The Lincoln Theater, located on North Main Street in downtown
Decatur, is one of only two of the city's grand theaters that remain
standing today. It opened in 1916 with a large seating capacity and
a sprawling stage. It was a labyrinth, and remains so today, with
its mezzanine, high balcony, basements and sub-cellars. The theater
holds many secrets, and according to some, many ghosts.
The theater was not the first building to stand on the site that it
now occupies in downtown Decatur. Aside from frontier construction
by the early settlers, the first real building on the site was the
Priest Hotel. W.S. Crissey opened it on the northwest corner of the
Old Square in 1860, although it was completed and operated for many
years by Franklin Priest. In 1880, Riley Deming took over the
establishment and changed its name to the New Deming. It was later
purchased by Augustine Wait and in 1892; he changed the name to the
Arcade Hotel. Eight years later, he would remodel, expand, and call
it the Decatur & Arcade Hotel. There was a horrible fire in 1904,
which destroyed the building, but it was rebuilt on the same site a
short time later. It was in 1915 however, when disaster struck.
On April 21, 1915, a spectacular fire broke out and destroyed the
hotel, claiming two lives and damaging several of the surrounding
structures. The blaze was believed to have started because of some
oily rags that were left near the hotel’s boiler. A night watchman
discovered them smoldering and tried to put them out, but was driven
back by thick smoke that began churning from the refuse. The blaze
quickly spread and while all of the fire equipment in the city
arrived on the scene within minutes, smoke was soon billowing from
the lower windows. Water began to be pumped from the trucks but
because the smoke was to thick to enter the basement, the
firefighters had no idea of the exact location of the fire. It was
said that a roar came up from the crowd assembled in Lincoln Square
when the first flames appeared.
The Decatur & Arcade
Hotel burned to the ground in April 1915... leaving
lingering spirits behind in the ashes.
came from the rear of the hotel and could be seen
glowing through the front doors. The firemen began
dragging hose into the building but within ten minutes,
the blaze had entered the walls and was eating through
the roof of the hotel. At that point, Fire Chief C.W.
DeVore began directing his men to turn their attentions
to the other buildings nearby, as there was no hope for
the hotel. The nearby structures, including the Bachman
Bros. & Martin Co. furniture store, the YMCA, the First
Presbyterian Church and the Odd Fellows Building, were
saved but as the north wall of the seven-story Arcade
building collapsed, it struck the Bachman Bros.
warehouse with a tremendous crash and a loud explosion.
The furniture store was saved from heavier losses thanks
to a heavy firewall that refused to give in and a new
The two men killed
in the fire were William E. Graham, an engineer for the Decatur
Bridge Co. and C.S. Guild, a traveling salesman from Lockport, New
York. The bodies were found in the ruins, although several other
hotel guests were never found. Whether or not they escaped from the
inferno is unknown. What is known is that the disaster could have
been much worse. If it had not been raining before the fire broke
out, it's possible that the entire west part of downtown, including
many homes, could have been destroyed. The hotel was never rebuilt
and the Lincoln Theater took the older building's place.
Many have pondered the question as to whether or not the spirits of
the people killed in the hotel fire might walk in the dark corners
of the Lincoln Theater. It now stands directly on the location of
the former hotel and many have speculated that the ghosts could have
passed into the new building and may have taken up residence there.
Fires in Decatur had been far too common in years past. A number of
public buildings had been destroyed by fire, including the Powers
Opera House, which burned twice. Being built on the site of a hotel
destroyed by fire must have made the designers of the Lincoln
Theater especially aware of the possible dangers and they were
determined to make this building "absolutely fireproof".
The new theater was constructed by Clarence Wait in 1916 on land
that he had inherited from his father's estate. The Decatur
architectural firm of Aschauer & Waggoner was hired to draw up plans
for the theater and the buildings surrounding it. These buildings
included the Odd Fellows Lodge and seven smaller stores that fronted
Main Street with offices on the second floor. These smaller stores
were given the name of Lincoln Square, which was also the name of
the theater until it was shortened in 1930.
