Ghosts of the Prairie


History & Haunts by Kathy Harlow

When Carl Laemmle, Jr., President of Universal Pictures Corporation and Universal Chain Theatrical Enterprises, Inc., called upon architect Henry Ziegler Dietz to design a motion picture theatre for Indianapolis' east side, he insisted the building not only be large, safe and practical, but to stand for a long time to serve the community well and to provide the best the motion picture industry had to offer. Universal Studios invested entertainment dollars into the east side location because it could provide modest box office prices in a downtown theatre in what was then rural Indianapolis, the last stop on the trolley outbound and the first stop inbound during the rapid growth of the east side of Indianapolis. Carl Laemmle described the Rivoli as "The home of happiness." The Indianapolis Rivoli was the first Universal Studios theatre built in Indiana.

In 1927, the Rivoli Theatre was constructed in Spanish mission style of the finest materials available including Indiana limestone, fine sweet gum woodworking, leaded glass windows with copper window sashes, and solid brass door fittings.  The floors, inside and out, were made of Georgia white and Riviera black terrazzo.  Ivory lavatory fixtures lavished the patrons in luxury.  The theatre décor, although not ornate as some theatre palaces, included decorative plastered egg-and-dart patterned auditorium walls, a tulip patterned border edging the large domed ceiling, and intricate wooden and plaster grillwork fronting the two organ chambers near stage right and stage left. 

The Rivoli Theatre (Photo by Kathy Harlow)

 It is said that the dome in the auditorium had small lights that flickered to resemble starlight.  The front of the theatre building hosted four store fronts which originally included an ice cream parlor named "The Rivoli Tostee Shop."

The Rivoli was built to accommodate 1,500 patrons, which was considered unusually large for a neighborhood theatre. With such a large viewing audience, the theatre was designed to also accommodate theatrical stage productions. In fact, the Rivoli had the largest stage in Indianapolis and the acoustics were second best to none. The famous organist, Desa Byrd, found the acoustics so extraordinary that she recorded two record albums at the Rivoli.

More than 400 theatres were built in Indianapolis from the turn of the century through the 1940s. Universal Studios owned 315 theatres across the country. Unfortunately, the cost to update each for sound was too expensive, and Universal was forced to sell most of its theatres, including the Rivoli, which sold in 1937.

Life for the Rivoli did not end when Universal Studios left Indianapolis. Even though the theatre reopened and closed several times and was seriously neglected throughout the years, the building survived several private ownerships and continued to provide motion picture entertainment, hosting many live performances by stars such as John Mellencamp, Gino Vannelli, Billy Cobham and George Duke, Quiet Riot, The Cults, The Divinyls, 10CC, Buddy Allen (Hee Haw), Supertramp, Kansas, Spirit, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen, Desa Byrd, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, plus many more.

In February, 1992, the Rivoli closed, ending its long tradition of being a stronghold for the near east side of Indianapolis. However, the Rivoli is currently slated to obtain a national historic designation. Plans to renovate and reopen the Theatre are underway to, once again, provide motion picture entertainment, stage performances, and theatrical productions. The Rivoli is the only remaining original venued 1500 seat, 5 isled, single screen motion picture neighborhood theatre in Indianapolis.

As you stroll past the Rivoli and look through the cloudy front door windows into the lobby, you see the remains of the intimidating building security, a rusty full suit of armor covered by a dusty layer of plaster, remaining faithful at his post guarding his domain. To the right you see the concession stand and popcorn machine, and your mind wanders back to the days when the aroma of fresh hot buttered popcorn filled the air.

What is it about old neighborhood theatres that attract us? What secrets lie behind those locked doors? As your eyes travel past the inner lobby and beyond the foyer doors into the darkness, you strain to see the vague outline of a row of seats descending into the unknown. You visualize yourself in 1931, walking into the auditorium filled with men dressed in suits topped by a Fedora and women wearing dresses, hats, gloves and heals, being escorted to their seats by uniformed ushers before the movie "Frankenstein" begins. The lights lower and a cartoon and newsreel start the show. You realize that theatres were a vital part of everyone's lives. Before the invention of television, watching theatre newsreels was the only way to view national news, and watching movies of glamour and happier times was what kept the prospect of hope during the depression and war years. Theatres were places you courted your sweetie and necked in the back row. It is not surprising that theatres, including the Rivoli, were so dearly loved. Some theatres seem to be loved so much that even death has not separated the bond, and the Rivoli is no exception.

