The Dock Street Theater

The Dock Street Theater (Robinson, 2011)

The Dock Street Theater originated in 1736, in the first building in the country that was designed specifically for the performing arts.  But just like almost everything in Charleston, it’s got a history.

A fire destroyed the original building at 135 Church Street around 1740, and it was replaced with another.  The second structure was demolished in the 1780s.  The third and current building that houses the Dock Street Theater was first constructed in 1809 as the Planters’ Hotel.  It was one of the most luxurious hotels in Charleston, and attracted the wealthiest of Charleston society for evenings of drinking, gambling, and girls.

Nettie Dickerson was 25 years old when she came to Charleston from the upcountry around 1840.  She was drawn to the excitement and sophistication of the commerce, and was determined to find love and happiness.

At the time, the prime age for marriage (for females) was 17.  At 25, Nettie was considered a spinster.  She was pretty and smart, and there were plenty of men willing to take her as a mistress.  No one, however, seemed interested enough to marry her, especially given her low social status.

St. Philip’s Church Bell Tower (Bloch, 2012)

Penniless and heartbroken, she found work at St. Philip’s Church as a clerk.  She received room and board, and a small clothing stipend, but had little else.  Despite having a good relationship with the priest, Nettie was never accepted among Charleston’s antebellum elite.  During thunderstorms, she would climb to the top of the church’s bell tower and watch the thunderheads roll in from the sea.  She felt comfort there.  Everyone bustling along Charleston’s streets appeared equal from her perch.

Down the street, she could see the renowned Planters’ Hotel.  Charleston’s aristocratic men enjoyed drinking and prostitutes on weeknights, never missing a Sunday at St. Philip’s with their perfectly proper and upscale wives.  She was incredulous that they were more highly regarded than she’d ever be…and she began to resent it.  She quit her job at the church, though the priest tried to discourage her.  Soon after, she got dressed up in a stunning red gown, and entered the Planters’ Hotel to begin her life of prostitution.

A flyer for the Planters’ Hotel (Preservation Society of Charleston, 2012)

Attractive and witty, she did well in her new trade.  She still attended services every Sunday at St. Philips, often drawing stares or rude comments from her clients’ wives.  She became outright confrontational.  When she’d catch a sneer, she’d walk right up to the woman and gregariously say hello, often complimenting the woman on her choice of husband.

Not surprisingly, men began to turn her away.  When the money started to run low, Nettie again sought refuge and comfort in the humid coastal storms.  She’d stand on the second floor balcony of the Planters’ Hotel, letting the fierce gusts of wind sweep her flowing hair and whip her dress.  She was angry and depressed, and she started to use her balcony as a soapbox from which she ranted, raved, and antagonized those below.

She stopped going to church, so the priest came to visit during a storm, knowing she’d be on the balcony.  As she screamed and wailed, he pleaded with her to come down and let him help.  She glared at him, clutching the balcony railing.  “You can’t help me!” she screamed.  As if on cue, a lightning bolt hit the railing, electrocuting Nettie, and bringing her desperate sorrow to a tragic and horrific end.

The Dock Street Theater today (The Keadle Group, 2006)

It appears, though, that Nettie has never left.  The Dock Street Theater moved back into the building in the 1930s, and since then, stage performers have reported seeing her, still in her elegant red gown, gliding across the second floor hallway.  The reports indicate that she’s lost her looks, though.  They describe a zombie-like figure with wild eyes and a horrific expression.  Sightings are said to be semi-frequent.  For example, Isaiah Nesbitt, a foreman working on renovations in 2008, reported seeing her every day before work.

When sightings do occur, she appears to be cut off at the knee.  Most explain it away, citing renovations that were done in 1936 when the second floor was raised 12 inches.  Nettie, unaware of the structural change, appears to still be walking on the original flooring.

The Dock Street Theater is still a popular performance venue in Charleston, so make sure you catch a show while you’re there.

Image Credits:

Robinson, K. (2011, August 5). The digitel charleston. Retrieved from http://charleston.thedigitel.com/arts-culture/dock-street-theatres-2011-12-season-announced-33168-0805

Bloch, K. (2012). Ken bloch photography. Retrieved from http://kenblochphotography.smugmug.com/Landscapes/Portfolio/20636536_XFWg6n

Preservation Society of Charleston. (2012). Dock street theater. Retrieved from http://www.halseymap.com/flash/window.asp?HMID=14

The Keadle Group. (2006). Things to do in charleston. Retrieved from http://www.searchforcharlestonrealestate.com/Thingstodo.php

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~ by scareschs on March 13, 2012.

3 Responses to “The Dock Street Theater”

  1. There is definately a presence there.. it jumped on my Mom. She and I walked in. We felt a heavy vibe as if someone was there and watching. Mom said “You are afraid to show yourself aren’t you?” ..then she dropped, like something knocked her out.. after a few seconds and me shaking her saying “Moma!, moma!”, she woke, crying, saying an emmense sadness overwhelmed her. Needless to say, we got the hell outta there. My Mother is not a dramatic person, she was not making this up.

  2. How can I get a copy of the St Philips Church Bell Tower photo?

    • Hi Larry,

      That photo was taken by a very talented photographer named Ken Bloch. He owns the photo, so you could contact him on Twitter at @kenblochphoto, or at his website, KenBlochPhotography.com. Good luck!

      -ME

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