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The Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod, AB was built in 1912 and is haunted by the former caretaker named Ed. He is known as a trickster and brings the smell of tobacco, alcohol, and horse manure wafting around the place for no reason. He has also been known to mess up clean rooms in no time flat.
The Empress Theatre can claim several distinctions that set it apart from other similar venues. Its excellent acoustics have attracted many of Canada’s top musicians, who usually would not play a theatre with such a limited seating capacity. Also, it is this country’s oldest continuously operating theatre, as its beautiful art deco decor suggests. Yet chillingly, the Empress also holds the distinction of being Canada’s most haunted theatre.
During the first year of the twentieth century, the community leaders of Fort Macleod (then Macleod) saw their town as the centre of a great railway boom that would exploit the wealth of mineral-rich southwestern Alberta. The coming of the First World War, though, brought an end to the inflow of capital, and rail lines that had existed only on paper were never begun. The town that had been built on dreams drifted on in the dust of failed promotions.
In 1910, when confidence in the future of Fort Macleod was at its height, entrepreneur T.B. Martin began construction of the Empress Theatre, in the same block as the elegant Queen’s Hotel. The 450-seat brick-and-sandstone structure was built with an eye to the future, when the population of the community would be far greater. Completed in 1912 as an opera house, it soon became part of the Famous Players theatre franchise, which presented live concerts and vaudeville acts that toured North America. Eventually, silent films became part of the entertainment and, by the early 1930s, movies with sound were the main feature.
The Empress Theatre passed through many owners until 1937, when a businessman, Dan Boyle, purchased it. Boyle’s timing could not have been better, because the Great Depression, which had devastated the Prairie provinces, was coming to an end. During his ownership, he modernized the theatre and added a one-hundred-seat balcony. Boyle’s sudden death in 1963 brought an end to the theatre’s most successful period. Competition from television was strong, and theatre seats remained unfilled. Moreover, the three-block downtown core was badly in need of revitalization.
In 1982, the residents of the community organized to restore the downtown core, as well as to recreate the Royal Canadian Mounted Police outpost that gave the town its name. One of the first buildings to be renovated and partially restored was the venerable Empress Theatre.
Major structural changes were made to enlarge the basement area, which now contains the green room (the actors’ lounge) and new dressing rooms. Among the many enhancements were new curtains, carpets, and seats. In 1987, the theatre was taken over by the Provincial Historic Area Society. Work continued on the building through the late 1980s.
As early as the 1960s, rumours had been circulating around Fort Macleod that the Empress Theatre was haunted. At the time, management did its best to discourage such tales, fearing that stories of ghosts would keep customers away. The renovations in the late 1980s dramatically increased the scale of paranormal activities. Before the dust had settled on the changes to the Empress, it was clear that the work had brought back ghosts from the past.
One of the early indications that something unusual was happening began when work on the theatre had hardly started. To keep out intruders, a security company installed motion detectors at different locations throughout the theatre. Although it is common for false alarms to be triggered during the set-up of the system, it seemed impossible to get the "bugs" out of the intruder alarm. During the late night and early morning hours, calls from company monitors frequently brought police and theatre management to the Empress. On investigation, no intruder was ever found, and the unexplained triggering of the alarms has become one of the hallmarks of the Empress Theatre haunting.
In the mid-1980s, an event had many theatre people scratching their heads. A member of the Great West Theatre Company, Jay Russell, was alone in the theatre and decided to explore the interesting old building. He began by walking along the hallway that led from the lobby down the rickety stairs to the area where the old dressing rooms were located near the boiler room.
Before renovations were completed, the theatre had had no proper green room; actors were forced to wait in the boiler room while offstage. Beside the boiler room was a space with a steel door that was dubbed the "swamp cooler room," probably because water seepage produced an unpleasant smell. (This difficulty was overcome when the theatre was raised and a new foundation poured.) Because the theatre was short of space, the dry portion of the room had been used for storage.
