haunted Hollywood:
Part 12

Hollywood’s Haunted Movie Theaters


There is an old adage that says that "every good theater has a ghost". I have a feeling that the person who first stated this was referring to the old stage theaters of yesterday but it will likely come as no surprise to readers to learn that many of the old movie theaters have ghosts as well. What is about a theater that seems to attract a ghost? Could it be that the entire range of the human emotion is often expressed inside of a theater, from happiness to sorrow to fear? Perhaps these expressions of emotion attract spirits who need such energy to exist. In some cases, tumultuous events that occur in the buildings also leave an impression behind. Such impressions are often regarded as hauntings.

Theaters also demand a great love and devotion from the staff members who work there and in many cases, these same staff members return to their favorite theaters after death. Many of them remember the theater as the place where they found their greatest happiness, while others return because of some unfinished event that was never completed in life.
Regardless, theaters all over America play host to a great number of ghosts that range from the frightening to the playful to the tragic... and Hollywood is no exception!

It probably comes as no surprise that the capital of film making in America boasts several haunted move theaters. One of them, Mann’s Chinese Theater, is perhaps one of the most easily recognized landmarks in the world. There are two different ghosts connected to the building, one of which only came to his Hollywood Boulevard haunt in recent times and one that has been here much longer.
The building was originally known as Graumann's Chinese Theater. It is likely Hollywood’s most extravagant movie palace and it was built by showman Sid Graumann in 1927 to host the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film, King of Kings. Graumann chose an interesting architectural style for the building, playing on the public fascination with all things oriental. And if the design of the building didn’t make the place unique, then screen star Normal Talmadge’s misstep as she was leaving the theater one night certainly did. Legend has it that Talmadge was unaware that cement had been freshly poured outside the theater’s lobby and accidentally stepped into it. Her shoes left a permanent impression in the concrete and a tradition was born. Since that time, celebrities have left their hand and footprints outside of the theater and this stretch of sidewalk has become one of Hollywood’s most popular tourist attractions.

However, the film fans who flock to this spot most likely have no idea that this piece of the sidewalk is believed to be haunted. In 1982, while enjoying a drink at a local bar, actor Victor Kilian struck up a conversation with a stranger. The authorities believe that the two of them must have left the bar and went to Kilian’s apartment. It was here that the actor’s badly beaten body was discovered the following day. His apartment, located just a block away from Mann’s Chinese Theater, had been burglarized. His killer was never caught but apparently, Kilian has never given up his pursuit of the man who killed him. Local lore has it that his ghost still walks the route from the Chinese Theater to his apartment, perhaps hoping that his murderer will return to the scene.

It is also believed that the interior of the theater is haunted as well. The stories have it that a ghostly little girl named Annabell roams the backstage area of the theater, tugging on curtains and appearing to startle staff members.

While the old Warner Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard has quieted somewhat in recent years, the stories about Sam Warner’s ghost haunting the place make it the perfect haunted Hollywood theater.

In the late 1920’s, after a number of failures, the four Warner brothers, Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack, risked everything they had on the production of a new movie called the Jazz Singer. This risky venture would be the first talking film and would hopefully be instrumental in the development of sound in theaters. In addition to this uncertain project, the Warner Brothers were hurrying to complete their new theater, the largest in Hollywood. It was supposed to be finished before the release of the Jazz Singer and it would be here that the film would premiere. While the movie was being filmed, Sam Warner was personally supervising the installation of the sound system, all the while worrying over the rumors that were going around town about talking pictures being nothing more than a fad. Between construction delays at the theater and the production of the film, Sam barely had time to eat and sleep. It was said that when he realized that the theater was not going to be ready for the opening, he stood in the lobby and cursed the place.

The Jazz Singer opened in New York on October 6, 1927 to excited crowds and wonderful reviews. Unfortunately though, none of the Warner brothers were able to attend. Just 24 hours before the premiere, Sam Warner suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in Los Angeles. His brothers hurried home from New York before the film ever opened.

The Warner Pacific Theatre opened six months later with a forgotten film called The Glorious Betsy with Conrad Nagel. In spite of this, Al Jolson emceed the night and a ceremony was held for Sam in which a plaque was placed in the lobby in his honor. It has been said that while Sam Warner was not physically present that night... he was undoubtedly there in spirit. A man like Sam Warner would never leave this world with his work unfinished!

