Haunted Heritage: Petrifying Playhouses

Written By: Pauline Bodevin, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator.

As the leaves change and the temperatures begin to dip in October, it’s naturally the perfect time for sharing tales of ghostly sightings, unexplained phenomena and spooky places. This year our haunted heritage feature looks at historic theatres associated with legends of unexplained paranormal activity, mysterious happenings and superstitions. These majestic old historic buildings are often well-known locally as the sites of alleged supernatural phenomena and ghost-ridden performances.

Here are a few allegedly paranormal playhouses:

The Walterdale Playhouse, Edmonton

The Walterdale Playhouse is known locally for tales of ghostly hauntings and mysterious unexplained phenomena. Originally completed in 1910, the building served as the Strathcona No. 1 Firehall and was occupied by the Edmonton Fire Department until 1954. It was later used as a warehouse to store unused furniture and equipment when the fire department moved to a new location. Over the course of the next 20 years, the old building fell into disrepair and its condition deteriorated badly. In 1974, the Walterdale Playhouse group took over the lease on the condition that the old fire hall would be restored. Reborn as the home of the Walterdale Playhouse amateur theatre group, the building was converted into the theatre we are familiar with today.

Strathcona Fire Hall #1, Edmonton. Source: City of Edmonton.

According to local lore, the theatre is allegedly haunted by a friendly ghost affectionately known as Walt. The apparition is rumoured to be one of the original fire department volunteer members who is thought to have perished after a fatal accident occurred inside the building. Visitors have been known to describe seeing objects mysteriously moving, lights flickering on unexpectedly, and often experience unsettling feelings of being watched. Other have heard inexplicable sounds of a ringing bell, the smell of horses and the sounds of phantom hoof beats occurring regularly on the cement floors. Many still believe the restless spirit of Walt continues to roam the building to this day.

The Princess Theatre, Edmonton

The Princess Theatre was constructed in 1914 and became known as one of the provinces preeminent theatres. At the time, the three-story building claimed to have the largest stage in western Canada and featured a seating capacity for 660 patrons. When the theatre opened in 1915, it offered performances that included moving picture shows, musical vaudeville, concerts and a billiards parlour in the basement. After functioning as an important cultural hub in Edmonton for over 40 forty years, the theatre closed in 1958 and was modified to house various retail establishments. In the 1970s the building was completely renovated with architectural embellishments giving it an 1890’s appearance and reopened as the Klondyke theatre. In 1978, the majestic old theatre was leased by the Old Strathcona Foundation and its name was changed from the Klondyke back to its original name, the Princess Theatre.

The front facade of the Princess Theatre, Edmonton. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Over the decades the grand old theatre has acquired a wealth of supernatural lore. One of the best known stories involves sightings of the pale figure of a young woman attired in a white wedding dress in certain areas of the old theatre. Witnesses report seeing an apparition dressed in white hovering above the projection room, catching glimpses of her figure wandering in the central lobby and sensing her eerie presence in shadowy corners along the grand staircase. She is rumoured to be the restless spirit of a scorned young bride who tragically hung herself inside the building when it served as a rooming house in the 1920s. The Princess Theatre is the perfect backdrop for the heartbreaking tale of a jilted bride whose scorned spirit continues to make her spectral presence known to visitors.

The Empress Theatre, Fort Macleod

The Empress Theatre was completed in 1912 and heralded as one of the few first class theatres in the province. In addition to being a movie/opera house, the Empress hosted many vaudeville acts and played a significant role in the theatrical community in Western Canada. The theatre provided seating for up to 400 patrons and was a very important part of the local community offering escape from the day to day. After changing ownership several times, the building was resold in 1973 to Daniel A. Boyle, a prominent figure in the local community. During the period of Boyle’s ownership the Empress enjoyed it’s most successful and profitable period as a movie theatre. Extensive renovations were undertaken and new additions were made, including decorative pink and green neon lighting on the ceiling and a 100 seat balcony. Although the exterior of the Empress was quite plain to match the streetscape of the town, in it’s hey day in the 1940s, the interior was richly appointed for visitors.  

Rumors that the Empress Theatre was a hot bed of paranormal activity began circulating in the early 1960s. Guest and staff reported hearing disembodied laughter, doors slamming mysteriously, repetitive thumping noises from inside an unused store room and periodic sightings of a ghostly male apparition in the bathrooms. Some people attribute the supernatural activity to the restless spirit of a long dead janitor who worked in the building over 70 years ago. His presence is said to always be accompanied by the strong scent of tobacco, alcohol and manure lingering in the air after an appearance. The entity is well for engaging in mischief, and is often blamed for hiding objects around the building, setting off the alarm system in the early hours of the morning and flipping theatre seats up and down along the aisles. Mysterious noises have also been heard coming from the front of the building, including strange crying and whimpering sounds from empty dressing rooms and the phantom footsteps running up the stairs when the building was devoid of visitors. Other stories people have shared involve ladders inexplicably toppling over, lights oddly flickering on and off for no apparent reason, spine-chillingly eerie sounds being emitted from the buildings intercom system. No one can be sure where or when visitors will be treated to the Empress’s ghostly performances.

The Canmore Opera House, Calgary

The Opera House was originally built in 1910 to serve as concert hall for the small mining town of Canmore, Alberta. Although the building was designed as a concert hall, it also believed to have been used as a makeshift morgue for a short time after a tragic mining accident at the Canmore mine. A few years later, the building was leased as a motion picture house when electricity arrived in the Rocky Mountain community. In 1922, the building underwent extensive renovations that doubled its original size, added new sloping floors, a new screen and proper movie seats. Through the years the Opera House, as it became known locally, was renovated multiple times by successive owners until the building was permanently closed in 1960. The building was then donated to Heritage Park, disassembled for transport and reconstructed at its current location in Calgary.

The Canmore Opera House as it appeared in the early 1950s. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-3147-1.

When the Opera House was moved to its new location, it is believed that its supernatural inhabitants came along for the trip. Alleged paranormal activity in the building includes sightings of the apparitions of deceased miners and performers dressed in old fashioned clothing. Other chilling accounts describe people hearing the haunting sounds of the voice of a woman singing and phantom piano melodies coming from somewhere near the main stage at times when no one was near the instrument. One particular story shared by a group of visitors described hearing the loud boisterous sounds of a party emanating from inside the auditorium. But when someone supposedly checked inside, the dark cavernous seating area was empty and eerily silent. Witnessed have also reported seeing the apparition of an older gentleman dressed in old fashioned attire inside the building and wandering around the grounds. It is rumored the otherworldly entity may have once been a member of the band and still enjoys watching performers rehearse from time to time.

Do you have a haunted heritage tales to share? Send us your spooky stories!

Sources:

“Haunted Canada”, Pat Hancock 2000.

“Ghost Stories of Alberta”, Barbara Smith 1993.

“More Ghost Stories of Alberta”, Barbara Smith 1997.

“Ghost Stories of the Rocky Mountain”, Barbara Smith 1999.

“Even More Ghost Stories of Alberta”, Barbara Smith 2001.

HERMIS (Heritage Resources Management Information System) – https://hermis.alberta.ca/

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