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Halloween Room History Uncovered

Posted on 10/30/2012 by Leslie Klinger

Deep in the bowels of Biltmore House, adjacent to the Bowling Alley, is a cavernous room with concrete floors and brick walls painted in bright colors with bewildering imagery.   Thematically, the murals range from recognizable tales from folklore to a platoon of wooden soldiers to more macabre imagery of witches and goblins, bats and black cats, which eventually lent the room its name: The Halloween Room. Originally designed to be a storage room, the space now showcases an exhibition of historic photographs documenting the construction of Biltmore House in the 1890s. Yet, the colorful murals on the walls have always remained a bit of a mystery. For many years, it was thought that the room was the scene of a 1920s Halloween weekend house party during which guests of John and Cornelia Cecil were invited to decorate the walls.  Recent research has revealed, however, that the party was held in 1925 in celebration of the New Year. But, why the black cats, bats and witches?

New Discoveries

Biltmore’s curators recently discovered a connection between the scenes on the walls and an avant-garde Russian cabaret and theatrical troupe. Called La Chauve-Souris, which translates to The Bat, the troupe toured America in the 1920s, performing on Broadway in 1922 and again in 1925.  The vaudevillian comedic acts were set off by abstract sets designed by two Russian artists, Sergei Sudeikin and Nicolai Remisoff.  The show met with great success, triggering a rage for all things Russian in NYC and beyond. The Cecils must have been fans of the cabaret as they created their own version of La Chauve-Souris on the basement walls of Biltmore House. Most of the murals were drawn directly from Remisoff and Sudeikin’s illustrations for the theatrical program.  After three weeks of painting, the Cecils hosted a gypsy-themed ball on Dec. 30, 1925, as part of their New Year’s celebration. The Charleston Daily Mail reported that 100 guests attended. One costumed attendee, local resident James G.K. McClure, recalled arriving in the basement of Biltmore with his wife Elizabeth, armed with a guitar and an old accordion, to find a room full of “all kinds of gypsy atmosphere such as cauldrons and pots and glowing fire … all around.”  Enchanted by the unexpected theatrics, he wrote a detailed account of the holiday soiree to a friend, describing “a gypsy dance at Biltmore House which was the best party I have ever attended.”

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