Ghosts of Avon Theatre

I have no problem with saying that I believe the Avon Theater is one of the most haunted places in the city of Decatur. In addition to all of the first and second-hand accounts that I have collected from the place over the years, I have experienced things here myself that have defied all rational attempts to explain them away. And the ghosts here do not seem to be leaving anytime soon, as I (and many others believe) they are forever entwined into the history of the theater itself!

When the announcement came that a new theater was going to open in the city of Decatur, people became very excited. There were already a number of theaters operating in town, especially along North Water Street, but there was always room for more entertainment. Besides that, rumor had it that this theater was going to be different than the rest.
The builder and owner of the new theater, James Allman, announced a contest by which the name of the theater would be chosen. Over 700 people entered the contest and flooded the judge’s panel with a variety of names for the building. The winning name, the “Avon”, was chosen in August 1916. It had been submitted by Thomas Ronan of Decatur. Ronan, who claimed to be a theatrical man himself, was presented with a season pass for the theater. Allman was happy with the judge’s decision and announced that the attractive name would surely conjure up images of William Shakespeare as it was on the banks of the Avon the great playwright had been born.

The Avon enjoyed success for a number of years and then in the late 1920’s, it was purchased by the Constanopoulos family of Angelo, Gus, Christian and Theodore. The records of the city date their first involvement with the theater as 1927. Prior to that, they had owned a candy and soda business called the Empress Confectionary. Several of the brothers would be involved in Decatur theater, but it would be Gus Constan (as their name was later shortened to) who remained most involved with the Avon Theater. He would also own the Rogers Theater and become a partner in the Varsity Theater a few years later.

In 1966, Gus Constan was bought out of the Avon by a theater chain that was also in the process of buying other theaters in town. The family remained the owners of the building for some time, but had no control over the business. Legend has it that Gus Constan loved the theater so much that he kept a private office here for many years. When the time came for him to move out, after the Avon had changed hands, he simply refused to leave. Employees of the new owners were forced to remove everything from his office and they literally threw it all into the street in front of the building.

This is one of the most often repeated stories of the theater and while I have no idea if it is actually true, it has been told for many years. However, if it is true, it might go a long way in explaining why Constan is still reportedly haunting the Avon today!

The stories of restless ghosts at the Avon go back many years, even to the early days of the theater, but I first got involved in the ghostly goings-on here in September 1994. The theater had opened again the year before and I was contacted by some of the staff members who worked here. They asked if I would mind looking into some of the strange things they claimed were happening in the theater. While the first visit was rather uneventful, I was able to record a lot of information about the alleged haunting. The theater manager, and the rest of the staff, reported that things had started to turn up missing in the theater, both small items and large. They also told of hearing footsteps, laughter, applause and voices coming from the auditorium after it had emptied for the night. The sounds of people walking about in empty rooms and in hallways were common, as was the feeling of being watched and being touched by ghostly hands. One staff member even claimed to have been groped by an invisible entity while working in the projection booth.

That night, I took a walking tour of the place with recording equipment and cameras and found the sensations of some of the places in the theater were very disturbing. One of the most frightening locations was a hallway that is located upstairs above the theater’s lobby. The theater’s offices, and a small bathroom, opened off this hallway. The feeling that I had while walking down this corridor was very disconcerting, and while I certainly don’t claim to be psychic, it was a strange experience. I became very uncomfortable and sensed a chill in that spot that didn’t seem to be present elsewhere in the building.

I would soon learn that the theater staff felt the same way and largely avoided the place when possible. There had been many occasions when the sound of footsteps had echoed in the corridor and those who looked to see who was there, found it empty. I would also later learn that the small bathroom along this hallway had been the original theater projection booth, which might explain why the resident ghosts were so attracted to it. This corridor would also be the same location where more than one person would encounter a ghost!

Unfortunately, that one evening would be my last chance to explore the Avon that year. I called the theater a short time later about returning, only to learn that the place had closed down once again. The following spring, I was able to return. Ironically, Skip Huston, who now operates the theater, was part of a group interested in buying it in 1995. The plan was to turn the place into a movie-themed nightclub that would serve food and drinks, along with films and live entertainment. The project never came about, but I was able to spend quite a bit of time in the theater doing research and it was during this period that Skip came face-to-face with one of the local haunts!

During the process of evaluating the building for the nightclub project, Skip came down to the theater one rainy afternoon in the spring of 1995. On this day, his trip to the Avon had a double purpose. He was not only looking over the building, but was also borrowing some marquee letters from the theater for use at an upcoming show at the Lincoln Theater. Even though it was a “dark and stormy” afternoon and he knew the theater was supposed to be haunted, he had no problems with going there by himself. In fact, he grabbed a flashlight and a couple of garbage bags to hold the letters and proceeded to the theater.

