Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dope Island: The Haunted Movie Theaters of Cleveland

Article by Charles Cassady, Jr.

To get us into the Halloween mood let us note local movie houses that claim to be haunted - not by bad remakes or unwanted PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels, but rather by traditions and legends of unearthly, disturbing, well, paranormal activity. And a strange recurrence of the numeral five...

I should preface that much of the following is adapted from my learned book Cleveland Ghosts, from Schiffer Publishing of Atglen, Pennsylvania ( I say this not only to sell as many copies as I can (if sales surpass the Bible and Koran, I think I might finally get a review in the Plain Dealer book section), but to also state the fact that during the writing of this compilation of nonfiction northeast Ohio ghost-lore, only when I came to setting down haunted-movie-theater yarns did I actually give myself genuine chills. Maybe because the subject hit close to home for me...

Our first example is closed now. And I knoweth not how much of the old theater survives and how much has been converted to a Dick's Sporting Goods, among others, But at Parmatown Mall there is, in addition to the specter of receivership, a rather rich tradition of ghost rumors attached to a now-deceased multiplex. From 1967 to 2001 the Parmatown Mall hosted a theatre complex that was originally two screens. And indeed, it was said to be the first two-screen theater in the Cleveland area. Later it was remodeled and subdivided into five separate auditoriums. A former employee named Russ posted online his reports of strange occurrences after regular show-time hours, between 10 p.m. and midnight, when he, the manager, and a skeleton staff cleaned up from the day's entertainment and restocked the snack bar. 

Russ wrote of recurring problems with the fifth auditorium in particular. Cinema 5 always remained cold, despite repeated adjustments to the thermostat. Loud noises would emanate from somewhere in the vast, empty room. On a slow movie night, during a screening when supposedly no customers had come in, one of the ushers saw a youngster in Cinema 5, a child around the age of ten wearing blue Adidas pants and a white t-shirt. When she turned around, the child was gone. This same usher was cleaning Cinema 5 after a show concluded and noticed a big, somehow ominous man by the left exit doors in the theatre. Once again, she turned her head for a moment and the man disappeared. Maybe he was just a loitering patron - or maybe not. One night in 5 the manager heard breathing directly over her shoulder and ran out when she realized nobody was there.

This same unidentified manager was supposedly harassed by phantom footsteps, voices calling her name, the office radio turning on by itself, a switched-off projector turntable rotating when it should have been stationary. Various staffers saw Cinema 5's doors open and close by themselves. The manager and another employee both heard a woman's scream coming from Cinema 2. When they investigated, there was nobody in the theatre, and no movie playing that would have used the shriek as part of the soundtrack.
Excerpts from Russ' online posts:

"Various nights after close, I witnessed blurred images of a person or a mist heading towards Cinema 5's hallway, and a figure of a teenage boy wearing a baseball hat near the photo booth... "One night after lock-up I discovered a knife in the men's restroom. I walked away to inform the manager, but when I returned it was gone. Nobody was in the theater... "I twice felt a negative presence approach me at the concession stand while cleaning. It felt like something was about to strike me, so I recall jumping back instantly while my heart pounded profusely..."One time about a year before we closed, a mysterious bare footprint appeared in the floor dirt outside the office door. We tried duplicating the print with our own feet and some water and cleaning solution, but we had no success. My manager said the print disappeared soon after and then reappeared the next morning. The following day we mopped and scrubbed the print and it never returned.

"On at least two occasions, I heard my named called by some unknown voice - once at the stands after close, and a second time while I was taking pictures of an upstairs' room on the last day the cinema was open...
Russ also notes that a standee for the Disney computer-generated feature Dinosaur was observed to rock back and forth, then topple over. Personally I didn't think the film was that bad, but if the spirit of an old stop-motion animation buff had objections, I will not argue the point.

In 2001 the General Cinemas Parmatown complex closed. "We took a few pictures of Cinema 5 on the last day of business," Russ wrote. "The prints could not be developed." Russ followed his initial online bulletins with a postscript, that he had used his spare key to let himself back into the abandoned network of theaters to explore, and he was followed by a metallic sort of scratching sound, seeming to come from the walls.

I contacted Kim Brazina, last manager of Parmatown when it was still a General Cinemas theater, and she herself noticed nothing out of the ordinary about the place. For a number of years during my movie-reporting salad days I spoke on a practically weekly basis with the General Cinemas/AMC local supervisor Clay Leep, who occasionally worked out of the Parmatown office. He was a good, down-to-earth fellow, with a special fondness for bluegrass music and Bill Monroe, as I recall. Leep himself said he found nothing out of the ordinary - about Parmatown. Such was not the case, Leep continued, regarding another General Cinemas mall multiplex.

