A Harrowing History: Ghost Tour at the Orpheum

Outside the Orpheum. Courtesy of Daisy Jasmine.

By Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer

 

Writer’s Note: Disappointingly, most of the photos taken turned out blank or obscured by some strange light. I have included the few that developed at all. Apologies for the low quality, but I promise there is nothing suspicious about these images.

 

Hidden away on a small side-street, deep in the heart of Downtown Phoenix, there lies a marvel of architecture and a treasure trove of local history, going tragically underappreciated by the busy masses. The Orpheum Theatre, constructed between 1927 and 1929, provides a look back in time into Phoenix’s cultural past.

And what’s more, it’s said to be haunted. For a few nights in late October, the Orpheum opens its doors to supernaturally-inclined guests to tour the usually-off-limits areas and learn about the ghosts of the theatre. Never one to back down simply because of something as silly as the idea of ghosts, I decided to seize this opportunity.

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts! Courtesy of Daisy Jasmine.

In the true spirit of the holiday, I began the evening by facing one of my worst fears: looking for parking in Downtown Phoenix. Luckily, as it was already late at night, I was able to find a space without too much trouble. My footsteps echoed as I walked alone down the dark block to the Orpheum, until I was greeted by its brightly-lit sign. I ripped the foil off of my camera, dug my ticket out of my purse, and ventured into the small theatre.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the Orpheum was the opulent lobby. Decorated in a Spanish Baroque Revival style, false pillars and facades immediately made the theatre stand out from the typical, straightforward style seen in modern theatres. Volunteers from the Friends of the Orpheum non-profit, dedicated to maintaining and supporting the upkeep of the theatre, sold merchandise and handed out flyers for the Orpheum’s other programs. A small group of other tour guests milled about, waiting for the event to begin. As I moved to join them, I heard a man faintly say, “Welcome!” but saw no one nearby who could have said it.

The lobby of the Orpheum. Courtesy of Bands In Town.

I introduced myself to the tour guide to make sure that I would be able to stand near her for the course of the tour, and she joked that she would keep the group safe from the ghosts of the theatre.

She began the tour immediately afterwards, passing around a small sheet with newspaper clippings about the construction and restoration of the Orpheum.

The owners who built the Orpheum, I learned, traveled around the country viewing other landmark theatres to gather inspiration for its décor. In its heyday, the theatre was a popular destination not only for the culture and the entertainment, but for being cooled by running water fixtures before air conditioning was commonplace.

As we were lead up to the second story of the theatre, something jolted me to a stop, like someone grabbing me by the strap of my purse!…however, it turned out that it had merely become looped around the end of the stair rail. Embarrassed at letting myself get swept up in the “spooky” atmosphere, I continued upward.

One of the original owners of the theatre was reportedly found dead in the theatre and almost certainly murdered, though corruption in the coroner’s office led to his death being ruled a suicide. Since his death, the owner has evidently remained around as a benevolent force. He has been captured on film through windows and, according to the guide, is known to greet guests entering the theatre. I recalled with bewilderment my experience upon arriving.

One non-ghostly but fascinating feature on the second floor was a small, round room which I learned was called the Rotunda—otherwise known affectionately as the “kissing room,” due to its dim lighting and close proximity to the balcony seats which made it a prime location for amorous show-goers to duck into during intermissions. Besides being a convenient place to get some privacy, however, the Rotunda also boasted a very interesting architectural feature. Standing anywhere along the wall, everything seemed normal within this room. However, any sound made by someone standing in the very center will sound thunderously loud, but only to that person. With the guide’s encouragement, I and the other tourists took turns stepping into the center and being startled by the volume of our own voices. I also heard a slight static in my hearing aids, which I chose to ignore for the moment—it was likely feedback from some air conditioning unit nearby.

Leaving the Rotunda, we were ready to experience the main event of the Orpheum—the theatre and stage proper. As we ascended the stairs, the guide asked me if I had ever visited before. When I responded in the negative, she simply smiled and told me that I was “in for a treat.”

Inside the theatre. Courtesy of Phoenix Theater History.

As we emerged from the small flight of stairs into the balcony seats, nothing could have prepared me for the breathtaking beauty of the stage. The high walls were painted with a stunningly intricate mural of a mountain range, which created an uncanny sense of being in an outdoor arena-style theatre at dusk. The friezes behind the back row and the cloudy, light-studded ceiling complemented the atmosphere. The fantastical effect of the décor made it difficult to believe that such an enormous, open space could fit into what appeared to be such a small building on the outside. I took a seat as the tour guide produced a small remote and activated the stage’s pipe organ. Even sitting in the far back of the balcony, I could feel the rumbling of the music in the floor and the seat. The tune was somewhat marred by the staticky feedback, but I still appreciated the opportunity to listen to and enjoy the experience.

