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Back in the early 80s, when I was only about five-years-old, my parents were attending a weekend convention in the city of Huntington, WV. Several of our friends and family were doing the same. We were about two hours away from our hometown, so the adults had grabbed some hotel rooms then we split up: The women went shopping while the dads took us kids to see a movie that was showing in town.
Fire in the Sky
I’ll never forget it. As we walked down the street, I looked up and saw something big and red floating in the sky. I could see people’s arms waving from it. Confused, I asked my dad what it was and as it turned out, I was seeing a hot air balloon for the first time. I was mesmerized and pondered on how a simple balloon could hold people in the sky when I had tried so hard to fly and my balloons never seemed to get me off the ground, let alone take me there. I noticed the people were so happy and not afraid, considering I had often wondered what I would do to stop or come back to the ground if I ever succeeded in going up. I thought about that balloon for a very long time, even after we were seated in our seats inside the theater.
It's show time.
The movie we were seeing was Fletch, starring Chevy Chase. I was only about 5 so I wasn’t interested in that movie at all. It didn’t take too long for me to start getting antsy and wanting to move. I pulled out every young kid’s Go-To card when they’re not wanting to sit still: "I’ve gotta pee." I didn’t want to sit there any longer and I didn’t want to ask my dad to take me. He was a grumpy man at times who disliked being interrupted. Decisions, decisions. Finally, I whispered over to my older cousin and asked her if she would go with me. I told Dad that Dana was going to walk me to the bathroom and to our surprise our dads told us to get all of the girls to go since we had been cooped up inside a car for such a long trip.
The Winding Staircase
So, my cousin and I, along with our two female friends headed out to find the lavatory. We had never been to this place before. It was an enormous place, very old with many doorways, so we stopped to ask some men at the concession stand where the restrooms were. One of them looked at us, pointing to an arched doorway across from him, and said, “Just follow those stairs. They’ll lead ya right to it.”
As the four of us shuffled down the winding staircase, we noticed we could hear what sounded very much like a party coming from downstairs. There was music playing and the sound of laughter in the distance that, for some reason, made us slow our pace and start asking questions. One of the older girls dismissed it by saying it might be a scene in the movie coming from above us that just sound like it’s coming from below. We tiptoed on down the stairs but stopped when we reached the bottom.
We found ourselves standing in the middle of a lavish room that looked as if it were plucked right out of an old movie. There was a huge fireplace with a crackling fire inside, a four-post bed with curtains with fancy gowns tossed upon it and a pair of fuzzy slippers next to it in the floor. The music was still playing and the voices still laughing and having a ball, but now I could hear dishes clanking. Whoever they were, they were having a jolly ol’ time. The chatter seemed to be coming from the room around us but there was no sign of anyone present.
“Are we in somebody’s house?” I remember whispering, alarmed we would be seen and get in trouble.
Dana mumbled, “I don’t know… he said go straight down these steps and well… we did and this is where we are.”
I was so tiny that it seemed to take me forever to walk across that floor. Our whispers of curiosity echoed off the walls. Straight across the room from the staircase was a door that we assumed housed the toilets.
“What are we going to do if they catch us?” I asked.
My older friend shrugged and said, “Tell them we were sent here to pee and ask them where the bathroom is, I guess,” and laughed.
We found the bathroom. It was equally elaborate but only one sink and toilet… and on the sink was a hairbrush. Blonde hair twirled around the bristles. We looked at each other but said nothing. We all were in agreement with how strange this all was. We did our business as quickly as possible then rushed out of there. As we made our way back across the room, one of us spotted a lit, half cigarette burning inside a pedestal astray.
“Somebody lives here!” I said, looking up at Dana for agreement. With that, the four of us ran back up the stairs as fast as we could. Little and fat, I was always the last in line at everything.
