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Springfield's Landers Theatre Said to be Haunted

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, supposed hauntings still make for interesting stories—especially this time of year.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky takes us to one local building that’s said to be haunted:  the Landers Theatre. 

The Landers Theatre has a long history in Springfield --it opened in 1909—and as is the case with many older structures, there are stories of ghosts that inhabit the building.

Chuck Rogers admits some of those stories are just that—tales started long ago and embellished over the years.  He even started one himself about an African-American man who was stabbed to death in the second balcony, which was used during segregation.  As he pointed out stains on the carpet to groups that used to tour the building, he let kids’ imaginations go wild.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe there are ghosts where he works.  Rogers, stage designer and co-technical director for Springfield Little Theatre, was at the Landers in the 1990s working late one night when he saw someone standing in the lobby.  Thinking it was someone who was able to get in through the front doors, he approached the man to ask him why he was there.

"He just kind of stood there and stared at me, and I said, 'sir, the building's closed, I need to ask you to leave, and he just stood there, so I started walking towards him, and as I walked towards him, he turned around and walked towards the auditorium in which case I got a little angry that somebody was in there, so I followed him, and he just stood there and looked at me, so I was going to go over and escort him out of the building, and he turned and walked into the auditorium, and I went right around the corner to confront him, and there was nobody there."

He says that incident changed how he viewed what went on in the building. 

When Rogers first started working for Springfield Little Theatre in 1983, he’d heard several ghost stories associated with the Landers since SLT had purchased the building in 1970.  There was one about a Shakespearean ghost on the fourth floor, another about a green orb seen floating in the balconies and others about the sounds of babies crying.  But he’d never really experienced anything himself until the encounter with the unidentified man in the 1990s.

"Other than the fact that when you're here in this building by yourself you definitely feel as if you're not alone.  Now, whether or not that is ghost or whether that is spirits or souls--Mick Denniston who was our artistic  executive director for so many years used to say that the theatre was filled with all of the voices of all of the people that had passed through and acted onstage, and I always thought that that was a wonderful way of looking at the unexplained occurrences that happen," he said.

And many people HAVE passed through the Landers over the years including the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, George Cohan, Lon Chaney, John Philip Sousa and Lillian Russell just to name a few.

Admittedly, some parts of the building LOOK creepy—a staircase coming down behind the SLT offices and an abandoned staircase used by African-Americans during segregation.  That one can be seen behind a cut out in the drywall.

One story told about the Landers involves the ghost of a janitor who was said to have died in a fire in 1920. 

The part about the fire is true, but no one was killed when it broke out on December 18th of that year.  According to the Springfield Leader, the fire started at 12:45 pm in the basement, and for a time it was feared that it would destroy the entire block.  The cause was believed to be an explosion in the boiler, which set fire to a large pile of coal.

Fire damage was contained to the stage and dressing room, and the auditorium sustained smoke and water damage.  Losses included a pipe organ valued at $7500 and 50 tons of coal.

According to the Leader, “The fact that an asbestos curtain was lowered when the fire was first discovered saved the auditorium from greater damage.”

The next day, D. J. Landers, principal stockholder in the Landers Theater Co., announced that the building would be rebuilt “into one of the finest motion picture theaters in this section.”  Seven years later, the Landers became the 35th theatre in the United States to show “talkies,” featuring Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

Rogers knows how the story about the janitor came about.  It stemmed from the experience he had when he saw the man in the lobby.  He had invited friends to come to the theatre that night after the incident, and one brought a Ouija board.

"She sat on the stairs in our auditorium and "Ouij'd" this experience, and what came back was that this person's name was Ned, and he used to be a janitor here in the building," he said.

He says that story morphed into the one about the janitor dying in the fire.

Beth Domann, Springfield Little Theatre’s executive director, has experienced strange things at the theatre.  Once, she and a group of colleagues and friends were standing in the lobby reminiscing about longtime SLT director Mick Denniston who had recently died.

"We were laughing about some of the things we had done with Mick, and we were having the best time laughing and carrying on, and all of a sudden the front doors--it was like somebody was standing outside shaking them as hard as they could, you know, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, and I looked over and I said, 'well, Mick,' and, bam, they stopped," she said.

During auditions for A Streetcar Named Desire, Domann says a colleague’s earring flew from her ear onto the stage as if someone had flicked her ear.  She says you can sense spirits there.  They’re all nice, according to Domann, except maybe one.

"She hangs out in the lobby, and it feels like she's kind of an angry kitty, yeah.  I don't know what happened to her, but she's not a happy camper 'cause the energy changes pretty quick, and you can hear these high heeled shoes walking--the clicky, clicky, clicky of high heeled shoes, which that's enough to make anybody angry--wearing high heeled shoes," she said.

Sometimes, she says, they can smell certain odors—like bacon cooking.  According to Domann, when the Landers Theatre was part of the Orpheum circuit of theatres showing vaudeville or tabloid shows during the early part of the 20th century, actors would live in the building and they’d cook for themselves.

Stories about hauntings at the Landers will continue to be told.  Rogers wishes he’d started one about finding Ned’s skeleton when the balcony was renovated last year.

Whether or not you believe in the Landers’ ghosts, the building carries with it a rich history and a story that deserves to live on well into the future.

Additional History of the Landers (according to SLT's website):

The Landers Theatre, at 311 E. Walnut, opened on September 18, 1909 with a production called "Golden Girl." The theater was the dream of John Landers, a newcomer to Springfield who owned a lumber business. He was joined in the venture by his son, Douglas J. Landers, R.N. Stewart, E.E.R. McJimson and George Olendorf. It had the second largest stage in the state.

In 1915, "Birth of Nation" was shown in the theater and silent movies were a regular feature with musical or drama productions playing between the motion pictures.

In 1927, radio station WBIM broadcasted from the Landers until it was moved to the Kentwood Arms.

Continuously through the 1960s, the Landers Theatre was a motion picture theater. Since it never sat vacant, there was little renovation that needed to be done when SLT purchased the building in 1970.