“Keep in mind,” Skip recalled later, “I had always felt immune to otherworldly contact. I was always an ardent believer in the supernatural but considered myself one of those unlucky people who were not sensitive. This is why I didn’t hesitate to enter the darkness of the Avon with only a penlight to see with.”

Skip made his way through the theater to the “letter room”, which is located off the previously mentioned hallway on the upstairs level of the building. The room is a small office where all of the plastic letters for the theater marquee are stored. Many of them were ancient letters for a marquee that hadn’t existed for years, while others were the old letters from the Lincoln that had been donated to the Avon when the Lincoln’s own marquee had been restored. These were the letters that Skip was seeking. After he entered the dimly lit room, he used his flashlight to begin looking for letters and checking them off the sheet he carried with him.

A few minutes after he started working, he distinctly heard a noise behind him in the hallway. He turned around, but saw no one there. A few minutes later, he heard it again. Were those footsteps? he wondered, and looked out in the corridor. The hall remained just as dark, but just as empty as well. Skip shook his head and went back to work, hurriedly filling one of the plastic bags with letters. Again, he heard another strange noise and reflexively turned around… but this time, he found that he was not alone!

“A man stood in the doorway to the room,” Skip told me. “My first thought was that someone else was in the theater, perhaps a homeless person hiding out there. He was of medium height and slender build. His age appeared to be in his late ‘50’s or early ‘60’s. His hair was close-cropped gray and black. He was not transparent or wraith-like. He appeared solid. His face was non-descript and he stared into the room, not looking at me, just staring.

“I started to speak to him and then he slowly turned and started down the hallway. Recovered from my surprise, I darted to the doorway to say something but all that I saw was an empty hall. I grabbed the finished bag of letters and left the theater as fast as my legs would carry me!”

That was certainly Skip Huston’s most startling visit to the Avon, but it would not be the last. The following summer, he was able to convince the theater’s owner to allow a research group into the building for one last investigation. At that time, it seemed that the Avon’s days were numbered and if the place was haunted, I wanted to be able to gather as much material about the place as possible. On that afternoon, I was present, with a ghost research team from Chicago, along with Skip Huston and the theater’s owner.

In the time since Skip’s encounter, he had told the story of meeting the ghost to a number of people, many involved in local theater, and some of them said that his description of the apparition in the hallway sounded familiar. They believed that it resembled Gus Constan, who had owned the theater for many years and had been removed from the Avon in 1966.

Was it possible, that in death, Constan had returned to his theater to watch over the place in its last years? Perhaps Skip’s borrowing of the marquee letters had roused a protective impulse in the spirit and he had chosen that moment to make himself known? It would certainly seem this was the case!

The ghost research group, headed by author Dale Kaczmarek, began investigating the theater using a variety of high-tech devices that were designed to measure fluctuations in the geo-magnetic field of the Avon. These fluctuations can point to the presence of ghosts, or at least paranormal activity, in a building. Inside of one of the offices on the second floor, they discovered that readings on the equipment were literally “off the scale”, especially in one corner of the room. The theater’s owner had followed them upstairs and remarked on seeing the reaction of the equipment that the room had once been the office of Gus Constan. The corner where the equipment readings were very strong had been where Constan’s desk had rested for more than 30 years. Coincidence? Probably not!

While the investigation was taking place, Skip Huston had followed the group upstairs also. He looked in the office, saw the meters and the excitement, and went back downstairs. Even after a year, he was still a little shaky about his encounter with the ghost and was not interested, at that point, in seeing what the scientific devices could tell him that he didn’t already know. In other words, he was already sure the place was haunted!

At about the same moment that he came into the room, and then left, all of the equipment suddenly stopped and shut down. Strangely, the energy that had been there just moments before had departed. On a hunch, Dale Kaczmarek suggested that we follow Skip downstairs. The reader may be able to guess what happened next…. all of the equipment became active again near Skip. Apparently, whatever they had been tracking upstairs had followed him to the lower floor, where no energy had previously been detected! Perhaps the ghost was afraid that he had come back to the theater to take some more letters with him?

Before the theater opened again, another strange encounter took place in the fall of 1998. This time, it was during the more likely setting of a HAUNTED DECATUR TOUR. For a number of years, both Skip and I had hosted these bus tours to haunted sites in the city and on many occasions, weird happenings took place during the tours. When I moved from Decatur in 1998, Skip carried on the tradition of the tours. It was during such an excursion that one of the Avon ghosts made another appearance… this time in front of more than a dozen frightened witnesses!

