Haunted Decatur

Avon theatre


 

The Avon Theater officially opened in 1916, just a few short weeks after the Lincoln Theater opened its doors for the first time. The Avon was a unique place in that it was a large, grand theater, on the scale of the Empress or the Lincoln, but yet the Avon had been constructed for showing moving pictures only. There would be some live entertainment and music, with hosts appearing for the parade of films to follow, but this theater was a folly to many.... they believed that moving pictures were simply a passing fad and would never last.

Over the years, the American film industry has defied the odds and has endured. Fortunately, even after a number of near disasters, the same can be said for the Avon. After a bright beginning and a long run of success, the theater was closed down and abandoned and most feared that it would be lost. For several years, it was said the Avon would soon join most of the other old theaters in Decatur and would be destroyed. Such an end would have been tragic on many counts, but there is one thing that sets the Avon apart from most of the other “lost” theaters.... the Avon is a very haunted place.

But yet somehow, the theater still remains today. Believe me when I tell you that the end came calling for the Avon many times and yet somehow, destruction was avoided time and time again. It might be said that someone was watching out for the place, who knows? Regardless, thanks to public interest, creative planning, innovative thinking and a lot of hard work, the Avon is once again open and thriving in downtown Decatur.
For a long time, I wondered what would happen to the ghosts of the theater when the wrecking ball came for the Avon? I don’t have to ponder that any longer. The ghosts, and the theater, are still around and look to remain that way for many years to come.

THE HAUNTED HISTORY

Imagine for a few moments that you can travel back in time and relive an evening from another day in the past. That date is November 28, 1916, just a few days after Thanksgiving, and you are walking along Decatur’s North Water Street. Ahead of you, along the east side of the street, a display of lights seems to set the night sky on fire. A crowd of people spills off the sidewalk and into the street and you crane your neck to see what all of the excitement is about. The crowd has gathered tonight to see the Avon Theater as it unlocks its doors for a grand opening.

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THE AVON THEATER IN THE 1930'S

The audience begins to enter the theater as you approach and you get your first real glimpse into the new lobby. The original artwork that decorates the walls was created by Mrs. CO Knapp of Bement, a local artist. The designers of the theater paid no small amount of money for these canvases, making the Avon one of the most expensively decorated moving picture houses in the entire country.
The ornaments and decor inside of the theater are said to even rival the twin, seven-foot-tall monuments on the posts outside of the building. A third statue, having arrived only weeks before the opening, is located just above the curtains. It is of a woman, reclining in the nude, and holding a wreath outward toward the audience. On a parallel with this figure, circling the entire auditorium, are base-relief casts of women’s heads. They are only matched by the lion’s heads that circle the theater below them, the eyes of these creatures glowing with brilliant light.
The entire scene is almost breathtaking. There has never been another theater like this one in Decatur, as all of the other movie houses are cramped and narrow with only a few seats and poor ventilation. Only the larger theaters even resemble the Avon and they were built for live performances. Many in the city believe the investment needed to build the Avon was wasted money and that the theater will never last.
The artwork and the decor are not the only things that make this theater special. The screen is the largest and best designed in the city. Dozens of hours were spent whitewashing the rear wall of the theater in an attempt to make it as smooth and as clean as possible. The new film projectors are the best models available and an orchestra is scheduled to appear on a regular basis to provide musical accompaniment for the films. In addition, the theater is also equipped with a giant pipe organ that is electrically controlled. It is located in three different parts of the building so that it will be acoustically correct for the entire audience.
You can do little more than stare as the opening night audience begins to take their seats. You hurry to find an empty seat near the front, where only a few remain, because otherwise the theater is packed. The audience is then treated to a few words from Decatur’s mayor, Dan Dineen, who expresses his appreciation for the theater. He states that it is “unquestionably the handsomest and largest in the state of Illinois devoted exclusively to moving pictures.” He also boasts that, thanks to new businesses like the Avon Theater opening up, Decatur can finally take its place in the ranks of real cities.
The audience is then introduced to the owner of the theater, James Allman, who is taken by surprise at being asked to speak. The mayor explains, with good-natured ribbing, that Allman plans to be married in a few days. The new owner proudly welcomes the audience and thanks the crowd for their patronage, promising that he will make every effort to provide good films and exemplary service.
Moments later, the strains of orchestra music fills the air and the remaining theater lights flicker and grow dim. Light appears and floods the theater’s rear wall. Soon, the opening credits of THE FALL OF A NATION begin to appear on the screen.