The door to the storage area was latched and could be opened only from the boiler room. The swamp cooler room was not wired for electricity, so the only light came indirectly from the boiler room. In the shadows, Russell could see an old organ that had been disassembled. Wanting a closer look at the instrument, he propped the door wide open so he could go inside. He entered the room and began walking toward the organ. He recalled his experience:
"I reached into the dark, and it’s getting darker and darker, and I have my hand extended out trying to reach this old keyboard or whatever it is. And just as I touch it, there’s this big laugh behind me. Like someone is pulling the funniest joke in the world on me. It wasn’t spooky; it was just this big belly laugh. And all of a sudden, the prop on my door was gone and the door slams shut. And then thump, thump, thump, thump up the stairs. Someone was laughing and running up the stairs."
Russell remained locked in the dark room for more than an hour. During the first few minutes, he thought someone in the theatre company was playing a joke on him, but no one would have left him in that unpleasant place so long. Moreover, the stairs were extremely noisy, and while he had heard someone run away up the steps, he had heard no sound of anyone coming down. It clearly made no sense.
When Jim Layton began cleanup work at the theatre following the renovations, he did not believe in ghosts. His experiences at the Empress, however, led him to reassess his opinion. In 1989, management hired him to wax the scuffed floors and vacuum the dust-laden carpets. The tasks had to be done after the patrons had left for the evening, which meant he was usually alone in the theatre.
One night, when he was sitting in the basement green room waiting for the floors to dry, his concentration on the magazine that he was reading was abruptly broken when he heard noises coming from somewhere upstairs near the front of the building. Believing that someone may have been trying to break in, he checked the lobby, but there was no sign of an intruder. Unsettled, he returned to his chores.
The next night, instead of sitting in the green room while the floors dried, he took a seat in the lobby. This time a clatter erupted from the basement, from the same general area as the green room. "I don’t get scared very easily," Layton remembered, "but I was out of there really quick."
Diana Segboer was involved in administration of the Empress from 1988 until 1997. Her first inkling that there was something unusual began when she visited the theatre to fill out the order for items needed for the concession booth. As she entered from the street through the big glass doors, she called out, "I’m here," in the event that the janitor was still in the building. Receiving no answer, she entered the concession booth and pulled down the glass window that secured the small area. As she was completing the concession orders, she heard footsteps coming from the corridor that led from the basement to the lobby. Diana was not concerned, for she assumed it was Mike, the janitor, coming up the stairs to say hello. As she worked, the footsteps drew closer until they entered the lobby. When the footsteps stopped in front of the concession booth, Diana looked up, expecting to see Mike’s familiar face. She was shocked to discover that no one was standing by the open window. She recalled, "I finished my order and I just booted it right out of there."
Juran Greene, who was the first manager after the restoration of the Empress, soon found that when he made evening visits to the theatre, he was not alone. One of the strangest things occurred one night when he was walking across the stage. Two ladders that were positioned against the wall at the back of the stage suddenly toppled forward. Without someone physically changing their centres of gravity, there could be no logical explanation for the incident. To his credit, Juran maintained his composure and told his unseen visitor that he was going to be around the theatre and that it would have to accept this fact.
There were other unnerving events. He was working late one night in his downstairs office, engrossed in his task, when he became aware of footsteps on the old floorboards above him. New on the job, and thinking someone may have had a legitimate reason to be in the building at that late hour, Juran called out, asking who it was. His question was met by silence. Concerned now, he walked upstairs to where the sounds originated. The room was in darkness, and when he switched on the light, no one was there.
Even more upsetting to Juran was what he discovered in the room. New carpets had recently been laid over the old floorboards, and on the pile was a thick layer of dust. If someone had walked across the floor, it would have been impossible not to leave footprints. But amazingly the dust remained undisturbed.
After sundown when he was frequently alone, Juran continued to experience the sound of footsteps in the building. There were of course skeptics who offered superficial explanations. One such "reason" for the sounds particularly rankled Juran. He said, "They used to say the building was settling. But then how does a building settle when it sounds like someone is walking on the floor?"
