The Hauntings of El Tovar
by P.C. Denofrio
A note to the reader, this is a Victorian-style Ghost story; it is fiction, based on historical fact.
As Raue Center’s Poet in Residence, I have done quite a bit of research on the institution at large. I was asked by a new staff intern, looking rather troubled, if I knew anything about ‘a ghost,’ here, at Raue Center. The story I told her went as follows:
In the late 1920s and ‘30s, organized workers were enraged.
And in 1929, Raue Center was called El Tovar. El Tovar was a vaudevillian stage and a movie house. At this time there was a great unrest centered on movie houses because projection work was largely regarded as unskilled by theater owners, and non-union laborers were hired as a means to keep operating costs down.
Several bombings, sponsored by Projectionists’ Unions, had taken place at theatres and movie houses around the country. And in 1929 El Tovar was targeted for hiring a non-union projectionist.
Several stench or incendiary bombs were detonated in the screening room and the audience fled for the lobby in the suffocating smog and smell that issued.
As the people entered the lobby a bomb in the front of house was detonated, and although much damage was done, most everyone was accounted for and was said to have escaped the flames of the exploded lobby, with the exception of one.
The audience was safe and sound, but that non-unionized projectionist was never seen or heard from again…
The new intern looked at me incredulously. “But that’s not the most fantastic part of it,” and I continued:
For many-a-year no one spoke of the incident, outside of the damages the lobby suffered, and after the theatre reopened many strange things were uttered backstage.
Curious happenings surfaced: ghostly lights were seen, lights flashed, candles were found burning in the basement.
But seeing as it was a theatre, it was assumed to be nothing more than the normal drama and superstition that follows theatre life.
Only a year after the bombing, however, the “superstitions” were beginning to take their toll. For the record low audiences, the managers blamed the Depression, but it has been said the theater’s owners knew better.
Later that same year the theatre was leased out to the Polka Brothers theater chain, and this temporarily boosted audience numbers. But even with new and better equipment, El Tovar was soon forced to shut its doors.
I asked around town whether or not anyone knew of any strange goings on that might account for the El Tovar’s sudden downfall.
The people old enough to remember the old theatre looming over their town, would look with quaking eyes, and insist that it was the Depression.
But one woman told me that I should “stop asking questions you don’t want the answers to.” What she told me next quite left me shook where I was standing…
Remembering the tale as it was told me, I had to take a moment before recounting the rest of the story to our new intern. She shifted uneasily from her left to her right, nervously. I continued:
The lady told me that she could not entirely account for the small audiences, but that she had heard of many strange happenings since the disappearance of that non-union projectionist. Not anything she would call “hauntings,” necessarily, but that seemed close to it.
You see, after a short run as an art house following the reopening of El Tovar, the building changed hands again and became The Lake movie house. As The Lake, many mishaps continued to occur: falling boxes, missteps off platforms, and the like.
A few times, people claimed to have seen the visage of a young man made of smoke standing outside the lighting booth, which would have been the projectionists’ booth.
Some people explained that the boy they saw seemed to have trouble breathing, and had sunken, dark eyes.
“One day,” the woman explained to me, “a workman from the gas company went down into the basement where the meter was housed.” Here, she claimed, he had heard the distinct sound of a mob of people running towards the lobby above him.
The theatre had been completely empty.
He was so sure of what he had heard, however that he bolted up the stairs only to see a solitary man in his early twenties in singed clothes, coughing heartily, clasping his throat, and casting disparaging gazes at him…
The intern looked horrified, and I stated, of course, (as I’m sure the current reader can tell) that all of the tales were based entirely on conjecture, and hat theaters are literally dark, unlit places that breed more superstitions than an average institution.
When that terrified look remained in her face, I demurred fearing I had gone too far, and perhaps I had touched on a sour subject to her. But when she asked me to describe the non-union laborer in more detail, I told her I could not for I’d already told her all I knew of it.
She looked at me wide eyed and told me, quite flatly, “I saw a man matching that description, the singed clothes and coughing, the first time I was in the theater.” She said she doubted what she had seen, so she didn’t think she should bring it up.
“When passing through the theater I looked into the balcony, I saw a figure; it was coughing and looking at the light booth.
“That’s where the projection booth was, I suppose.”
Now I froze and knew not how to go on. Then determining to put an end to this dreadful I tale, I said:
“Yes, theaters all have their silly little ghost stories.”
I didn’t have the heart to finish the story I’d started, but the story goes on to say:
From the day that gasman saw that wretched apparition, he began having lung problems and could never seem to quite clear his throat. It seems he never thought the air was clear enough, and he could never seem to get enough oxygen.