Back in the House
We hurriedly tucked ourselves back into our seats and didn’t as much as look at each other for a very long time. I had forgotten all about the balloon. Now I couldn’t get that bed out of my mind or those shoes. Why was a bed in a movie theater? Why clothes? Why was everything so fancy? And where on earth were the people that those voices were coming from!? There was only one other door in the room, which was the pee room, so where on earth were they hiding? About 30 minutes later I felt a nudge from my right.
“Dawn,” Dana whispered, “Bub and Shane just came back from the guy’s room. They told me they saw pants and a belt in there and that they heard a man talking.” We exchanged a look of wide eyes. I know I saw those things and I know they were physically there, but something was telling me this was… different some way.
“Did we really see that?” I asked. “Were they really there?”
She looked at me bewildered. “We all saw them, so… yeah…”
I simply nodded and turned back in my seat. Keep in mind that this was happening to me around the same time my own home was being exorcized by every church and person of faith coming and going into my town. I was having a hard time knowing what was normal and real and what was otherworldly and unseen.
The Gifted Trip
I am 11 now. The old house had been destroyed by the boulder and we were now living in the double-wide trailer. The year is 1989 and my Gifted class is attending a production of Babes in Toyland. I have no idea where the show was being held at but I am not feeling good and not really wanting to go on the trip. My mom insists that I should go. I rarely went on school trips but she thought since I showed an interest in the arts that I might enjoy it more than I expected. I was menstruating and cramping and in quite a crabby mood but I agreed to go.
I remember sitting on the bus, looking out the window, headphones over my ears with New Kids on the Block’s first album playing in my Walk-Man cassette player. Despite being in nearly every club and academic challenge team known to my county, I wasn’t a very sociable child. Socially awkward at best with a sense of humor that could sometimes mask it all. I tried to appear unapproachable but failed. Adrienne, a girl from my class sat next to me. She was pretty and always upbeat and chipper. I liked her but at a time like this, her sweetness could give me a toothache. She chattered away. To make it stop, I remember handing her my Walk-Man and telling her she could listen for a while. I didn’t intend on that being a tie that binds but apparently that was BFF material and we were bonded together from that moment on. I would later be glad of that.
Watched Through the Veil
As we lined up outside the theater to get our tickets, I looked up at the marquee all outlined with big clear bulbs. I smiled at the old look it had to it. Over the years I had grown an appreciation of antiques and things that keep their story but age well. The lobby was so packed with kids, all from different schools around the state, so it was hard for me to take in any of what might have been there. Adrienne and I found our Gifted teacher and scooted down the row our class had reserved. I picked a seat and sat there scanning the whole place, watching different kids find their seats, spill their snacks, and all of that. I didn’t think much about me watching people until… I started feeling watched. I glanced around expecting to see the person whose weighted stare I felt creeping upon me standing nearby. There was no one. I scanned the crowd thinking maybe I would catch them watching from afar as I had been. Nobody near or far seemed to be paying me any mind. The lights were low and it was hard to see but I made eye contact with not a single person. I still felt watched, though, so I looked up to see if perhaps there were any balconies. There were. And, they were beautiful! Finely scrolled like those in an opera house. Just as my eyes settled on the one above me to my far right, I noticed a shadow. I waited for my eyes to adjust but the shadow never solidified into a person blocking light. It went from transparent to nonexistent in a matter of seconds. I paused for a moment to rationalize then chose to distract myself from the uneasiness by taking in the rest of the architecture and the magnificently painted walls and ceiling. This place was just beautiful! Before too long the lights in the house went black and the show started. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched, though. As I sat there looking up at the balcony, the curtains and valances that adorned it, listening to the musical voices of the actors coming from the stage, I kind of chuckled at The Phantom of the Opera vibe that being watched in a theater by an unseen man from the shadows had. I laughed but it wasn’t enough to calm my nerves.
I pulled the Go-To card and told my teacher, “I gotta pee!” I made my way past her with Adrienne following behind. When we got to the lobby, it was empty save for the concession workers, and I could actually see the carpeted floor and the gorgeous arched doorways donned in ornate curtains. It was as beautiful as I’d expected.