The theater was designed and built on a section of land that would
be L-shaped, with an entrance in the middle of the block. To insure
that the place was "fireproof", the original boilers were housed in
the Odd Fellows Building and separated from the theater by a thick
firewall. This wall, which was about two-feet thick, surrounded the
entire building. The interior of the building was also carefully
designed as the walls, floors, railings, ceilings, fixtures, and
even the curtains, were all said to be impossible to burn. Architect
Charles Aschauer claimed that the entire block could burn down, but
this theater would be left standing and little did he know that
there would be times when this boast would be tested!
public got its first look at the interior of the new
theater in October 1916 when John W. Dooley held a
Christian Science lecture there. The formal and official
grand opening took place at the end of the month, on
October 27, 1916. The Lincoln opened to "standing room
only" crowds of Decatur's finest citizens, dressed in
black tie and formal wear and eager to see the new,
glorious theater of which they had heard so much about.
The first program to be presented was George M. Cohan's
stage comedy, Hit the Trail Holliday starring
Frank Otto. In addition to the show, speeches were given
that night by Mayor Dan Dineen and by Clarence Wait, who
once again bragged about the "fireproof" status of the
theater and its solid and safe fire escapes.
audience loved the show and raved about the spectacular
design of the theater, from its private seating boxes,
to the massive ivory-colored columns, to the 1,346
seats, all of which offered a splendid view and
wonderful acoustics. Also new to Decatur was the
mezzanine seating, which ran just below the balcony and
offered seats that were only slightly above the level of
In those early years, the main emphasis at the Lincoln
was on stage shows and vaudeville acts. The community
also put the theater into use as well and it hosted many
small, local productions and the Decatur High School
commencement services each spring. Many famous stars
appeared here, including, Ethel Barrymore, Al Jolson, Ed
Wynn, Jeanette MacDonald, and many others. Audiences
also thrilled to such attractions as a sparring
exhibition by Jack Dempsey after his famous fight with
February 1926, the theater hired a 12-member orchestra
to provide music for all stage productions and the
silent films that were starting to gain popularity.
Vaudeville still remained the most popular attraction
the theater had to offer however and the orchestra's
leader brought a young, unknown comedian named Bob Hope
to the Lincoln in 1926 to show Decatur how to dance the
"Charleston". Hope was just starting his career in those
days and he would return often during the 1920's to
appear in vaudeville shows and comedy productions.
One of the most enigmatic of the performers to allegedly appear at
the Lincoln was the stage magician and master illusionist, Harry
Houdini. Houdini was not yet a worldwide sensation by the time that
he came to the Lincoln late 1910's, but he was well on his way to
becoming one. According to Lincoln Theater legend, Houdini's visit
has been permanently marked on the wooden stage of the theater by a
narrow trap door that has been nicknamed the "Houdini Hole". Below
the hole, metal hooks are imbedded into the ceiling of the basement
as silent reminders of the magician's visit.
|For a number of years,
people believed that the hole in the stage had been cut
for the magician to escape through during one of his
illusions and that the hooks below had held some sort of
safety net. However, this turned out to be incorrect. At
the time Houdini would have played the Lincoln, he was
perfecting an escape that used a very large water tank,
into which he would be lowered upside-down and then have
only a few moments to escape. The rectangular hole in
the Lincoln stage was cut so that a hose could drop
below the tank and empty into a drain in the basement.
The metal hooks were actually used to hold the support
ties for the drainage hose.
But was the "Houdini Hole" really used by Houdini? There
are those who claim the famous magician never played at
the Lincoln at all. They dismiss the recollections from
those who remember his visit, believing that they are
mistaking some other performer for the legendary
illusionist. The name for the "hole" in the stage, they
state, was a mistake and likely, those who remember a
famous magician coming to the Lincoln have mistaken
Harry Blackstone for Houdini.
There is no
denying that Blackstone did perform at the Lincoln several times but
those who have claimed to recall Houdini's visit remember Blackstone
as well. A check of newspapers of the time offer few clues. There
are advertisements for visits by Blackstone and even little known
illusionists like "Alla Axiom", a "master mind reader and crystal
gazer" but no mention of Houdini. How do we explain this if Houdini
really played the Lincoln? According to one interview that I
conducted with a staff member who worked at the theater for many
years, there was no advertising for Houdini because he was not
famous at the time. He was part of a vaudeville troupe that played
the theater and received billing in the troupe's advertising but not
with the theater. He was still a couple of years away from his great
fame, this man explained, which is why no mention was made in
Decatur newspapers of the day.
curious as to how so many people remembered Houdini ---
even though others insisted that he never played the
Lincoln -- I continued my research. I soon found other
clues about Houdini and the Lincoln Theater. According
to an interview with magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., the
son of Blackstone, his father toured the vaudeville
circuit, often following in the wake of Houdini. The two
men had similar acts and while friendly, were fierce
competitors. If one of them played a theater or circuit,
the other soon followed. For this reason, the younger
Blackstone stated, since his father played the Lincoln
then this means that Houdini almost certainly did too.