Juran was not the only new member of staff to know that something peculiar was happening at the Empress. Assistant manager Terry Veluw first witnessed what for more than twenty years would be one of the commonest occurrences of the haunting. All over the building, lights in different areas would turn on or off at odd times, seemingly on their own. It was impossible to blame ancient electrical circuits–new wiring had been installed during renovations. Moreover, this occurred not in one or two isolated circuits, but throughout the newly wired theatre. These episodes happen so frequently that they are now almost taken for granted.
Terry also witnessed odd events relating to the intercom system, which emitted eerie sounds. "It was like somebody talking," she said, "but it wasn’t in an understandable language. But it was somebody making noises."The sounds were not restricted to the intercom.
As mentioned earlier, false alarms have been a continuing problem in the theatre. Although the electronic alarm system has been upgraded over the years, it is still frequently set off at times in the absence of human intruders. During the years when she was the chairperson of the Empress, Diana Segboer was usually the first person the security company contacted when the system was activated. What was particularly annoying, she recalls, was that "it would go off at odd times at night." Once, in the early hours of the morning, she received a call saying that a sensor had been triggered. Because it was board policy that two of its members respond to a call, Diana phoned a fellow director, Joyce Bonertz, to ask her to accompany her.
As she drove to the theatre, a melody was going through Joyce’s head. "It was a World War Two song," she said, "but I can’t remember now what it was called."
The two board members met at the theatre, where they unlocked the main door and then passed through the lobby. "Joyce was always a hummer," Diana recalled. When they reached the stage, she was humming a tune. She continued humming until they completed their investigation and returned to the lobby.
Joyce remembers that "a person or entity was whistling the same song." It had picked up the last bars of the melody. Believing they had found the intruder, she turned to Diana and said, "There’s somebody in the theatre." But there was no one else anywhere in the building. "I didn’t feel frightened at the time," Joyce said, "but afterwards I kind of fell apart."
A strange story that apparently happened more than twenty years ago concerns two young women who were late for a performance they very much wanted to see. They were gratified to find that someone was still sitting in the ticket booth when they arrived, an older man wearing a cowboy hat. Even though it was past the time for sales, the man sold them two tickets to the live show. After the event, the women wanted to thank him. They found the woman who usually sold tickets in the lobby, and asked her about her ticket booth replacement. No one had taken her place she said, and she certainly did not sell the two women tickets. When they produced the correct stubs, the volunteer was mystified. She had no memory of taking money from these patrons, yet the ticket sales matched the cash total exactly.
One of Ed’s occasional haunts has been the women’s restroom. Not long after the theatre was renovated, a witness described seeing a heavy-set man with hairy arms. Interestingly, Abraham Segboer, an older resident of Fort Macleod, once recalled his childhood visits to the Empress Theatre, where the janitor had very hairy arms.
Another sighting of the restroom ghost happened in 1993, when Lisa Regan, then twelve years old, was rehearsing at the Empress for her dance school’s yearly recital. Her godmother sent her to the women’s restroom to straighten her hair, a few unruly strands of which had come undone. The restroom stalls were directly behind the sinks and mirrors, and Lisa was so preoccupied with her task that she did not notice the open cubicles behind her. Suddenly she was aware of a man reflected in the mirror. “He was sitting on the toilet and just watching me.” She described him as in his late thirties or early forties with brown hair, wearing a dark brown sweater and blue jeans. He was a solid, full-bodied apparition that looked so real Lisa believed he was a living person. This idea was quickly dispelled when she turned to face her watcher. The stall was empty.
Frightened, the young dancer ran down the stairs to the dressing rooms, where she told her dance group about her encounter with the ghost. Lisa’s account was soon referred to the theatre’s staff member who consulted a logbook. “The woman,” Lisa said, “came down later and told me that somebody earlier had described him in the same way I did.”