Even though the theater was still closed down, and without electricity, Skip managed to secure the building for the tour. He thought it would make an appropriately spooky setting for the end of each night‘s outing. On this particular night, a terrible storm was raging outside. Skip remembered that it was the only rainy night of the tour season and he was disappointed that the attendees had been “rained out” of Greenwood Cemetery. He hoped that a longer version of the haunting events at the Avon Theater would appease anyone who felt the night had been too short. After a re-telling of the events in the building, he asked if anyone had any questions. Someone raised a hand and asked what the name of theater’s former owner (and the resident ghost’s) name had been. At literally the same moment that Skip spoke the name of “Gus Constan”, a shout went up from someone in the crowd. This person was frantically pointing up toward the theater balcony and everyone turned in that direction.

Skip would never forget what he saw there. “It was a figure at the balcony rail!”, he recalled.

He wasn‘t the only one who saw it either. He estimates that at least 15 people looked up and saw the shadowy figure on the balcony… and panicked! People were pushing and shoving and climbing over the seats to get out of the auditorium, only to run out into the lobby and find the front doors locked. They were barely able to get the doors opened fast enough and needless to say, that ended the tour for the night! The incident left Skip’s assistant so shaken that he quit the tours that night and never came back.

“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me later and talk about that night,” he told me recently. “In fact, one day I was at the supermarket and the young woman at the check-out said to me that she was on the tour ‘that night’. I didn’t have to ask what she meant… I knew exactly what night she was talking about.”

The theater re-opened about six months later and with any sort of restoration work, a lot of time, money and hard work was involved. The Avon had deteriorated badly during the time it was closed down and initially, it looked as though opening the place would be impossible. There were simply too many things wrong with the old building and every time that one thing got fixed, something else would break down. In addition, Skip had skeptics to deal with among his partners and his staff. They constantly badgered him about the so-called ghosts in the theater and poked fun at his belief that the theater was haunted.

“They started out as skeptics,” he laughed later on, “but they’re all believers now!”

As the restoration and repair work began to shake loose the dust and grime of the building, it awakened other things as well. It was not long before everyone on the crew, including those who had been the most skeptical about the haunting, began to report eerie incidents they couldn’t explain away. Nearly everyone talked of hearing phantom voices in empty rooms and in the deserted auditorium. They also complained of disembodied footsteps and inexplicable cold chills that simply should not exist. Most easily convinced were those who spent the entire night, either working or sleeping in the building. They were soon coming to Skip and apologizing for ever doubting him.

One night, Skip was sitting in the auditorium talking when he spotted a bizarre flash of light out of the corner of his eye. Dismissing it as an optical illusion, he was prepared to think nothing of it when suddenly, the other person with him turned and asked if he had seen a light. Skip asked him to describe what he had seen and the man replied that it had been a light on the edge of the stage. He also added that it looked like it had an outline of a figure in it. This was exactly what Skip had seen!

Later on, after customers began to arrive, they reported their own encounters. Many people spoke of feeling as though they were being watched and of the pressure of hands on their backs and arms when no one was present. There were also reports of apparitions and figures who were present one moment and then gone the next. None of the incidents were particularly frightening. It was more like the resident specters were simply trying to make their presence known.

The Avon ghosts were certainly still around and apparently were pleased with the activity that was going on in the building. Skip believes they approve of the theater’s re-opening and that they may be responsible for the strange run of luck the business has experienced, from the public response to the theater to the mysterious way that seemingly hopeless repairs have been accomplished.

I recently spoke with Chris Barnett, one of the people who was instrumental in getting the Avon operating again. He has had his own strange encounters in the place.  ” After a thorough tour of all parts of the Avon, my brother from out of town and I were resting on the stage. No one else was in the building and the doors were all locked, he remembered.  “I was lying down, facing the Northwest portion of the balcony when a bright bar of light about three feet high appeared, moving across the wall toward the exit doors. It vanished just before it got to them. I thought it to be a reflection from the street initially, but then realized that no light from outside could possibly get into the auditorium! As soon as the light vanished, the exit doors it was approaching rattled violently, but as it was windy outside, that could be explained. Or does the coincidence of the light and the doors suggest something more?? Since I work in the building and have heard and seen many unexplainable things, I firmly believe that our theatre IS haunted, but by friendly spirits only, as I have NEVER had a bad experience here, have never been threatened and more that that, have been made to feel very welcome at all times.”

So, what it is that makes the Avon so otherworldy?

“I can’t explain it,” Skip Huston told me when I asked him to try and explain why things seemed to be going so right with the Avon. “I just think that someone is watching over the place.”

Does Gus Constan still watch over the Avon Theater? And if so, is he alone? It is believed that perhaps a number of ghosts still linger in this building, including that of a ticket-taker from the 1930’s and others. Truthfully, I believe that something walks in the theater, be it Gus Constan or someone else. Whoever it is, the place is haunted!

But don’t just take my word for it… go and experience the place for yourself. Thankfully, we have the chance to do that once again!