; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Capitol Theatre Haunting

The Capital Theater in downtown Salt Lake City is the site of several ghost accounts, in particular the spectre of an usher who was killed there in a fire in the 1940s. Since then, lights switch on an off, doors lock and unlock themselves, toilets flush unattended and a Coke machine exhibits strange behavior.


A recent Paranormal Witness episode described the ordeal of Dave Murphy, a Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputy, who worked security in the building. He thought stories of hauntings were, well, "a load of crap" until he "saw dark shadows moving through walls."

He recalled hearing doors slam with such force that windows vibrated when there was nobody in the building with him. "I saw a woman dressed in early 1900s clothes," Murphy said. "She walked right past me as I sat in the control room. My jaw dropped."

Unlike other ghost-hunting shows, Murphy was intrigued by this one because many of the witnesses are in law enforcement. "I like the way they don’t make officers look like imbeciles or the hillbilly with the missing teeth kind of thing," he said.

That’s based on the show’s strategy, said producer Mark Lewis. "What we search for is the most credible interviewees we can possibly find."

The episode focusing on the Capitol Theatre was a stand-out story because three police officers were the main contributors. "They don’t come more credible than that," Lewis said.

Among those interviewed is Blair Fuller, the administrative and fiscal manager of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, who first experienced something otherworldly in the building in 1997. While working late at night, he found the elevator operating on its own, and overhead file doors swinging open about two or three inches, and then slamming shut.

Still, he never felt menaced. "In my experience, it’s almost like a teenager trying to get some attention," Fuller said. "And once you acknowledge that, it stops. But it took me an hour-and-a-half to get to that point."

As it turns out, a 17-year-old usher was killed in a fire at the theater back in 1947, and Fuller suspects it might be his ghost haunting the theater.

Murphy, on the other hand, had "menacing" encounters. "Toward the end, they wanted me out of that building for whatever reason," he said. At one point he was "attacked" by the black shadows. "It felt just like I got a punch in the chest. Literally, I could not talk," he said. "Whatever it was, it had the power to shut me up."

Both men say they’ve talked to dozens of others who have encountered something supernatural. "I’d heard stories, but until it happens to you there is that disbelief," Fuller said. "As soon as it happens to you, there’s a complete shift of attitude."

Fuller still works down the hall from a men’s room that’s a center of paranormal encounters.

"Let me give you some tips," Lewis advises Capitol Theatre patrons. "Stay away from the men’s room on the third floor. Don’t go down to the basement. And whatever you do, don’t get on an elevator."

Murphy said he might return to the theater for a performance, "but would I work there? No. My nerves were shot. Some nights I would be shaking so bad it would take me hours before I would unwind," he said. "A lot of people think I’m crazy, but I know what I saw." - sltrib.com


By 'George,' is the Capitol Theatre Still Haunted?

Ballet West's Annie VanAlstyne remembers the event well.

She was working in her Capitol Theatre office during a production of "The Nutcracker" a few years ago when she heard the latches on a door banging. She looked, but no one was there.

Then, a clock flew across the room. She picked it up and put it back, only to have it happen again and again.

"I realized it was George visiting me," she says. "He wanted to play. I was annoyed with him."

"George" is the legendary ghost some insist haunts the venerable Salt Lake City theater. Retired security officer Doug Morgan named the spirit. He believes it is the ghost of a young usher killed in a fire at the Capitol in the 1940s.

Morgan has many George stories. On the eve of Halloween, he was in the mood to tell them.

His favorite occurred opening night of "The Nutcracker" in 1978. He got a call from a lighting technician shortly before the ballet was to begin that the stage lights were not working. He checked out the power source, but still no lights.

"We were down to five minutes to show time and I was exasperated," Morgan says. "How do you put on a 'Nutcracker' without lights? I looked up and said, 'Damn it, George, knock it off or I am going to have you exorcised.' And the lights came on."

Another time, Morgan said a bored security guard working the night shift made paper airplanes and flew them off the balcony, trying to hit the stage. He soon tired of the game and returned to the security station. While sitting there, alone, one of those paper airplanes hit him in the back of the head. He came unglued.

Charles Edwards, who works as a security guard at the Capitol, tells the story of another guard who decided to play a few tunes on the old theater organ. When finished, she turned off the instrument and lights, only to have the organ begin to play the same tune by itself.

Troy Wood of the Utah Ghost Organization that investigates strange happenings around the Salt Lake Valley had his own experience at the Capitol during a production of "The Nutcracker," when George seems to be particularly active.

He was doing an investigation with a camera and tape recorder near where the 1940s fire occurred. A shipping crate started vibrating violently and then slammed into the wall by itself.

"I did not want to be down there by myself," he says. "I got the sound on one of the video tapes. It happened behind me. I jumped. It scared me."

Gary Mlynarski of Roy, who heads the Salt Lake City Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society, has a photo of orbs of lights inside the Capitol posted on his Web site, www.ghrs.org. Yet he remains skeptical.

"I do not believe in ghosts," he says flatly. "I consider a ghost to be an apparition that appears before you and scares the hell out of you. I have never had that happen."

