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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.

“I’m wondering,” Gaffey said, “if it’s the little boy. This was the fly area” - the area to the rear of the stage where backdrops hung. “With stuff hanging here and ladder work, maybe the kid was injured. He’s been seen by many. He’s got shaggy hair, maybe less than five feet, wearing shorts or knickers, a wool suit and a cap, from the 1920s.”

In the 1990s, a security guard for the thrash metal band GWAR got down off a ladder and asked, “Who’s that little kid back there in the exit?” When no one could find the boy, the guard quit.

Another evening, while a recording of Debussy’s Clair de Lune was playing, Gaffey saw the Little Kid following a teen who was going to turn over the record - “except there wasn’t anyone there.”

He shrugged. “With me, these things are not visions, they’re knowledge. But, is that just me?” He laughed, “I don’t trust my own mind half the time.”

The projection room ghost continued to be a problem for Gaffey, though he wasn’t the only one to hear clanking and see a figure in the booth. One night, Gaffey said, he finally got fed up with the phantom. “It was late, and I got angry. I was stomping around up there, shouting ‘Dammit, I want to go home. If there are any ghosts here and you’re f---ing with me, when I die, I’ll come back here and haunt you and you won’t like a minute of it!’

“I threw open the projection booth door and there was no one there and I yelled, ‘Right! Fine! I’m going now!’”

These days, Gaffey said, the haunted aspect appears to have quieted down. Perhaps, he mused, the ghosts enjoyed it more as a movie theater than a rock ‘n roll house.

Over the years, a number of psychics, ghost hunters and exorcists have visited the building. In the early 1980s, the most troublesome of the Phoenix spirits accepted a psychic’s invitation to leave. This was the Lady in the Bathroom. “She was a big woman,” Gaffey said, “and angry. I had two janitors, a husband-and-wife team, and they would not clean the bathroom alone. The heat in there would lift every hair on your body.”

The psychic, from the Berkeley Psychic Institute, arrived on a Friday the 13th, after a move. “It had been a madhouse down here and she was angry. You could feel that.

“The psychic had what looked like a car antenna. It began to spin and got hot and prickly in here and he said, ‘Oh my god, look at all this energy. This place is packed.’”

Gaffey said the psychic surmised the Phoenix may be a building the ghosts found refuge in; they were confused about where they were, what was going on and what was to happen next.

The psychic recognized Chris and Gaffey confirmed, “Yeah, that’s Chris. We like him.”

Then, he said, “swooping down from the balcony was this hot, angry energy. That’s the Old Lady in the Bathroom. She had a big hole in her chest.

“Everybody was here,” Gaffey went on, “if they’re here at all. This building was full.”

The psychic’s wand was spinning in circles, and he said to the presences he sensed, “There’s the light. If you want to go now, you can go.”

And, Galley said, the Lady in the Bathroom left. “It felt so clean, so good. A lot of other energy was flushed as well. And at that point, I got comfortable with whatever energy was here.

“Maybe,” he said, “they’re looking to get their bearings before they move on. But, I am the manager. I have a job to do here and my job is to make sure people use this building appropriately.

“If you are a ghost, you are also show folk and you know the show must go on. If you can’t do that, then I, as the boss, have to deal with it. But because you love this place as much as I do, that’s why you want to be here. You’re welcome to stay as long as you can be a part of this.

“And that’s how I’ve run it since that night.”

(Contact Katie Watts at argus@arguscourier.com)

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