“I’m looking for the restroom, where do I find it?” I asked, interrupting the workers’ personal chat.
“Through that doorway,” he said, pointing with his head to the arch to my right, “Just follow the steps and it’ll lead ya right to it.”
I nodded and off I went, thinking slowly in my mind “Where have I heard that before?” There were girls coming up the steps so I slowed my stride while I thought, to allow time and space for them to pass. “Follow those stairs…” Why did those words seem to have a bad feeling attached to them? My stomach felt queasy and my breathing grew quick. I felt as if I was in trouble but I didn’t know why. Adrienne could see that something wasn’t right and asked me what was up. I told her I didn’t really know, that I just felt ominous, like something was going to happen to me that I wasn’t ready for. I explained the panic attack seemed to have something to do with what that guy had said but I understand the connection.
Each step I took down those carpeted steps made me weaker and weaker in the knees. The carpet. The red scrolled carpet that looked so familiar. I wanted to vomit. Or faint. Or vomit and faint. I didn’t know which so I just slid down the wall and sat right where I was. By this point I was starting to cry, still not knowing why I was hesitant. I looked up at the walls, there were gold scones elegantly placed. I looked at the walls, they were curved to the right just as the stairs were. Suddenly I started having flashes of walking down these winding stairs on this red carpet before… but why? Why was I there? I calmed my breathing and closed my eyes as I tried to remember.
A couple girls passing by noticed me on the floor crying and stopped to check on me. Adrienne told them I was fine, to go on, but as they left she asked, “Are you okay?” I nodded. I had no clue what the hell was going on but I knew I couldn’t sit in the floor forever. I got up and we started down the stairs one step at a time.
“I don’t know,” I told her, “I just have the craziest feeling like I’ve been here before and something bad happened. I don’t remember being here but... I don't know, I just don't feel right." I stopped just before turning the full curve of the wall. "I can't go down there. Let's go back upstairs, I can't do it.”
The White Fireplace
We returned to our seats and tried as we may to watch the show. I love Theatre and I tried hard to immerse myself into the performance but I couldn't let go of the uneasy feeling nor the flashbacks. And I still had that strange feeling of being watched what I sat in the house. All of my thoughts must have read on my face because Adrienne leaned in and whispered, "What was going on? Why are you afraid?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, shaking my head. “I have no idea. It’s almost like I’ve blocked out whatever scared me.”
Ade sat quietly for a moment then whispered, “Want to go back? It might come to you.”
I shook my head no but sat there reflecting on my mother. I thought about how scared she was of what she couldn’t see at our old home, how she always felt watched and how the things she said always proved to be true, even when she nor the rest of us could see them at the time. I thought about how the fear of what she couldn’t see had changed her and controlled how she went about her life. I didn’t want to be controlled by something that didn’t make sense. I needed to see what was wrong.
“Yeah,” I eventually whispered back. “Let’s go.”
As we shuffled past the other students again, a memory flashed before my eyes. FIREPLACE. I didn't know the meaning of the fireplace but I was certain in my gut a fireplace was a key element in this fear.
We explained to our teacher that I was sick and needed to go back to the restroom again, and that we may take longer than expected. She nodded in understanding, as she could that I clearly wasn't well.
“There was a fireplace!" I told her as we entered the lobby for a second time and headed through the arched doorway that presented the staircase. "I’ll know if it’s real or not if we get to the bottom of these stairs and there’s a fireplace!” With that, I trotted to the bottom and stopped, Ade bumping into me. The fireplace. There it was. I said nothing. I was in shock. Just as I remembered seeing it. White. Mantel with posts. The mirror. Suddenly, everything came flooding back and I remembered everything—the clothes, the bed, the disembodied voices that surrounded me. The dread of being watched by those people I couldn't see.
The Beautiful Woman
She and I hadn’t stood at the base of those stairs but a couple of moments before “Beautiful, isn’t it?” A voice came from over our shoulders.