In his investigations of the Capitol, he has seen the security elevator run by itself, something Morgan has also witnessed. He has smelled burning wood and cotton candy in the balcony. He once sat alone on the stage with a news reporter and recorded a voice on his tape recorder that said, "Crybaby, get out." He says the reporter quickly left the building.

Still, Mlynarski remains an unbeliever. Some things, he says, are simply unexplainable.

"I believe in God and I believe in the devil. Why mess with it? The devil is not the first thing I want to see." - sltrib.com - 10/31/2001


The History of the Capitol Theatre

During the Christmas holidays, Utahns have been flocking to the Capitol Theatre at 50 W. 200 South to enjoy Ballet West's presentations of The Nutcracker. Most audiences find the theatre's Louis XIV comfortable, and well suited to the ballet offerings, aside from a few minor complaints concerning bruised knees due to some crowding of balcony seat rows.

All in all, the Capitol seems to this columnist to suit the needs of both ballet programs and the Utah Opera presentations. Acoustics are better than average -- meaning attending operatic programs as well as drama or musical comedy in this 80-year-old landmark makes for a pleasant evening. There are parking problems occasionally, and crossing 200 South can be a a chore. But all in all, the Capitol Theatre has, since 1978, provided a necessary and a welcome center for pleasant downtown evenings or afternoon matinees.

One wonders at times whether many of today's balletomanes and opera buffs are aware of the history of the Capitol Theatre. It began as the Orpheum Theatre, and when completed in 1913 was considered to be one of the finest, most innovative -- and fireproof -- houses in the entire nation. And, if you've looked up the alley alongside the theater's east wall you may have noted the rear, extra-height section once used to ``fly'' vaudeville scenery. Today it serves to handle ballet or opera settings. Some 80 years ago, of course, vaudeville stars included not only comedians and vocalists but high wire, tumbling and other acrobatic performers who required backgrounds the Orpheum's drops could provide.

Perhaps most important in the Orpheum/Capitols history was the importation to the Salt City of a skilled out-of-state architectural specialist in theater design. He was 36-year-old G. Albert Lansburgh of San Francisco, an architect who graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and won a Gold Medal Award at the Grand Salon in 1906. Returning from France he designed several Orpheum Theatres in eastern cities, plus the Manx Hotel, Concordia Club and other notable San Francisco buildings. In the wake of the big earthquake he supervised restoration work on the big Temple Emanuel in that same city.

The outside of his Orpheum/Capitol remains an eye-catcher today, with an especially rich facade of tapestry brick and terra cotta. The only other major building in Salt Lake using the new terra cotta material was the Hotel Utah exterior. The overall styling, Italian Renaissance (with perhaps a touch of Spanish), remains unique in the city. Its concrete, brick and steel structure was much enhanced, for safety reasons, by a ``water curtain'' which could spray the area in front of the big asbestos curtain, using water jets operated from both sides and above the stage.

Finally there was a precursor of today's air conditioning. A ``plenum system'' of mechanical ventilation pumped fresh air through grates beneath the seats, after which the ``used'' air exited through ceiling and dome vents. It was claimed the system could cool the house to 60 degrees in summer and keep patrons comfortably warm in winter.

A major stopover on the extensive Orpheum ``wheel,'' the theater housed from 1,800 to 2,000 customers as seats were rearranged. They enjoyed such artists as Will Rogers and Sophie Tucker, Dale & Evans, Joe Frisco and Trixie Friganza after which stars rode trains to Denver and points east, or San Francisco and the northwest. Critics called the Orpheum especially attractive due to its acoustics and the absence of pillars and posts usually needed to support the cantilevered balconies. Admission prices might surprise today's moviegoers, ranging from a thin dime to 75 cents in the early decades of the century.

The miracle of ``talking pictures'' came in 1929, and the house gradually eliminated vaudeville after introduction of the talkies. By that time the Ackerman-Harris vaudeville chain had bought the building which had cost $250,000 to construct. Ackerman-Harris bought the structure in 1923, and sold it in 1927 to the Louis Marcus Chain for $300,000. Marcus, a much-respected mayor of Salt Lake City, phased its shows in with theaters already owned in Ogden, Provo and Boise. Marcus enlarged capacity to 2,260 patrons and installed a ``mighty Wurlitzer'' with Alexander Schreiner (the Tabernacle organist) as its spotlighted musician.

The big house slipped a bit in Depression and pre-war years when the lobby was cut in size. An O.C. Tanner shop occupied the right-hand space, with a printing establishment on the west end. Motion pictures were shown at the Capitol until 1976, when the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency bought and renovated it to the present form.

Meanwhile the new Symphony Hall -- now Abravanel Hall -- and the Salt Lake Art Center came into being along with the Salt Palace to enliven downtown. Stores were ousted, the lobby, with its arched entrance and matching windows was restored, while the big sunburst on the interior ceiling was repaired. The sunburst had been put in place under Louis Marcus who employed the design talents of the R.E. Powers Co.

Vaudeville, silent films, talking pictures, ballet, opera and traveling shows -- the Capitol fitted them all well. Old timers regret one change -- the big steel arch, brightly lighted at night, vanished as a Capitol Theatre landmark when it was moved to Trolley Square almost a quarter century ago. - sltrib.com - 12/25/1994

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