Charles Richard Chulchian purchased the Rivoli in 1976 after the building suffered years of neglect, and previous owners and longtime patrons relayed stories of ghosts and unexplained happenings in the theatre, stories Mr. Chulchian dismissed as overactive imaginations.

Prior owners stated that, on several occasions when entering the theatre early in the morning, they clearly saw patrons sitting in the auditorium. As the theatre had not yet opened, the owners immediately tried to confront the patrons to ask them how they got in before the theatre opened, only to watch, in surprise, as the patrons suddenly disappeared right before their eyes. Numerous stories have been told by several longtime patrons of seeing a man run through the middle of the auditorium, across the narrow isles between seat rows, disappearing into the wall.

It wasn't long after Mr. Chulchian took possession of the theatre that he began to suspect the stories told about the theatre were more than imagination. Numerous patrons relayed stories of seeing a man dressed in a tux and a woman dressed in a white dress sitting in the auditorium appearing to be watching a movie, even though no movie was showing at the time. This event could not be viewed as unusual except that these sightings were before the first showing of the day and Mr. Chulchian had informed the patrons that they were the first to enter the theatre. Upon investigation, the "non-paying" patrons were nowhere to be found.

Several female patrons relayed feeling extremely uncomfortable in the women's restroom, as though they were being watched. Others heard noises inside the stalls such as a flushing sound, and watched the water faucets turn on and off by themselves, knowing that they were the only ones in the restroom at that time. One woman reported that while she was in the restroom looking into the mirror, she heard the flushing sound, watched the stall door open and a women appeared. The patron became frightened when she turned around to speak to the woman and found no one there. Looking back into the mirror, the woman had disappeared.

Mr. Chulchian found it difficult to keep staff, as they experienced being shoved by unseen hands and saw cleaning supplies and buckets move on their own. Those who were brave enough to stay refused to clean the auditorium alone, feeling that there was an unusual presence. After business hours on a daily basis, the inner lobby was always cleaned first, including all cigarette urns. Later, after the auditorium was thoroughly cleaned, the workers came back into the inner lobby to find a freshly lit cigarette in the urn. Only one worker in the building that evening smoked, but insisted the cigarette was not hers as she had not been smoking that evening. Mr. Chulchian stated that one evening he and personnel watched in surprise when the faucet in the utility room turned on and off by itself.

Mr. Chulchian worked nonstop renovating the Rivoli to provide a clean, safe and enjoyable environment for his patrons. Most technical and mechanical work was done after business hours, well into the wee hours of the morning. Early one morning, Mr. Chulchian was in the basement working on the boiler. As he worked, he suddenly became extremely cold and felt someone come from behind and fold their arms around him. He became frightened when he turned around to find no one in the room. Mr. Chulchian stated that this was the only time he was frightened enough to run. He ran from the basement, through the auditorium, up the stairs into the projection booth, turning on every light along the way.

While doing ongoing extensive renovation in the auditorium, Mr. Chulchian noticed unexplained noises, items moving, and an extreme feeling of a presence along the West side of the auditorium. One morning, Mr. Chulchian and a friend set an infra-red video camera in the projection booth and aimed it toward the auditorium. No light could penetrate into the auditorium from the outside. At exactly 2:58 a.m., a light suddenly appeared behind a seat in the middle of the auditorium. They watched in disbelief as the light grew in intensity and size until it formed the approximate shape and size of a person, then it moved to the left of the camera screen. At approximately 3:02 a.m., the light suddenly collapsed.

Later that same week, another friend reported seeing a spectral man in the auditorium and a spectral woman on the stairs leading to the projection booth. Late one night Mr Chulchian was working in the projection booth and saw someone in his peripheral vision, standing close by watching him work. He thought a staff member had entered the booth so he asked the staff member to hand him a screwdriver that was lying on the floor. When Mr. Chulchian got no response, he looked up and found no one standing there. He realized that no staff member would be there at 3:00 a.m., and that he had not heard the door to the projection booth open or close. Mr. Chulchian believes that he saw the lady ghost, which he refers to as "Lady Rivoli."