The Avon became known as one of the most beautiful theaters in the Midwest and prospered for many years. It would not hold onto its crown though and the years were not kind to the place. After some extensive remodeling that was done in the 1950’s, the theater never again had the elegance of its early days. For several years, the building was closed and there was thought to be no chance that the Avon will ever welcome theater patrons through its doors again. The lobby and auditorium fell into poor condition and the last attempts to restore, or at least to salvage the theater’s dignity, met with indifference and a lack of enthusiasm.... until recently, when new occupants began restoring the old building, stirring up years of dust.
And have the new owners stirred up other things as well? It’s possible, because one thing is sure, there are many secrets still hiding within the walls of the Avon Theater!

When the announcement came that a new theater was going to open in the city of Decatur, people became very excited. There were already a number of theaters operating in town, especially along North Water Street, but there was always room for more entertainment. Besides that, rumor had it that this theater was going to be different than the rest.
The builder and owner of the new theater, James Allman, announced a contest by which the name of the theater would be chosen. Over 700 people entered the contest and flooded the judge’s panel with a variety of names for the building. The winning name, the “Avon”, was chosen in August 1916. It had been submitted by Thomas Ronan of Decatur. Ronan, who claimed to be a theatrical man himself, was presented with a season pass for the theater. Allman was happy with the judge’s decision and announced that the attractive name would surely conjure up images of William Shakespeare as it was on the banks of the Avon the great playwright had been born.

The Avon enjoyed success for a number of years and then in the late 1920’s, it was purchased by the Constanopoulos family of Angelo, Gus, Christian and Theodore. The records of the city date their first involvement with the theater as 1927. Prior to that, they had owned a candy and soda business called the Empress Confectionary.
Several of the brothers would be involved in Decatur theater, but it would be Gus Constan (as their name was later shortened to) who remained most involved with the Avon Theater. He would also own the Rogers Theater and become a partner in the Varsity Theater a few years later.
In 1966, Gus Constan was bought out of the Avon by a theater chain that was also in the process of buying other theaters in town. The family remained the owners of the building for some time, but had no control over the business. Legend has it that Gus Constan loved the theater so much that he kept a private office here for many years. When the time came for him to move out, after the Avon had changed hands, he simply refused to leave. Employees of the new owners were forced to remove everything from his office and they literally threw it all into the street in front of the building.
This is one of the most often repeated stories of the theater and while I have no idea if it is actually true, it has been told for many years. However, if it is true, it might go a long way in explaining why Constan is still reportedly haunting the Avon today!

The theater saw a decline in revenue and business during the 1980’s, becoming the last theater to operate in the downtown area. By this time, audiences were mainly ignoring the Avon in favor of the new multiplex theaters on the north side of town. In 1985, the theater converted to showing second-run movies but that was not enough to keep the place open. It finally closed down in April 1986. The last of the independent theaters in Decatur had now ceased to exist.
After that, the theater was empty for many years, although there was an attempt to bring it back to life in 1989 when it was used for several live music shows. The problem was that the theater had never really been designed for live entertainment and the shows met with only short-lived success.
The Avon opened again in 1993 as a second and third-run bargain house and while the initial response was good, business soon died out. It remained open this time for a little over a year and then closed down for another six years. In 1999, the Avon opened once again, this time as an independent and art film theater, showing alternative films and limited release features that in the past would have never been seen in Decatur. Finally, the Avon again began to thrive and a new audience was reached. It appears the theater has finally managed to restore itself to the status it once had and hopefully the residents of Decatur will help to keep it there.
I spoke to my friend, theater owner and operator, Skip Huston, and I asked him why he believed the Avon was once again successful and why it seemed to be appealing to such a wide audience again. “I feel like the theater really fills a niche,” he explained, “and it’s one that has been in need of being filled since theater in Decatur began. Our goal is to show films that are not mainstream features. They are not usually blockbusters but what I think of as art and alternative films. I really like being able to bring them to the city... and apparently, the city of Decatur likes having them here.”

If you should have the good fortune to visit the Avon, you will find the trip to be an interesting one... if you know where to look. Much of the decor that was described earlier in this section is gone now. The lion’s heads have vanished with time, as has most of the ornate plasterwork and all of the original art. Remodeling was carried out in both the 1950’s and then two decades later, in the 1970’s. At that time, most of the reminders of yesterday were hidden or simply destroyed.
The only place in the theater that can give you an indication of how things once looked is behind the screen. In 1953, a new widescreen was installed in the Avon to show Panavision and 3-D films. In fact, the very first widescreen film that came to Decatur, THE ROBE, was shown at the Avon. When this work was completed, the screen was moved about ten yards from the back wall of the theater. The area behind the screen now acts as sort of a “time capsule” of how the theater looked in the days when it first opened.

