Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre – Nettie, is that you?

I recently had a lively mother and daughter from Texas on my Famous & Infamous Ladies of Charleston walking tour and since this was a private tour, we had a lot more time to enter buildings (when possible) for a much more fun, behind-the-scenes glance of the alluring characters I share. Since the gals had been to Charleston several times before and visit Kiawah Island Golf Resort every year (so lucky!), I was touched they had chosen Eclectic Tours of Charleston to provide them with something new and unique they’d really love. I knew then, we just had to go inside the Dock Street Theatre to try and catch a glimpse of Nettie. 

Who’s Nettie? Read on.
As we approached the building at 135 Church Street, I told them the history – that the original Dock Street Theatre opened on February 12, 1736 with a performance of George Farquhar’s play The Recruiting Officer. The building sits on the corner of Church Street and Queen Street (formerly named Dock Street) and was the first building in America built exclusively for theatrical performances. It was probably destroyed by the Great Fire of 1740 which demolished many buildings in the French Quarter. 

In 1809, the current building was built on the site as the Planter’s Hotel and in 1835 the wrought iron balcony and sandstone columns were added. It has been said that Charleston’s famed Planter’s Punch was first introduced here. This was the place for the wealthiest Charlestonians to drink, gamble, and uh, well, partake of the ladies of the evening in the upstairs bedrooms.
Enter Nettie Dickerson.
Nettie was a 25-year old pretty young woman from South Carolina who had come to Charleston to find love. She made her way to the Planter’s Hotel and mixed well with the gentleman. However charming the men found her to be, she was considered past her prime as most young women married by the age of 17! Poor, broken-hearted Nettie. She got a job as a clerk at the nearby St. Philip’s Church and for a small clothing stipend, was allowed to stay there. 

On stormy nights, she would climb the tower to the top where she could spy on the goings-on inside the Planter’s Hotel. She was driven crazy by the fact that she’d see the men with their prostitutes during the week, and then see the very same gentlemen at church with their wives. Well, this was just too much! Nettie figured, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. She purchased a red dress and took up her new career as a party girl at the Planter’s Hotel. She did well in her new work and men enjoyed her company, but sadly, she would never take her place she’d longed to be – in the Antebellum society, for she made a spectacle of herself at church and told some of the wives how much she “enjoyed” their husbands. Oh, Nettie. 
The men stopped asking for her “company” and she was soon destitute; ruined. It’s been told that she climbed out onto the upstairs balcony during a violent thunderstorm, screaming at nobody and everybody, when a priest passing by tried to coax her down. Her last words were, “You can’t help me!” Well, in a way, she was right. A mighty lightning bolt struck the wrought iron balcony and that was the end of Nettie.
Or was it?
Over time, the poor Planter’s Hotel fell into a sad state of disrepair and was set for demolition. But, in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, after Milton Pearlstine made the property available to the City of Charleston and the urging of Mayor Burnet Maybank, the building became a Works Progress Administration project. Beautiful renovations were made, especially the woodwork and mantels of the second floor drawing room (one of my favorite rooms in the city) which were salvaged from the Radcliffe-King Mansion (circa 1799) which stood at the corner of George and Meeting Streets and was razed to build the College of Charleston gymnasium, another WPA project. Modeled on 18th Century London playhouses by Charleston architect and pioneering preservationist Albert Simons, the present Dock Street Theatre’s new stage house and auditorium were built in the hotel’s courtyard.
In March of 2010, the building reopened for the third time. After a 3-year, $19 million-dollar renovation by the City of Charleston, the building now boasts state-of-the-art lighting system, new sound, new restrooms, and seating. Charleston Stage, which became the resident professional company at the Dock Street Theatre in 1978, produces over 120 shows each season. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few over the years and count A Christmas Carol as one of my absolute favorites. 
But, back to good ‘ol Nettie. During this recent renovation, one of the workers recounts seeing the ghost of a young woman on practically a daily basis, most often in the hallway of the second floor drawing room. Oh, yes. It’s true. But, it’s not like I can summon Nettie to appear during my tours.  (But, I was hoping for something out of the ordinary to happen to really deliver for these women.)
As we climbed the stairs, we crossed over into the drawing room and glanced outside. There’s a spectacular view of the French Huguenot Church from the tall windows, and all of a sudden, the daughter sort of clutched her chest and whispered, “I feel something heavy in here.”
I had not even mentioned the worker’s ghostly sighting of Nettie during the brief introduction, but definitely agreed with her. I could feel it, too. Perhaps the weight of her sorrow lingers upstairs where she lost her life all those many years ago? Maybe there’s more room for a broken heart up there. Doom With A View.

If you’re planning a visit to Charleston, do try and catch a performance at the Dock Street Theatre. If you can, I highly recommend sitting in the upstairs balcony side box. It’s such a grand way to view the stage — and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of Nettie while you’re up there.
For performance calendar and ticket information, contact Charleston Stage.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Dakare Chatman

    I saw a beautiful showing of Hairspray @ the Dock Street a couple years ago! Thanks for sharing some of the spookiness! #NettieIsReal

    1. Jill Paris

      You’re welcome!! I saw Steel Magnolias there. It was great!

    1. Jill Paris

      My pleasure! Hope to see you on your visit. Let me know if I can be of assistance with anything! You’re going to love Charleston. 😍

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