As it turned out, we were not in the balcony seats just to admire the view and the music. The Orpheum’s most prominent ghost, our guide informed us, has been seen standing in the balcony by guests and actors alike: dressed in mid-20th century clothing, it was determined by a staff worker that the ghost’s name was likely Mattie. As the guide told us the backstory of Mattie—who was likely the sister-in-law of a previous owner—I became distracted, gazing around at the beautiful architecture. After just a few moments of letting my mind wander, however, I felt a sharp rap on the back of my head. The guide then told us that Mattie is quite strict and has been known to reprimand those who aren’t being polite by her standards. I sat up a little straighter and listened a little more intently, hoping to avoid another hit.

Exiting through the other side of the balcony, we encountered another jewel of the theatre: the ornate Peacock stairwell spiraling dizzily downward. After another altercation with the stair rail—then again, I’m not sure that stairwell’s rails had any outcroppings to become entangled with, but what else can it have been?—I cautiously descended and, upon the guide’s direction, looked straight up from the bottom.

The Peacock Stairwell. Courtesy of Daisy Jasmine.

The bottom of the stairs had been ornamented with shimmering peacock feathers which intricately encircled the light at the top. The only shame is the relatively hidden placement of the decoration—I briefly wondered how many patrons of the theatre have used that staircase without seeing the gorgeous art above their heads.

Once everyone had taken photos of the stairwell, we were lead backstage. A twisting path of echoing backstage halls took us first past the inner workings for the pipe organ—which, sadly, we were not allowed to see—and then to the dressing rooms. These rooms stood bare, with only a mirror with vanity lights and an empty clothes rack in each. As I glanced into one of the mirrors, a shadow swept over the wall behind me. Assuming another tour guest was walking by, I stepped aside only see no one there. The vanity lights flickered.

A vanity mirror in a dressing room. The blur is another guest on the tour…I’m sure of it. Courtesy of Daisy Jasmine

Uneasy, I cut a hasty retreat out of the dressing room and back to the tour guide. The static in my ears had begun to grate on my last nerve at this point, so I reached up to remove my hearing aids. Upon removing them, however, I discovered them already shut off, the battery compartments open and inexplicably empty. I was sure I had just replaced the batteries before leaving home. Though the backstage hallway was not particularly cold, I couldn’t help but shudder.

A dark hallway backstage. I don’t remember those lights at the end of the hall, though… Courtesy of Daisy Jasmine.

Our final stop on the tour led us back to the stage. This time, however, we stood upon the stage ourselves as the actors rather than the audience. A man was seated out in the audience, looking disgruntled—probably a maintenance worker or tired tour guest who decided to sit this part out, I reasoned.

The tour guide informed us that the stage was home to a supernatural mark of a different kind—not a deceased spirit, but the stain of a tragic event. In 1932, a woman’s body was brought to the theatre before the police were called in order to conceal the fact that she had passed away due to complications from an illegitimately-performed surgical procedure. Since that day, actors who stand in a certain spot on the stage report unexplained feelings of anger and nausea, as well as hearing a man’s voice growling the word “coward.”

The view from the stage. Courtesy of Daisy Jasmine.

Taking care to avoid the spot the guide pointed to, I explored the stage under the glare of the red spotlights. The angry man in the audience was gone—had he left while my attention was held by the guide, or was he really there to begin with? Feeling unsettled by the increasing frequency of the unexplained things happening around me, I hurriedly caught up with the group to return to the lobby through the green room. Hanging on the wall was a portrait of a previous owner. As we sauntered past, out of the corner of my eye, I was certain that I saw him smirk. I quickened my walking pace slightly, suddenly eager to finish the tour. I thanked the guide for her time and strode past the merchandise booths to the exit.

As I reached the door, it occurred to me that I had never gotten the tour guide’s name. However, as I turned to ask her, a sickening chill ran down my spine as I was faced with an empty, unlit room—barren counter tops caked in dust, a faltering glow illuminating the stairwell down the hall, and not another soul in sight.

Swallowing the nervous lump in my throat, I hastily returned to the door and headed out. As I exited, the cheerful voice from before called out from somewhere behind me, “Thank you! Come again!”

In that moment I realized that, however unnerving it may be, the unexplained forces at work at the Orpheum are nothing but benevolent echoes of those who love the theatre. I called out my thanks to whoever was listening and left, letting the heavy door creak shut behind me without looking back.

This is a slightly dramatized account of a true Ghost Tour at the very real Orpheum Theatre. The ghost tours are only available for the 29th and 31st—tickets can be bought here, but they sell out quickly!

When not spooking their guests, the Orpheum is an active theatre, with a widely varied season of Broadway shows as well as presenting silent films with the accompaniment of the truly-awesome pipe organ. The Friends of the Orpheum Theatre volunteer organization can also be found here.

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