Even though the theatre is presently closed, Mr. Chulchian maintains a strong presence in the building and insists that he encounters "Lady Rivoli" almost on a daily basis. Recently, the ghostly activity seems to have increased. Special objects frequently disappear. A special letter written by Mr. Chulchian's mother hung on the wall in the projection booth for almost 25 years. This letter recently disappeared off of the wall, not to be found. Mr. Chulchian's eyeglasses holder that he keeps in a dresser disappeared minutes after he putt it in the drawer. Three days later, the holder was found in the middle of the living room floor, minutes after Mr. Chulchian had walked through the room and the holder had not been there. Special batteries were also taken from the dresser drawer, only to be found the next day on the floor in the bathroom of a separate apartment on the east side of the building. This reporter has also been the victim of "Lady Rivoli's" cleptomania. After putting the finishing touches on this report, it disappeared only minutes after being placed on top of the same dresser.

During one visit to the Rivoli, Mr. Chulchian informed me that he had been unable to locate his cell phone for a couple of days, yet another item that disappeared out of the dresser. While sitting in the projection booth alone, I spoke out loud to "Lady Rivoli" that if she knew where the phone was, it would be appreciated if she would let us know. It seems that Lady Rivoli answered my request. The next morning, the phone was found at my house, which is several miles away, on top of a table.

Weeks later, after admiring the wrought iron chandelier that hung in the women's powder room at the Rivoli, Mr. Chulchian presented the chandelier to me as a gift. Late one evening Mr. Chulchian visited my home. While we were sitting on my back porch, we heard a loud crackle sound (like electricity popping) emanating from the side of the house. After ignoring three episodes of this sound, we heard a large bang as though someone took two metal trash cans and crashed them together. We sprang from our seats to find nothing disturbed. In the fact that I do not have metal trash cans, we could not understand what made that sound. As we further investigated, we found a large brick had been thrown into the bed of my pickup truck. The brick hit so hard it almost disintegrated into powder. We could not explain how the brick did no damage to the truck, not a scratch, yet hit so hard it almost disintegrated. We also could not explain the electrical popping sound. Later that night, after returning to the Rivoli, Mr. Chulchian heard a female voice demand the return of the chandelier. The chandelier, once again, hangs at the Rivoli.

Other strange happenings at the Rivoli include lights turning on and off by themselves and exploding light bulbs. Unexplained noises such as metal rubbing, crashing glass and softened voices have often been heard emanating from the auditorium.

Not all encounters are mischievous, some have been quite helpful and protective. Lady Rivoli was instrumental in protecting Mr. Chulchian, as she prevented him from falling 85 feet onto the auditorium floor when the roof collapsed beneath him, by physically moving his feet to land on a supporting truss. Mr. Chulchian's car has been mysteriously repaired. Inside apartment doors mysteriously lock when new visitors enter.

Mr. Chulchian researched the history of the land before the theatre was built, including interviewing a woman who grew up in the old farmhouse that stood on the exact location where the Rivoli now stands. She remembered many strange and unexplained occurrences happening in the house. Other verbal history of the area revealed that before the farmhouse was built, the land was an Indian burial ground. Because ghostly activity has been reported since the doors to the Rivoli opened in 1927, could it be that an Indian burial ground or a farm family graveyard was disturbed when this building was erected? Is it possible this building hides an unmarked grave? What special secrets hide in the shadows waiting for the next movie to play?

Not only have ghost stories and phantom patrons been reported, unusual and unexplained happenings have plagued this theatre from its inception. Universal Studios was successful in producing many horror movies including "Frankenstein." It is interesting that a theatre built by a studio famous for producing horror movies is playing out its own scary drama.

The Rivoli Theatre is located at 3155 East 10th Street in Indianapolis. It is currently closed to the public. Visit the Theater's Official Website -- Click Here!

Copyright 2004 by Kathy Harlow. All Rights Reserved.

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