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Time has taken its toll here too but much of the original paint and plaster still remains, along with the decorator pieces that were added to the woodwork. The area behind the screen is the original, narrow stage of the theater and the place where the sound system and the antiquated air-conditioning unit is located. Directly above the heads of any visitors is the relief of the nude, reclining woman that once looked out over every audience that came to the theater.  She is in fairly poor condition now, but the artwork and the design that went into her creation is rarely seen today.

Just below her, and only inches above the air conditioning duct that was added much later, is another example of the theater’s artwork. There, mounted onto the wood and plaster wall, is a pair of angels that are holding a metal shield between them. There is a letter “A” ornately inscribed on the shield.

In addition, most of the original painted stencils remain on the walls and ceiling here as well. The small dressing rooms also remain on both sides of the original stage. They were once used by the performers and celebrities who came to entertain and announce the films that played here. There is detailed wood decoration around the doorways and also around the doorways that led upstairs to the private seating boxes. These boxes were once located directly above the pipe organ mechanisms and they offered an unobstructed view of the original screen. Other than these lonely doorways, no trace of the boxes can be found today.
In a direct line from the old screen and stage is the balcony. This seating area is entirely constructed of wood and is still capable of seating a large number of patrons. A small staircase leads up to the cramped projection booth and outside of the booth is a skylight where burglars broke into the place one night in 1952. They cleaned out the office safe, and started to break into the cash register behind the candy counter.... until something frightened them off. The mysteriously left an open drawer and untouched cash behind.

THE HAUNTED THEATER

Which brings us to the ghosts.....

I have no problem with saying that I believe the Avon Theater is one of the most haunted places in the city of Decatur. In addition to all of the first and second-hand accounts that I have collected from the place over the years, I have experienced things here myself that have defied all rational attempts to explain them away.
The stories of restless ghosts at the Avon go back many years, even to the early days of the theater, but I first got involved in the ghostly goings-on here in September 1994. The theater had opened again the year before and I was contacted by some of the staff members who worked here. They asked if I would mind looking into some of the strange things they claimed were happening in the theater.
While the first visit was rather uneventful, I was able to record a lot of information about the alleged haunting. The theater manager, and the rest of the staff, reported that things had started to turn up missing in the theater, both small items and large. They also told of hearing footsteps, laughter, applause and voices coming from the auditorium after it had emptied for the night. The sounds of people walking about in empty rooms and in hallways were common, as was the feeling of being watched and being touched by ghostly hands. One staff member even claimed to have been groped by an invisible entity while working in the projection booth.
That night, I took a walking tour of the place with recording equipment and cameras and found the sensations of some of the places in the theater were very disturbing. One of the most frightening locations was a hallway that is located upstairs above the theater’s lobby. The theater’s offices, and a small bathroom, opened off this hallway. The feeling that I had while walking down this corridor was very disconcerting, and while I certainly don’t claim to be psychic, it was a strange experience. I became very uncomfortable and sensed a chill in that spot that didn’t seem to be present elsewhere in the building.
I would soon learn that the theater staff felt the same way and largely avoided the place when possible. There had been many occasions when the sound of footsteps had echoed in the corridor and those who looked to see who was there, found it empty. I would also later learn that the small bathroom along this hallway had been the original theater projection booth, which might explain why the resident ghosts were so attracted to it. This corridor would also be the same location where more than one person would encounter a ghost!

Unfortunately, that one evening would be my last chance to explore the Avon that year. I called the theater a short time later about returning, only to learn that the place had closed down once again. The following spring, I was able to return. Ironically, Skip Huston, who now operates the theater, was part of a group interested in buying it in 1995. The plan was to turn the place into a movie-themed nightclub that would serve food and drinks, along with films and live entertainment. The project never came about, but I was able to spend quite a bit of time in the theater doing research and it was during this period that Skip came face-to-face with one of the local haunts!
During the process of evaluating the building for the nightclub project, Skip came down to the theater one rainy afternoon in the spring of 1995. On this day, his trip to the Avon had a double purpose. He was not only looking over the building, but was also borrowing some marquee letters from the theater for use at an upcoming show at the Lincoln Theater. Even though it was a “dark and stormy” afternoon and he knew the theater was supposed to be haunted, he had no problems with going there by himself. In fact, he grabbed a flashlight and a couple of garbage bags to hold the letters and proceeded to the theater.

“Keep in mind,” Skip recalled later, “I had always felt immune to otherworldly contact. I was always an ardent believer in the supernatural but considered myself one of those unlucky people who were not sensitive. This is why I didn’t hesitate to enter the darkness of the Avon with only a penlight to see with.”

