Ghost Stories That Haunt Cinemas
by Alma Freeman
When Skip Huston finally reopened the 87-year-old
Avon Theatre he knew he wouldn’t be running it alone.
One dark stormy day (a description Huston
admits sounds way too much like a movie, but insists is
true) a few years
before he purchased the Decatur, Ill., cinema, Huston was
upstairs in the venue’s “letter room,” poking
around for some marquee letters he could borrow for an
upcoming rock concert. The place was empty, without electricity
and in ruins, he explains.
Suddenly, he heard a noise behind him. He
turned and looked. Nothing. As Huston continued to search
the letter box,
he heard a second mysterious noise, then a third. With
the fourth, he turned and found standing in the doorway
a man with a slender build. The stranger wore a white shirt
and black pants, and sported close-cropped gray and black
Although Huston says he’s believed
in ghosts all his life, he didn’t consider himself “one
of those sensitive types,” contending that otherworldly
beings “could be dancing all around me, and I wouldn’t
see them.” Huston now says he underestimated his
own ability to perceive the uncanny and, like many other
cinema owners, operates his business alongside a resident
spectre. Inspired by the encounter, Huston began researching
the history of the Avon with a “ghost writer” named
Troy Taylor, for Taylor’s upcoming book “Flickering
his research led the duo to conclude that
the slender man was actually the late Gustavo “Gust” Constanopoulos,
the cinema’s second owner. The photo that accompanied
Constanopoulos’ yellowing obituary matched not only
Huston’s memory of the ghost, but descriptions offered
by other Avon staffers.
The Constanopouloses, a local entrepreneurial-spirited
Greek family, purchased the Avon in 1927. Although several
brothers were involved in the operation, it was Gust who
remained the most passionate about the enterprise, and it
was Gust who was said to have kept a private office upstairs.
The hallway leading to that upstairs office
is the eeriest place in the cinema, says Taylor. “It was a long time,
even after [Huston] had bought the theatre, before I would
go up there by myself – and this is what I do for a
living,” he says. Taylor has never actually seen
a ghost at the Avon, but reports once hearing someone with
hard-soled shoes walking down the hallway, even though
was supposedly alone.
The author, who is working on his 30th book
about haunted sites, says that although Gust is probably
the main resident
ghost, it’s unlikely that a solitary spook could be
responsible for all the odd occurrences that have visited
the Avon over the years. Taylor believes that the bursts
of light, creepy temperature changes and tingling skin reported
at the cinema are byproducts of leftover memories or energy
left behind, rather than an actual ghost. He says such phenomena
are not uncommon to other moviehouses.
“You have the entire gamut of human
expression run through a theatre – from sadness to happiness, to terror – thousands
of people over a long, long period of time … that’s
going to leave an impression behind, like a big storage battery,” Taylor
Parapsychologist Larry Montz, founder of
the Los Angeles-based International Society for Paranormal
Research (ISPR), says
that aside from highly unusual cases where an entity actually
stays behind, true cinema ghosts are rare. Like Taylor,
he agrees that most “hauntings” actually consist
of leftover electromagnetic energy.
However, this does not happen to be the
case with Hollywood Boulevard’s Vogue Theatre, says Montz. According to
ISPR investigators, the Los Angeles site was home to seven
ghosts, including those of four children, for nearly 100
years – until ISPR representatives helped the spirits “cross
over to another plane” in 2001.
The Vogue is situated near the eastern edge
of Hollywood’s “Walk
of Fame” – four or five blocks east of the Kodak
Theatre where the Academy Awards ceremony is held – sandwiched
between erotica retailers and Chinese retaurants specializing
in take-out. A looming “Available” sign covers
the façade; graffiti and trash clutter its entranceway.
Old marquee letters sit piled behind a half-closed glass
door beside the sidewalk box office. The current boarded-up
nature of the facility belies the fact that it underwent
something of an ISPR-generated revival in 1997.
Montz began leasing the long-shuttered Vogue
from Mann Theatres in 1997, with the intention of converting
ISPR’s Los Angeles headquarters. But upon taking possession
of the site, he says, he was surprised to learn that rumors
of the cinema’s haunted status were true.
The entire paranormal team, Montz says,
began carefully gathering details on the “entities.” The ISPR team determined
the three adults were a schoolteacher named Elizabeth, an
engineer named Danny and a projectionist named Fritz. The
children, they say, were named Annabelle, Michael, David
and Jennifer, and ranged in age from 6 to 10. Surnames, apparently,
were harder to garner, though the ISPR believes Annabelle’s
last name was Taylor.
The group’s research revealed that the Vogue’s
site was occupied in the late 1800s by the Prospect Elementary
School – and that the school was destroyed by a deadly
fire that claimed the lives of 25 children and a teacher.
