The Confederates were so pleased that the hall had been made available to them that they donated the money for the balcony project and it was later named the Confederate Gallery in their honor. In later years, as crowds began to come to the auditorium for entertainment, the folks who sat in the gallery were known for their rowdy behavior... and for the fact that one of them has never left!
Over the years, one of the Gallery visitors, a mysterious man in gray, has been sighted from time to time. He had never been seen during performances, but late at night, after the audience has gone home. At times when only maintenance workers and security guards are in the building, the Gray Man has been spotted sitting in the balcony. Others say that he has been seen during rehearsals as well. However, when anyone goes up to the Gallery to send him on his way, the balcony is always found to be deserted. Often when they return downstairs, they will once again see him in the same seat... a seat that was empty moments before.
No one knows who this strange figure may be, whether a past patron to a forgotten show or a long dead Confederate soldier, but whoever he is, he does not haunt the Ryman alone!
Legend has it that the building's original owner, Captain Ryman, has also chosen to remain behind in this world to watch over his beloved building. He passed away in 1904 and was so well thought of that over 4,000 people packed into the auditorium to bid him farewell. It was during the funeral that a change of name was proposed for the place and it became the Ryman Auditorium.
The stories have it that Captain Ryman's ghost first made his presence known in the early 1900's, during a production of Carmen at the theater. The show had a rather risqué reputation and it was certain that Captain Ryman would not have approved of the material. It was said that his ghost made so much noise during the show that patrons complained about not being able to hear what was going on. Unfortunately, this particular story seems to be mere legend though as Carmen played at the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1901... three years before Ryman's death! And while his ghost could not have disrupted this show, it has been said that strange occurrences took place in the years afterward. It seems that each time a show played that did not meet with the Captain's standards, he would interfere and try to disrupt the show.
From 1943 to 1974, the Ryman became the home of the Grand Ole Opry and throughout the 1960's, a live radio show was taped there. There were also many live tapings of the "Jimmy Dean Show" and other specials filmed there.
For one show, a crew from New York had come in and were talking with a local crew after the show had wrapped. They were told about the ghost of Captain Ryman and that he still haunted the place. Needless to say, the New Yorkers scoffed at the idea but decided to hang around that evening and see if anything strange would happen. The evening was completely uneventful until around midnight, when they heard the sound of footsteps in the empty theater. Looking up, the crew could see dust floating down between the edges of the ceiling panels beneath the Gallery. With each footstep they heard, another bit of dust would trickle through. The production crew hastily fled the building and returned to New York!
Another ghost said to haunt the building is the spirit of performer Hank Williams, who died tragically in the back seat of his car in 1953. One Saturday afternoon, singer "Whispering" Bill Anderson was rehearsing on the Ryman stage for an Opry show that evening. As he was checking levels for sound, he strummed a tune on his guitar. It was a tune that was a personal favorite of Hank Williams. Suddenly, in the middle of the song, everything in the building went dead... the sound, lights, house lights, even the emergency exit lights! No cause for the blackout was ever found and Anderson described the incident as "eerie" and remarked that he felt the mechanical failure was somehow related to his performance of the Hank Williams song.
In the early 1990's, the Ryman was closed to the public for a period while it was undergoing renovations. During the construction, one of the workers was accidentally locked into the place overnight. Alone inside, the worker later claimed to come face to face with Hank Williams himself. As the old adage says... legends never die, they simply fade away!
The Grand Ole Opry Curse?
The Ryman opened again in 1993 but was almost torn down when the Grand Ole Opry was moved to Opryland for a time. In fact, many people have remarked that Opry officials seemed especially eager to tear the old building down.. something they say was motivated by what has been called "The Opry Curse".
Most people who work with the Opry are naturally reluctant to discuss the idea of whether or not the curse actually exists and many will go as far as to deny it, They claim that it is nothing more than something concocted by sensationalistic writers back in the 1970's. In spite of this, the rumors and legends persist and no one can deny that up until 1973, more than 35 people closely associated with the Opry had met with untimely deaths. These country stars have been burned to death, have been beaten, robbed and shot, have been victims of car and plane crashes and have perished from alcohol and drugs. Some would say that these deaths are an unfortunate part of working in the entertainment industry.. but others have come to feel that such a curse may exist after all!
You be the judge... but consider these past tragedies:
- Stringbean Akeman, the Hee-Haw comic was murdered (along with his wife) by thieves in 1973.
- Ira Louvin, along with his wife, two friends and the occupants of another car, were killed in a head-on auto accident in 1965.
- Jim Reeves perished in a plane crash in 1964.
- In 1964, another plane crash took the lives of stars Cowboy Copas, Randy Hayes, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Patsy Cline. It has also been said that Patsy Cline had a psychic premonition of her death, but this remains unknown.
- Shortly after the death of Patsy Cline, former Grand Ole Opry singer "Texas Ruby" Fox died of smoke inhalation when her home burned down.
- Jack Greene (known as the "Jolly Greene Giant") almost perished from what he believed was the "Opry Jinx" when he was narrowly missed by two semi-trucks on a highway.
- Hank Williams Jr. was almost killed in 1975 when he took a fall from a Montana mountain. His gruesome injuries eventually healed after years of surgery and therapy.
- And there have been others... over a three-year period, 14 people perished at Opryland. Their only connections where their work in country music and the Grand Ole Opry!
Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.