he? Well, we will likely never know for sure. Someone,
be it Houdini or Blackstone, left a permanent mark on
the stage of the Lincoln Theater and an indelible mark
on the history of this grand old place.
continued to increase in popularity in the city and Decatur was
demanding more and more films to take the place of stage shows. Only
major attractions were needed to fill in between the films, so the
theater booked live emcees to host the films months in advance. This
filled the need for live actors and celebrities and still managed to
bring the moving picture crowd into the theater. Every movie became
a major attraction with the orchestra playing overtures to accompany
the action on the screen. A pianist, and later an organist, was
hired to provide lighter music for the serials, newsreel footage and
the comedy films.
In April 1928, the first "talkies" came to Decatur and played at the
Empress Theater. The Lincoln began showing them 14 months later at
the close of the vaudeville season. This would herald the end of the
vaudeville days at the Lincoln, and perhaps in the entire city. The
sound equipment was installed in the theater for films, making
silent movies obsolete, and bandleader Billy Gail and his orchestra
were promptly dismissed.
From that time on, two films were shown each week with one running
from Sunday through Tuesday and the other from Wednesday to
Saturday. The first talking films shown were Nothing but the
Truth starring Richard Dix and a musical called Desert Song.
That same year, the Lincoln was purchased by the Great States chain
of theaters, which also purchased the Empress and the Bijou. The
building itself remained the property of Clarence Wait until his
death in 1936. Ownership of the theater was then passed to his
brothers, Arthur and Fao Wait.
|Although movies had
largely replaced live entertainment at the Lincoln,
there were still special performances booked here on a
regular basis. It was during one of these performances
that the "fireproof" claims of the theater were first
tested. In September 1942, Harry Blackstone returned to
perform at the theater. The auditorium was filled with
about 1000 school children when fire broke out in the
Rambo Drug store, located next door to the Lincoln
Alerted to the danger of smoke entering the theater and
the building catching on fire, Blackstone remained calm
and jokingly told the audience that for his next trick,
he was going to make them all disappear from the theater
in five minutes. He then directed them to leave, row by
row, out of the alley doors and out of the fire escapes
in the balcony. He promised the children that they were
assisting him in a marvelous new illusion, which he
would explain to them outside.
After he had
successfully cleared the theater and learned that the danger was
past, Blackstone is said to have sobbed with relief from the stress
of his heroic evacuation of the theater. Years later, in 1960, while
a guest on the television program "This is Your Life", he stated
this had been the "greatest trick of his career".
The fire would last for four hours and would completely gut the drug
store and Cook Jewelers, which shared the space. The fire was so
intense that the floor of the building collapsed into the basement.
It also heavily damaged an adjoining flower shop and beauty parlor,
but no damage was reported to the Lincoln. Apparently, it really was
"fireproof" after all!
These claims would be tested again in 1960 when another fire did
major damage to buildings south of the theater. The section of the
building that was located above the theater lobby would be virtually
destroyed, which also explains why this section can be seen in older
photographs but is not present today. The Lincoln itself, which was
showing the film The Bramble Bush at the time, was only slightly
damaged. The "fireproof" claims have not been tested since and the
building has remained architecturally sound after more than 80
The theater operated steadily for many years and was sold again in
1974 to Plitt Theaters Inc., which bought out the entire Great
States chain. The Lincoln Theater only remained in the chain until
December of that year, when management was passed to the Kerasotes
chain that was based out of Springfield, Illinois. At this time,
they already owned four of Decatur's other theaters. They leased the
building on a month-to-month basis and in December 1980, were
informed by William Wait that their lease would not be extended past
the end of the year. Unfortunately, the Kerasotes chain had a
reputation for stripping everything usable from a theater before
they left it and they followed this same plan at the Lincoln. They
removed much of the valuable equipment, from projectors to the
interior mechanisms of the speakers. The projectors in the Lincoln
in recent years have been borrowed from private individuals and
salvaged from the Rogers Theater, while the speakers remained empty
shells mounted on the walls in the balcony.
After that, the Lincoln closed down for many years, only opening
occasionally for live music and barely attended events. By 1990, the
building had deteriorated badly and was suffering from neglect. It
had been abandoned by everyone except for the bats and pigeons that
had taken up residence in the auditorium.
