An abandoned, original old movie theatre still holds ghostly customers from its past and calls to its former owner in her dreams.
There is an abandoned but wonderful old movie theatre in a small town in the Prairies that sits quietly…waiting for someone to turn up the lights, open the red velvet curtains and fire up the carbon-arc projectors.
Not a week goes by where I don’t think about what I left behind — sometimes they are happy thoughts, full of good memories. But sometimes I feel an unearthly pull like someone or something is whispering quietly in my ear. “Come back!” the gentle yet insistent voice repeats again and again. And I feel out of control, fear and an inexplicable sorrow like a dark echo in my mind and my heart.
When I bought the old 1940’s theatre in that little town on the Prairies, many of the locals told me tales of ghosts that wandered the aisles and voices in the walls that could be heard after the lights had been turned out and the patrons had all left for the night. Apparently the building had been used as a morgue for some time before reverting back to a theatre so that would explain a lot of the folklore.
I didn’t care about the stories. I was excited and looking forward to raising my two children in a movie house that still displayed its 1940’s style but had been well maintained.
We decided to live in the apartment above the 400 seat theatre and I assumed if there were indeed ghosts, it wouldn’t be long before we saw some sign of apparitions in filmy white gauze floating down the stairs or gliding gracefully across the massive stage, disappearing suddenly behind the heavy red velvet curtains. My Hollywood images of what ghosts were supposed to do were straight from the Bela Lugosi era where spirits did what the director told them to do. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was well after midnight after my first weekend of running the movie theatre and I was lying in bed, tired after the post-show cleanup and planning my next day’s work. I heard the door open at the top of the stairs that led to the apartment and realized that maybe I should have locked it…..although this was a small town where everyone knew everyone else and locked doors were not common. It had to be a friend or a family member and I sat up in bed.
“Who’s there?” I asked. No answer.
“Hello?” I shouted.
Heavy slow footsteps started down the long hallway to the main bedroom where I was sitting up in bed, holding my breath. The footsteps stopped at the doorway of my room and I reached up quickly to snap on the overhead light. The doorway was empty. My heart pounding in my ears and fear clutching my chest, I made my way out to the hallway, checked on both kids sleeping peacefully and looked in every closet and room of the entire apartment. Nothing. This was my first encounter.
My best worker Rosie quit the next Saturday after the theatre had cleared out the last of the customers. One of her jobs was to help me gather up the popcorn buckets, drink cups and other garbage from the seats and aisles. While I was in the lobby cashing out the till and locking up, I heard an ear piercing shriek and a crash coming from one of the long sloping aisles in the theatre. I started for the open double doors at the entrance to the theatre when Rosie charged through, clutching her cross on her neck chain in her hand and screaming for help. Just as she cleared the entrance, both double doors came swinging shut behind her, just catching her on her backside and sending her crashing into my arms.
“What happened?” I yelled as she continued to cry and shout that “he” had pushed her and she saw “him” materialize right before her eyes as she was carrying her garbage bag and broom up the aisle.
I pushed Rosie aside and threw the double doors open. There was no one there. As I turned back toward the lobby to try and console Rosie, I heard them for the first time. Voices. And so many! The walls reverberated with conversations from so many years past. Gentlemen in conversation, women laughing and oh, the sound of children’s voices in excitement! It was so subtle yet seemed to pulse in my ears like waves of the past resonating in and out. And then quiet.
Rosie left that night, still clutching her cross and crying. She would not set foot in the theatre ever again. There wasn’t anything I could do. I was a single mom on her own with two kids and a business loan that needed repaying. It wasn’t like I could just up and say “I quit” like Rosie could. I didn’t blame her one bit but at the same time, I felt trapped by my inability to do so.
It was my Dad’s words that gave me hope that the rest of my life would not be spent dodging ghosts and wondering how to keep staff from quitting. “Maybe it’s a friendly ghost and it’s just playing pranks,” he said the day after my experience with the voices and Rosie’s encounter with the “undead.” I decided that had to be it — for my own peace of mind.
Weeks and months went by and occasional encounters with voices, hearing footsteps, seeing doors opening and closing and items being moved when no one was looking continued to happen on an irregular basis. On closing one night, just as I was reaching for the lever to operate the motorized device that closed the big stage curtains over the movie screen, an unseen hand beat me to it and I watched the lever slide slowly over on its own. And the curtains began the long, slow process to meet in the middle. “Thanks,” I said to my invisible assistant. A shiver went up my spine but strangely I felt no real fear.
Weeks and months slid into years and I was ready to move on. I had made the decision to sell the theatre to take a job in the city. I had been working a seven day a week business for a long time and with the kids older, I was ready to settle down to a more “normal” life.
It was my last show. I had shut the projectors down, closed the doors and sent the rest of the staff home. It was just me, my thoughts and the 400 empty seats for the last time. I felt an incredible sadness as I wandered up the last aisle checking for any missed garbage left between the seats. There were no voices that night – perhaps silenced in sadness?
But I didn’t feel I was alone. Something caught my peripheral vision and I raised my head, looking toward the back of the theatre to the last row of seats, just beside the open double doors. And there he was. A boy stood at the back, leaning casually against the wall, one leg crossed over the other at the ankles.
He couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 years old but he was definitely from a different time. He was wearing a light brown jacket with a darker tie and vest along with short pants that ended at what looked like argyle socks and brown shoes. My heart seemed to stop and a cold sweat formed on the back of my neck. Thinking back now, I don’t believe it was fear. It was more shock combined with finally, a knowledge of who had been the playful ghost inhabiting the old theatre all these years. He grinned at me, gave me a friendly wave and turned to walk out through the double doors….and disappeared.
I think he’s still there. Along with all the voices that were absorbed by the theatre walls for so many years. And they are waiting patiently for someone to come back. There is loneliness and sadness because they are still there and have been there forever. But there is no life to keep them entertained. They love the sound of the projectors being fired up and the curtains whining their way open across the stage. And they love the people, the energy and the smell of the popcorn that only a real old-time theatre popcorn machine can make.
But the theatre never was brought back to life after we left and the seats are empty with the walls standing silent, waiting for life. And the boy in the theatre leans against the back wall, invading my dreams and calling my name to come home.