Skip made his way through the theater to the “letter room”, which is located off the previously mentioned hallway on the upstairs level of the building. The room is a small office where all of the plastic letters for the theater marquee are stored. Many of them were ancient letters for a marquee that hadn’t existed for years, while others were the old letters from the Lincoln that had been donated to the Avon when the Lincoln’s own marquee had been restored. These were the letters that Skip was seeking. After he entered the dimly lit room, he used his flashlight to begin looking for letters and checking them off the sheet he carried with him.
A few minutes after he started working, he distinctly heard a noise behind him in the hallway. He turned around, but saw no one there. A few minutes later, he heard it again. Were those footsteps? he wondered, and looked out in the corridor. The hall remained just as dark, but just as empty as well. Skip shook his head and went back to work, hurriedly filling one of the plastic bags with letters. Again, he heard another strange noise and reflexively turned around... but this time, he found that he was not alone!
“A man stood in the doorway to the room,” Skip told me. “My first thought was that someone else was in the theater, perhaps a homeless person hiding out there. He was of medium height and slender build. His age appeared to be in his late ‘50’s or early ‘60’s. His hair was close-cropped gray and black. He was not transparent or wraith-like. He appeared solid. His face was non-descript and he stared into the room, not looking at me, just staring.
“I started to speak to him and then he slowly turned and started down the hallway. Recovered from my surprise, I darted to the doorway to say something but all that I saw was an empty hall. I grabbed the finished bag of letters and left the theater as fast as my legs would carry me!”

That was certainly Skip Huston’s most startling visit to the Avon, but it would not be the last. The following summer, he was able to convince the theater’s owner to allow a research group into the building for one last investigation. At that time, it seemed that the Avon’s days were numbered and if the place was haunted, I wanted to be able to gather as much material about the place as possible. On that afternoon, I was present, with a ghost research team from Chicago, along with Skip Huston and the theater’s owner.
In the time since Skip’s encounter, he had told the story of meeting the ghost to a number of people, many involved in local theater, and some of them said that his description of the apparition in the hallway sounded familiar. They believed that it resembled Gus Constan, who had owned the theater for many years and had been removed from the Avon in 1966.

Was it possible, that in death, Constan had returned to his theater to watch over the place in its last years? Perhaps Skip’s borrowing of the marquee letters had roused a protective impulse in the spirit and he had chosen that moment to make himself known? It would certainly seem this was the case!

The ghost research group, headed by author Dale Kaczmarek, began investigating the theater using a variety of high-tech devices that were designed to measure fluctuations in the geo-magnetic field of the Avon. These fluctuations can point to the presence of ghosts, or at least paranormal activity, in a building. Inside of one of the offices on the second floor, they discovered that readings on the equipment were literally “off the scale”, especially in one corner of the room. The theater’s owner had followed them upstairs and remarked on seeing the reaction of the equipment that the room had once been the office of Gus Constan. The corner where the equipment readings were very strong had been where Constan’s desk had rested for more than 30 years. Coincidence? Probably not!
While the investigation was taking place, Skip Huston had followed the group upstairs also. He looked in the office, saw the meters and the excitement, and went back downstairs. Even after a year, he was still a little shaky about his encounter with the ghost and was not interested, at that point, in seeing what the scientific devices could tell him that he didn’t already know. In other words, he was already sure the place was haunted!
At about the same moment that he came into the room, and then left, all of the equipment suddenly stopped and shut down. Strangely, the energy that had been there just moments before had departed. On a hunch, Dale Kaczmarek suggested that we follow Skip downstairs. The reader may be able to guess what happened next.... all of the equipment became active again near Skip. Apparently, whatever they had been tracking upstairs had followed him to the lower floor, where no energy had previously been detected! Perhaps the ghost was afraid that he had come back to the theater to take some more letters with him?

Before the theater opened again, another strange encounter took place in the fall of 1998. This time, it was during the more likely setting of a HAUNTED DECATUR TOUR. For a number of years, both Skip and I had hosted these bus tours to haunted sites in the city and on many occasions, weird happenings took place during the tours. When I moved from Decatur in 1998, Skip carried on the tradition of the tours. It was during such an excursion that one of the Avon ghosts made another appearance... this time in front of more than a dozen frightened witnesses!
Even though the theater was still closed down, and without electricity, Skip managed to secure the building for the tour. He thought it would make an appropriately spooky setting for the end of each night‘s outing. On this particular night, a terrible storm was raging outside. Skip remembered that it was the only rainy night of the tour season and he was disappointed that the attendees had been “rained out” of Greenwood Cemetery. He hoped that a longer version of the haunting events at the Avon Theater would appease anyone who felt the night had been too short.
After a re-telling of the events in the building, he asked if anyone had any questions. Someone raised a hand and asked what the name of theater’s former owner (and the resident ghost’s) name had been. At literally the same moment that Skip spoke the name of “Gus Constan”, a shout went up from someone in the crowd. This person was frantically pointing up toward the theater balcony and everyone turned in that direction.