Since that night in April 1928, random sightings of Sam Warner have taken place at the theater and in the administration offices above. People who live nearby report seeing him in the lobby, walking back and forth and looking frustrated and tired. Late one night in the 1970’s, two men on the late night cleaning crew saw Sam walk across the lobby and enter the elevator. He stepped onto it and pushed the button, then the door closed and the elevator went up. When a security guard made his rounds through the lobby, the startled men told him what they had seen and then quit on the spot! The guard however was not bothered by the story. He only wondered why a ghost would use an elevator?

While Sam has not been seen in recent years, the security company that watches over the theater when it is closed are quite familiar with his comings and goings. When things are quiet, they often hear him in the offices upstairs, moving chairs around, scratching on doors or tapping on things to get attention. The elevator continued to operate by itself for many years, until it was damaged in the Northridge Earthquake of 1994.

Some believe that perhaps Sam Warner is not seen as often as he once was because his work here is finally completed but strange things do continue to occur. According to Paul Miller, the director of the USC Entertainment Technology Center Digital Cinema Lab, which now uses the old theater doing research for the future of the movie business - replacing old prints with digital projection - Sam Warner's ghost is still very much in evidence here.

"While the elevator is no longer operational things still do move around suspiciously," Mr. Miller wrote to me. "It seems Sam may have a propensity for high technology items. Cel phones, PDAs, and digital cameras frequently turn  up missing in the theatre, never to be seen again. He also has an  affinity for sharp objects and hand tools which mysteriously disappear  and only occasionally show up again later in another location. In fact,  two pairs of scissors went missing some months back only to be replaced later by another pair of scissors, not one of the missing pairs."


(Left) The Current Marquee and frontage of the Pantages Theater (Above) Howard Hughes in his prime.

The Pantages Theater is the last of the glorious Hollywood movie palaces. It is considered an Art Deco masterpiece and most would call it one of the most beautiful theaters in the world. In 1949, the Pantages was purchased by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes as part of his national theater chain when he bought RKO Pictures. Hughes was truly an enigma as far as American personalities go. In his time, he was a daredevil aviator, a movie maker, an inventor, a playboy and in the end, a sad and possibly insane recluse. It has been said that his days in Hollywood were the happiest days of Hughes’ life. This may explain why he has purportedly returned to haunt the Pantages Theater!

After acquiring the theater, Hughes set up two offices on the second floor, where theater-circuit mogul Alexander Pantages and his sons had once had their own offices. Hughes ensconced himself in these offices whenever he was in Hollywood, but quickly abandoned them in in the middle 1950’s when he sold all of his stock in RKO. Within a decade, he would withdraw from public life altogether.

In 1967, Pacific Theaters bought the Pantages and later, in conjunction with the Nederlander Corporation, restored the place to its original splendor. Staff members who have since worked in the second floor offices often report feeling a presence, especially in the conference room, which had once been Howard Hughes’ office. Karla Rubin, an executive assistant at the theater, notes that "there’s something about the temperature of this room - a coldness.. I often feel a wind go past me where there’s no air-conditioning on." She and other employees have frequently heard bumping and banging sounds that don’t have an explanation, as well as the clicking of brass handles like those on desk drawers. Every once in awhile, a cold wind will blow through the executive suite as well and when it does, it brings with it the faint aroma of cigars.

Karla Rubin also states that she has twice caught sight of an apparition, a tall man that she believes to be Howard Hughes. Dressed in modest business clothes, he has been seen rounding a corner in the remodeled suite where his original office door was once located.

And if Hughes does walk here, he doesn’t walk alone. There is also the tales of a singing woman that dates back to around 1932. That year, a female patron died in the mezzanine during a film. Ever since then, when the auditorium is dark and quiet, the voice of a woman can sometimes be heard singing in the silence. The voice sometimes comes during the daytime and sometimes at night and recently, her voice was even picked up on a microphone during the stage setting for a live performance.

Perhaps the most eerie encounter at the Pantages occurred a few years ago when a wardrobe lady was the last to leave the theater. As she walked toward the side exit in the auditorium, the emergency lights in the aisles went out. Left to stumble around in the darkness, she became confused and was unable to find her way out. Then, from the blackness around her, came a firm hand that gripped her by the elbow and led her to the door. She opened it, letting in some light, and turned to thank her rescuer for his assistance.

There was no one else there.

Sources & Bibliography

Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck (1996)
Hollywood Haunted by Laurie Jacobson & Marc Wanamaker (1994)
Ghost Stories of Hollywood by Barbara Smith (2000)
Flickering Images by Troy Taylor (2001)

(C) Ghosts of the Prairie Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.