Montz also says that Annabelle, the most
social entity, revealed to an ISPR investigator that her
father was a
living just around the corner (an idea amusing to those
who know how thoroughly paved and urbanized the area is
Soon Montz and his team began hosting “ghost expeditions” at
the Vogue. The curious flooded the site, hoping to catch
a glimpse of supernatural activity. Montz, deeming his group’s
research completed, worked with ISPR to bring about the spirits’ final
departure in December 2001.
Montz says he is skeptical of most of the
legendary haunted cinema stories, noting that most famous
spots, like the
Chinese Theatre, could simply be visited periodically by
entities strolling down Hollywood Boulevard.
While some carry the notion that ghosts
are often somehow trapped inside a particular building,
Montz says they are
free to come and go as they please – although no ghost
in his right mind is likely to visit the Vogue now.
“I can’t imagine they would be comfortable coming in
while it’s pitch black – they would probably
go to Musso & Franks Grill next door and terrorize those
old waiters in there,” he laughs.
Just a few blocks further east along the
Walk of Fame stands the old Warner Theatre, now home to
the USC Entertainment
Technology Center’s (ETC) new Digital Cinema Laboratory
Completed in 1928, the Warner was originally
intended to premiere the first talkie, a 1927 Warner Bros.
Jazz Singer.” When construction fell behind schedule,
however, Warner walked into his half-completed namesake cinema
one day and violently cursed it. Days before the film’s
premiere in New York, he died of a brain hemorrhage. But
according to Hollywood legend, Sam really never left the
DCL director Paul Miller admits that there
have been too many unexplainable occurrences – flushing toilets,
elevators going up and down, water running, strange voices
and objects gone missing – to entirely dismiss the
idea of otherworldly influence. And he says he has no reason
to believe that it is not the ghost of Sam Warner, especially
since Sam was nearly obsessed with the cinema, and a driving
force in pioneering movie technology.
Miller’s heard that nearly every Warner cinema manager
over the years has reported the same thing at least once:
an audience member standing up at the end of the film and
quietly disappearing into the screen.
Since ETC began utilizing the site, Miller
has noticed things disappearing, and showing up later – or not. Sam Warner,
says Miller, is “a prankster, and likes to steal stuff.” However,
when asked if anyone is concerned that the ghost of Sam Warner,
with his passion for emerging technology, may decide to lift
a new digital projector, Miller quickly adds that he only “takes
Huston says he considers himself fortunate
to have one of the rare interactive apparitions residing
in his cinema.
In fact, Huston says Gust the ghost has been known to lend
a hand here and there with such things as projector snags
and air conditioner blowouts – if Huston runs the
place the way Gust wants it to be run.
One night, during a summer street festival,
Huston saw a chance to make some extra cash from the throngs
in town for the event. “I thought ‘we’re
going to put some real grody horror movies on, and we’ll
pack em’ in. …’ Well, we not only didn’t
pack em’ in, but the vibes in that place were terrible,” he
Overwhelmed, Huston promised out loud to “never
do it again,” and says things did seem to get better
over the course of the evening. Gust, suggests Huston,
is particular about what gets programmed there.
Similarly helpful, according to some, is
Whitey, an elderly ghost said to haunt the historic Music
Box Theatre in Chicago.
Described as a cross between Mickey Rooney and Ted Kennedy,
Whitey was for 48 years the manager of the 74-year-old
moviehouse – until
he died in 1977 on the lobby sofa, according to owner Chris
Carlo and fellow owner Bob Chaney call Whitey
emeritus,” and say he’s been “felt” posthumously
patrolling aisle four, presumably on the lookout for ne’er-do-wells
trying to sneak in through the alley exit. Whitey, says
Carlo, has also served as handyman, pointing the way to
mechanical workings and old switch boxes.
And, like Gust, Whitey is said to be particular
about the type of entertainment that comes to his cinema.
a visiting organist was playing, both curtain swags simultaneously
came down over the organ chambers.
According to Carlo,
one “tie-back” was
cut, the other untied. Carlo says that although he believes
Whitey mostly stays around in order to ensure the audience’s
well-being, he still wonders what Whitey would do if he
like the movies they played or their use of his building.
The owners have been programming exclusively independent
and specialty product since 1986, and Whitey seems to approve.
If a poltergeist becomes so intrusive it
actually degrades the moviegoing experience, parapsychologist
there are ways of eliminating it. But he also points out
that ghosts, like most people, tend not to be troublemakers.
Montz suggests that the owners of most haunted cinemas
should relax and take comfort in the fact their cinema
enough to attract even the deceased – likely the most
elusive moviegoer demographic ever.