Sterling Opera House, Derby
The Damned Story: One of the first major entertainment venues built in the Lower Naugatuck Valley, the Sterling Opera House has hosted vaudeville legends, internationally renowned figures and historical theatrical premieres. Now, some claim that facility now is home to multiple spirits who are still seeking their moment in the spotlight.
Opened on April 2, 1889, the building was designed with Italianate Victorian influences. The main 1,200-seat auditorium featured a giant proscenium arch, an orchestra pit and unobstructed views of the stage. When in ideal condition, the acoustics were said to be so good that even a whisper on stage could be heard in the back of the room.
The Sterling saw many of the biggest entertainers of the early 20th century upon its stage. Legendary actor Lionel Barrymore performed here, as did escape artist supreme Harry Houdini. Boxing champion John L. Sullivan did a turn as Simon Legree in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while Amelia Earhart addressed a local women’s club. Master comedian Red Skelton yucked it up for the locals, and no doubt more than one foot was a-tappin’ when march king John Philip Sousa brought his star-spangled band to town. Famed auteur D.W. Griffith even allegedly premiered the seminal The Birth of a Nation here, among other films.
Despite its storied history, the Sterling Opera House primarily ceased functioning as an entertainment venue in 1945, and served as city hall and a police substation until the 1960s. It then was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
In 1968, the building was the first in Connecticut to be listed on the National Register of Historical Places. It is in the midst of renovation plans and fund-raising efforts with hopes of being opened once again as an entertainment venue. Some work has already been done, including new cupolas having been added in recent years.
Paranormal investigators here have claimed to recorded multiple EVPs, including the voices of children, as well as images depicting spirit mists and orbs. Shadow figures and other apparitions have been reported here, also. One picture taken purportedly shows the spirits of a woman in Victorian-era dress and a child. In addition, witnesses have claimed to see the hand prints of a child appear in various spots.
Unlike other haunted places, there doesn’t seem to be a particular tragic story associated with the opera house. Some believe that the alleged spirits here might be associated with Charles Sterling, the man for whom the structure is named and who died before it was completed, or his widow; other think that the spirit of a young boy is trapped here, eternally treading the floorboards.
In an episode that premiered in April 2011, SyFy’s “Ghost Hunters” investigated the opera house.
Our Damned Experience: In June 2011, we were invited by Rich DiCarlo, chairman of the Derby Cultural Commission, to visit the Sterling Opera House. We met up with Rich, as well as Dan Rivera and Troy Leong of Above the Realm paranormal investigative team. Rich was kind enough to give us a full tour of the building, and provided a wealth of information regarding all the paranormal experiences that have supposedly happened at the opera house.
Although the renovations on the exterior of the building have been complete, the interior needs a lot of work, as you can see in the pictures below. Despite that, this building clearly must’ve been a wonderful performance venue in its heyday, an intimate space with absolutely terrific acoustics — even now, from the back of the upper balcony you can easily hear what’s being said on the stage. If a full restoration is able to be completed, the opera house will once again be one of the gems of the state.
In the meantime, the walls are peeling, the floors are dusty and the air is musty, especially when it’s warm. The building is structurally sound although there are spots where caution is necessary, especially around staircases, which can be steep. The windows are all new, so it’s not a drafty place, and when the place is locked up, there are no tresspassers, so it’s in generally decent shape for a place that’s been abandoned for a few decades.
We went up into the balcony and checked out the “haunted chair,” which is next to a pole in the middle level. One things the pictures don’t give you a sense of is what an intimate space the opera house is — the upper balcony area seems to go straight up!
We went backstage and into the dressing room area, where there are all sorts of remnants of the Sterling’s rich history, from the signatures of performers scrawled on walls (some over a century old) to tattered show posters. We also went down into the lower level, which at one time served as city hall and the police station — you do NOT want to be locked up in one of the jail cells down there now! We also went into the room that the Ghost Hunters speculated gave the people creeps because of the high windows.
Many of the experiences here are believed to revolve around an entity called “Andy,” whom Rich told us is the spirit of a young boy. Throughout the opera house, there are toys and balls for Andy to “play” with — in the back of the main hall, there are even a few balls set up on empty cardboard tubes for Andy to knock off. Rich shared a few other unusual episodes that he’s had in the building, from witnessing a hand print appear in the dust of a chair to seeing balls move around on their own.
During our visit, we didn’t see any balls moving of their own accord. Actually, our entire visit was pretty quiet, but still very cool.
Multiple investigators have recorded EVPs of what they believe is the voice of a young child — Dan played us one EVP that he recorded of what sounded like a young boy singing. Creepy! Above the Realm has done numerous investigations here and has gotten some interesting evidence.
If You Go: The Sterling Opera House is located in downtown Derby at 116 Elizabeth Street. It currently is not open to the public.
Save Our Sterling is an organization dedicated to preserving the history of the opera house’s legacy and is spearheading the building’s restoration.