This was the Erie Commons, up in Mentor, also since closed. Said Leep, "I got a lot of rumors at Erie Commons, because the story was that where Erie Commons was built there was a Gold Circle. And when they were tearing down the Gold Circle there were boys playing in it, and one of them was killed...I have no idea if that was true, but I always heard stories about Cinema 5."  Reports from Erie Commons uncannily echo those from Parmatown. They describe slamming doors, disembodied voices, cold spots and radios abruptly tuning themselves, usually to easy-listening stations (sorry, about that, WMMS). 

Clay Leep put me in touch with floor staff member Jim Sheesley, who told me this story of Erie Commons: "This one kid - a friend of mine I went to high school with - he was a big, jock kind of guy; he really wasn't afraid of anything. He quit right away. He said a little boy came out of Theater 5, asked where the bathroom was. And when he pointed out where the bathroom was, he turned around, and the little boy just faded away and disappeared."

Then there's the long-closed Hilliard Road theater in Lakewood, an old Vaudeville house with now bereft of its audiences thanks to a lack of parking. In its final incarnation as a would-be art-house I remember the title of the last movie that played there, Letter to Breshnev, lingering for years on the disused marquee. There are stories from the Hilliard, of the theater itself and the apartments that shared the same block, of inexplicable banging, door slams and toilets flushing by themselves. The disused dressing rooms in the basement supposedly gave off bad vibes in profusion.

Not far from the Hilliard the Variety Theater, built in the 1920s in the Spanish Gothic style, stood disused at the busy junction of West 117th Street and Lorain Avenue. Strange stories persist from the not-too-distant past when this theater was alight. A figure in white was seen on the first floor, by the water fountain. A man with red eyes haunted an upper balcony. Noises, like stagehands at work, have been heard from the screen and stage area when nobody was there. The stage noise is rumored to be echoes from the days when this was a live theater, not a movie house, when a man fell off lighting scaffold and died on the proscenium.

In the 1980s the Variety exploited its reputation, with "haunted tours" given while horror movies played on the single screen. The true horror, though, was financial, and the increasing costs of running the place as a one-screener. In 1984 the Variety closed as a movie house, though the building was used for a time as a performing-arts school, a boxing academy, and a sometimes wrestling ring, and from time to time one hears of efforts to get the Variety back into business.

Finally, everyone who drives through Rocky River on Detroit Road sees Beachcliff Market, a small but swanky mall and shopping center that has been expertly installed around a disused movie theater, the motion-picture palace having been built in 1930. In 1985 the site was repurposed, installing a mezzanine level, doing away with the movie palace but preserving the glorious neon marquee to advertise sales and special events.

It was not well publicized, however, that the old cinema here was supposed to be haunted - a male figure who would be seen walking up the aisle, usually after hours, only to vanish before the eyes of the ushers and employees. When the Beachcliff was turned into a retail and dining complex, part of the auditorium become the Gamekeepers Tavern restaurant, then a British-themed spot called the Pub. Eerie events persisted in both restaurants, according to managers and staff with whom I spoke, with a heavy refrigerator-freezer door slammed shut more than once by an unseen hand, and "cold spots" where none should have been. A concealed stairwell in the Pub dated back to the movie-theater days, and wait staff particularly disliked using it. On occasion, I have been told, a phantom woman has been encountered there by the Pub employees.

One internet story I particularly liked tells of a local-favorite multi-screen movie theater east of Cleveland, built over an old Indian burial mound, that had suffered return engagements by long-ago phantom Indian braves. But this allegation was dismissed by the owner when I reached him. Just an old prank rumor that persists, he said, with clinging tenacity in the gossipy age of World Wide Web postings and slander..

Why should ghosts frequent movie theaters anyway? Assuming the cinema is not built on the proverbial burial ground or scene of a traumatic murder or massacre, the nearest thing to a "logical" explanation is the theory that haunting spirits are not necessarily fixed in place, but they rove from place to place to subsist off human energy and powerful emotions. Thus a crowded movie house would be as yummy as, well, a bowl of popcorn to these things. Maybe, for the departed shade of a longtime moviegoer, spending the afterlife seated invisibly among the fans in a theater all the time is something akin to heaven. Then again, I've seen a lot of movies. And it could just as easily be hell.

1 comment:

  1. Any chance to pimp Creepy Cleveland...


We approve all legitimate comments. However, comments that include links to irrelevant commercial websites and/or websites dealing with illegal or inappropriate content will be marked as spam.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.