Phoenix Theater hauntings
In 1904, Petaluma was talking about the new Hill Opera House rising at the corner of Keller and Washington streets. The city was replacing a livery stable with its very own temple of the arts - a graceful new building to showcase only the finest of entertainment.
For a decade, musicals, dramas, comedies and farces were performed on its stage, presented by touring companies and local groups. High school graduations were held there, vaudeville acts of all kinds trod its boards. The Hill was the most elegant structure in town, a symbol of the city’s prosperity and culture.
But times were changing: pictures that moved were a fascinating novelty. In the 1920s, fire destroyed much of the theater. It was rebuilt as a moving picture house. In 1935, it became the California Theater. Installation of the new movie palace’s towering neon marquee - the largest between San Francisco and Portland - dazzled locals.
A second fire destroyed the ceiling in 1957. Again, it was rebuilt, this time as the Showcase.
Then, in 1983, two more changes took place. The theater was renamed the Phoenix - reflecting its ability to be reborn from the ashes, and Tom Gaffey, a young man who’d grown up in Petaluma and worked at both the California and the Showcase, was hired as manager.
Fast forward to earlier this month when Gaffey, still manager of the Phoenix, agreed to an interview about whether or not the century-old building is haunted.
The current incarnation of the Phoenix as a teen hangout and venue for rock concerts has meant changes to the interior. Main floor seats have been removed, walls are frescoed with style writing and little physical trace is left of the past. Yet there is a friendly feeling about this venerable place: an almost tangible warmth that embraces those who come through its doors, as comforting as a blanket on a cold night. All are welcomed here, both by Gaffey and by these walls that have witnessed so much.
Gaffey began by talking about his earliest days. “It was my job to close the theater down. By 10:15 it would just be me, and whatever people were watching the movie. Near the end, I’d go up to the projection booth. After the audience exited, I’d turn off the projector, come down onto the stage where the sound equipment was, turn off the amps, check doors, balcony, bathrooms, lock the doors, hit the security alarm, then go out the door by the box office.”
On three separate nights, as he was leaving, the box office phone rang.
Gaffey explained the building had five phone stations. The light on the box office phone indicated the call was from the projection booth.
“I’d have to turn off the alarm and pick up the phone. ‘Hello? Hello? Hello?’ But there was nobody there.
“You can’t believe in ghosts when you’re shutting down a theater. You have to check.
“Three times I mustered my courage, turned the lights back on and burst into the projection booth. There was no one there.
“That was my first experience, when I was an unknown here, a spooky ‘welcome back.’”
Gaffey is quick to temper his conversation with “it could have been” and “maybe someone playing pranks.” He keeps an open mind. Ghosts or explainable experiences: it’s for the individual to decide.
But. “Blue lights have been seen floating through the building. There’s the Little Kid: he’d been seen even when I was a kid working down here. And one night, sleeping on stage as a teen, I could hear and feel big footsteps. I never felt afraid.
“The big guy has been felt by many over the years,” Gaffey said. “We named him Chris. Big Chris. He’s the only ghost - if there are ghosts here - who’s not from a show business background.” He added that psychics who’ve visited the theater have talked about Chris dating to the livery stable-era and that someone was murdered on this spot, possibly with a knife.
But Gaffey continued firmly, “My experiences in this building have been warm and protective. “Chris had the spirit of the Phoenix before it became what it is. Chris may have loved this spot. I think it’s one of the coolest corners in town.” He commented he sensed from the warmth he felt as he was talking that Chris was on stage, observing.
Then there’s the Little Kid - a boy. “That’s an interesting one,” Gaffey said. “Again - a psychic had come in. First off, he talked about the guy in the attic [the projection booth], said he seemed to be older, white hair and faded green, almost khaki, clothing; tall, thin with angular knees and elbows.
The older man, the psychic told Gaffey, is trying to make good on something wrong he felt he did to a child. The psychic added the old man hadn’t, however, done anything.