We both looked to see a woman standing there with us looking around. We were startled by this simply because she had come from nowhere. She hadn’t come down the staircase with us, we would have heard her—saw her with as close as she would have had to have been in order to get there around the same time. She wasn’t in the room in front of us when we had entered either. She just simply wasn’t there, then simply was.
I don’t think I can describe in words the elegance this lady carried herself with. She, too, looked plucked straight out of a Hollywood Classic on A&E. She had pale white skin, blonde hair that probably would’ve have come to her bra strap had she not worn it smoothed into those waves and curls you see on most vintage Pin-Up models. She had sweet, blue eyes and wore a very well fitted green dress suit with the long skirt and jacket that tapers at the waist but flairs out just below the hips, and simple heels. On her left, just over her heart, she wore a golden rose broach pin. I knew of Stranger Danger, but I didn’t find this lady frightening as she smiled at me.
“Hi, Dawn” she grinned down at me.
Now that put a lump in my throat that Adrienne didn’t notice. Nobody but my family called me by my middle name at this time. Most people didn’t even know my middle name and school staff certainly didn’t call me by it. “If she were here with the school system, she’d have called me by my first name,” I thought.
"She's not fee—" Ade had just started to tell her our excuse for being in the restroom when the lady cut her off.
Vaudeville and the Great Depression
“I know,” she said. “She is scared because of what she saw years ago… is that right, Dawn? You are remembering when you and the girls were here and how scared you were?”
That was it! How the hell did she know!? Yes! When the girls and I were here years ago there was everything everywhere! But how did she know!? My eyes grew large but I simply nodded, speechless and afraid.
“Why were you so scared?” the lady laughed.
“Because we weren’t supposed to be here” I told her.
“You saw things that didn’t make sense, didn’t you?” Adrienne looked at me, wanting me to clarify what this lady was talking about because I hadn’t told her the story. I nodded. “You don’t know what you were seeing do you?” I shook my head. She smiled then continued.
“When you came with your family, you saw a motion picture, but during the Great Depression this was the home of Vaudeville."
This was the first time I had heard of Vaudeville, but I nodded to show I was listening.
"Now, acting back then was actually frowned upon and considered immoral so a lot of actors and dancers lost their family when they found their talent and calling." There was a soft fondness in her voice like that found when one is reminiscing of their own days gone by. "Many people came to the theater on a dream, with no money. They came to make money. But... it was the Great Depression, there was no money," she shrugged with a thoughtful pause. "A lot of actors lived down here. This room, the main sleeping quarters. And here…” she said, wiggling a finger for us to follow her as she crossed the room toward the fireplace. Giving the wall a little push, a door that was unnoticeable to us before gave from the wall and opened. I was honestly afraid to follow her inside. What if she locked us inside? I didn’t know this lady. I poked my head in and looked around. “Here was the kitchen,” she said pointing to the left, “and sometimes if you had money or family you could call them.” She gestured to what remained of an old telephone booth. It was aged, rusty and looked to be the playhouse for mice for quite some time. Adrienne was seeing the tour through a totally different set of eyes than I was, of course, but she found it interesting nevertheless. I, however, had more questions than answers creeping in.
Candle in the Wind
“The bed?” I asked.
“Where people slept,” she replied in a matter of fact tone.
“Their clothes and costumes.”
“The party and the cigarettes?”
“They lived here!” she chuckled, as if to say “I just told you!”
What she told me explained everything... except I hadn’t been there during the Great Depression. And except how she knew who I was and what I had even seen. Was she in the building when I was last there and if so, how did she recognize me now that I was much older? Was she a… how do you ask someone if they are a ghost politely? Is there a politically correct term for that? The best thing I could muster was, “Did they die here?”
“Yes, plenty did” she confirmed. Pointing to the wall behind the phone booth in front of us she said, “As I said, some of them didn’t have families to bury them and churches wouldn’t always do it because you were seen tainted, not really someone they’d want to have in the church ground, so a few of them were buried back there. The last was an actress… there wasn’t a street back there in those days. The city has since paved over them.”