Skip would never forget what he saw there. “It was a figure at the balcony rail!”, he recalled.

He wasn‘t the only one who saw it either. He estimates that at least 15 people looked up and saw the shadowy figure on the balcony... and panicked! People were pushing and shoving and climbing over the seats to get out of the auditorium, only to run out into the lobby and find the front doors locked. They were barely able to get the doors opened fast enough and needless to say, that ended the tour for the night! The incident left Skip’s assistant so shaken that he quit the tours that night and never came back.
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me later and talk about that night,” he told me recently. “In fact, one day I was at the supermarket and the young woman at the check-out said to me that she was on the tour ‘that night’. I didn’t have to ask what she meant... I knew exactly what night she was talking about.”

The theater re-opened about six months later and with any sort of restoration work, a lot of time, money and hard work was involved. The Avon had deteriorated badly during the time it was closed down and initially, it looked as though opening the place would be impossible. There were simply too many things wrong with the old building and every time that one thing got fixed, something else would break down. In addition, Skip had skeptics to deal with among his partners and his staff. They constantly badgered him about the so-called ghosts in the theater and poked fun at his belief that the theater was haunted.

“They started out as skeptics,” he laughed later on, “but they’re all believers now!”

As the restoration and repair work began to shake loose the dust and grime of the building, it awakened other things as well. It was not long before everyone on the crew, including those who had been the most skeptical about the haunting, began to report eerie incidents they couldn’t explain away. Nearly everyone talked of hearing phantom voices in empty rooms and in the deserted auditorium. They also complained of disembodied footsteps and inexplicable cold chills that simply should not exist. Most easily convinced were those who spent the entire night, either working or sleeping in the building. They were soon coming to Skip and apologizing for ever doubting him.
One night, Skip was sitting in the auditorium talking when he spotted a bizarre flash of light out of the corner of his eye. Dismissing it as an optical illusion, he was prepared to think nothing of it when suddenly, the other person with him turned and asked if he had seen a light. Skip asked him to describe what he had seen and the man replied that it had been a light on the edge of the stage. He also added that it looked like it had an outline of a figure in it. This was exactly what Skip had seen!
Later on, after customers began to arrive, they reported their own encounters. Many people spoke of feeling as though they were being watched and of the pressure of hands on their backs and arms when no one was present. There were also reports of apparitions and figures who were present one moment and then gone the next. None of the incidents were particularly frightening. It was more like the resident specters were simply trying to make their presence known.

The Avon ghosts were certainly still around and apparently were pleased with the activity that was going on in the building. Skip believes they approve of the theater’s re-opening and that they may be responsible for the strange run of luck the business has experienced, from the public response to the theater to the mysterious way that seemingly hopeless repairs have been accomplished.
One such incident took place during the theater’s opening night. The Avon had scheduled the Decatur premiere of the film ELIZABETH and support for the event had been overwhelming. People began pouring into the theater early and it was almost guaranteed that it would be a great night. Or at least it would be if not for one small problem.... the projector refused to work! Staff members worked feverishly on the machine but finally sent word to Skip in the lobby that the movie was going to have to be canceled. They were unable to fix the problem.
Moments later, two separate and apparently (at that time) unconnected events took place.
One of the staff members spotted a ghost in the small bathroom in the upstairs hallway and another staff member, who was working on the projector, heard a voice in his head. At the same time the ghost was seen, something told the other crew member to try crossing two sets of wires on the projector.
“We’ve already tried that,” his co-worked protested.
“I know, but let’s try it again,” he replied. He was unsure as to why it wanted to do this, but he later described the feeling as a little voice that whispered to him. When they switched the wires, the projector suddenly began working. The movie premiere was saved!

“I can’t explain it,” Skip Huston told me when I asked him to try and explain why things seemed to be going so right with the Avon. “I just think that someone is watching over the place.”

Does Gus Constan still watch over the Avon Theater? And if so, is he alone? It is believed that perhaps a number of ghosts still linger in this building, including that of a ticket-taker from the 1930’s and others. Truthfully, I believe that something walks in the theater, be it Gus Constan or someone else. Whoever it is, the place is haunted!
But don’t just take my word for it... go and experience the place for yourself. Thankfully, we have the chance to do that once again!

COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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