“So her family couldn’t come to visit her even if they wanted to,” Adrienne pointed out. The lady shook her head.
“That’s so sad,” I sighed.
“It is sad,” the woman agreed. “Do you understand now?"
"It wasn't here, was it? What we saw and heard?"
"It was here," she nodded firmly. "Not as you experienced it, exactly, but it was most definitely here at one time and you just so happened to experience it. Does that make you feel better? To understand what you were seeing when you and Dana were so young, to know they couldn't hurt you?”
“No, Lady”, I wanted to say. “You just called my cousin by name and nobody here even knows her! You can’t know that! How did you know the person with me then was Dana!? And you just informed me had crashed the Great Gatsby of all ghost parties! I’m more frightened now that I was when I was 6!” I didn’t say that, though. I merely nodded with a sigh. I was ready to just be back upstairs in my seat watching the Frankie and Annette wannabes like the rest of my class. I said nothing and looked silently about the room with the fireplace, taking it all in.
Adrienne drew closer to me and asked, “Do you feel better? You okay now?” I nodded then thought of something I wanted to ask the Lady.
I couldn’t. She was gone.
She remains a mystery.
Adrienne and I both froze, looking at each other. I poked my head back into the room hidden by the secret door but she wasn’t inside. Ade looked inside the room with all the toilets. She wasn’t there either. The two of us were standing at the base of the stairs and she certainly didn't come past us. Needless to say, we sprinted faster than we had the first time around.
When we got back to our seats, neither of us could wrap our heads around what had just happened.
"How'd she do that?" Adrienne asked. "She just popped up and just disappeared. How'd she do that?" I shook my head in silence. "Do you think she was a ghost?"
"I don't know." I didn't know what to think.
"She was one of them, wasn't she? That's how she knew everything! She was in that room with you guys when it happened and that's how she knew! She had to! Why didn't you just tell me the story?"
"I didn't remember it!" I snapped. Was this what my mom had been experiencing all those times with Ronald? Did he appear that vividly to her and make so much sense? What was happening to me? Would I be okay when I got home? Should I even tell my mom about this or would it scare her? There was too much to this for me to wrap my head around. I told Adrienne not to talk to me about it and to never bring it up. It 2019 now and in all of these years, she has only mentioned it twice. When last asked about it, she told me she couldn’t remember. In about 1995, when we were teenagers, I decided to tell Dana about my encounter with that lady. I got as far as, “Do you remember when we saw that stuff in that bathroom that time?” and she shut me down, telling me yes, but she didn’t want to talk about it. I tried to explain that I had more to add to it but she didn’t want to hear it.
From my 20s on, since the internet became available and information a lot easier to come by, I’ve researched my tail off, digging through the history of the old theater. I have watched documentaries. I have read old newspaper articles. Every single thing that the lady told me was true. Many people had died in the theater, not just performers. Two electricians had met their demise while working on wiring. A maintenance man met his death in the projection room. And the man my cousins heard in the downstairs bathroom very easily could have been the spirit of the homeless man who had taken up shelter there and froze to death. Shadow people have been reported in the balcony, just as I'd seen that day. The ladies powder room on the mezzanine is said to be inhabited by a beautiful lady in fancy red clothing, much like my bathroom beauty, but it seems nobody has ever seen the lovely lady in green down below. There have been numerous reports of people hearing a lady in the downstairs women’s bathroom and experiencing the same poltergeist activity my quartet did as a child, but no visions. I keep searching and searching for a story where someone says they have actually seen her or spoken with her.
To this date, it seems Adrienne and I are the only people who have a face to put with the action. Why materialize for me and nobody else? I don’t know. Who is the ghost lady thought to be? Is she an actress, perhaps the one she singled out in her story? Is she the same lady seen upstairs in red, doing costume changes on the other side? Did she work for the company in some other area, such as finance or tickets? Who the hell is this lady!? Nobody seems to know. I’ve not come across her face in any paintings nor newspaper clippings in all my years searching.
I will probably never stop looking for her face. Her story.
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