Thankfully, the Lincoln came to the attention of a restoration group
and some life has been brought back to the old place. Thousands of
dollars and countless hours of work have been put into the theater,
but it still has a long way to go. The restoration effort has been a
long and painfully slow project with possibly many years remaining
before it will be completed. This has not stopped many local and
national groups from performing here however and many times, during
these performances, regular people have encountered things in the
theater that can only be described as something well beyond the
Stories have circulated about hauntings at the Lincoln Theater since
at least the 1930's. Reports by witnesses from those early days of
film in the theater have suggested that as least one ghost haunts
the building. However, in more recent times, the numerous encounters
here have led many to believe that a multitude of spirits may linger
in the Lincoln.
The most famous ghost of the Lincoln is rooted in a legend from the
vaudeville days. His name was "Red" and he was a stagehand at the
Lincoln during the days of live performances. He was deeply attached
to the theater and loved the place, working long shifts and coming
to the theater on his day off just so that he could be among the
actors and entertainers. It was said that Red always dreamed of
becoming a performer himself, as he was a commanding presence with
his bright, auburn hair, but he was simply too quiet and shy to ever
take the stage. He contented himself to working behind the scenes
and perhaps even standing on the stage at night, looking out on the
empty theater. Perhaps he imagined an audience in those darkened
seats, assembled to watch him perform in the latest show.
One night, during a performance, Red was working on the catwalks.
This area is about 75 feet above the stage itself and was used in
those days to lower props and scenery flats. Red was used to working
up in those dizzying heights and it never really bothered him. Then,
on that fateful night, the unthinkable happened.
Red slipped from the metal grid work and fell. He plunged downward
and collided with the "pin rail" of the "sand trap", a concrete
platform that is also located high above the stage. The "pin rail"
is a metal bar with sharp hooks jutting from it. The ropes that
controlled the flats and curtains were tied on these hooks. When Red
collided with the rail, his arm was snagged by one of the hooks and
torn from his body, thanks to the force and speed of his fall. He
landed on the stage in a bloody heap with his arm still tangled on
the rail overhead. Needless to say, he died moments later.
And he has been haunting the place ever since…..
At least that's what the stories say but unfortunately, the truth
behind the tale isn't nearly as exciting.
There really was a stagehand nicknamed "Red" who worked at the
Lincoln Theater during the vaudeville days. Red also had only one
arm but he did not lose it (along with his life) in a horrific
accident. He was a veteran of World War I and he had lost his arm
during the fighting in Europe. When he returned to Decatur, he took
a job as a stagehand at the Lincoln and soon became a "novelty"
because he managed to do all of his work with one arm. In fact, he
was faster than many of the other stagehands (most who were much
younger than he was) at pulling the ropes and lowering the lights
and they were using both of their arms. Red was a likable man and
completely devoted to the theater. This was perhaps the reason he
was so memorable to later generations of staff members as the
"stagehand who never left the theater".
As mentioned, Red did not die in a terrible accident but he did die
at the Lincoln Theater. According to my sources, he sat down to take
a nap after his lunch one afternoon in 1927 and simply never woke
up. He passed away in his sleep --- leaving an indelible impression
behind. Soon, after people began to speak of a ghost at the Lincoln
Theater, they immediately assumed that it was Red.
Over the years, dozens of witnesses have reported strange sounds and
footsteps in the otherwise empty theater and these are sounds that
cannot be explained away as simply the theater's acoustics. They
have also reported whispers, strange voices and even a shadowy
apparition in the theater's balcony. However, this strange figure is
not described as looking like Red, but rather as a woman in a long,
old-fashioned dress! This is only one of the many reports that cause
some to believe there are a number of ghosts in the building.
Several other witnesses have reported their own brushes with hazy
forms and figures seen out of the corner of the eye ---- and none of
these descriptions match! Could there be a legion of phantoms left
behind in the theater?
In addition to visual sightings, there have been a number of other
encounters as well, including the aforementioned footsteps and
sounds. Many have experienced inexplicable cold chills in certain
spots in the building and others claim to have been touched by
unseen hands. Several others have mentioned seeing theater seats in
the auditorium actually raise and lower by themselves, as if an
unseen audience was watching the proceedings on the stage.
I had my own strange encounter a few years ago when I was working in
the quiet theater one afternoon, making preparations for an upcoming
Halloween show. I happened to be off to the side of the stage,
behind some curtains, when I clearly heard someone walk up the steps
and out onto the wooden stage. When I came out from behind the
curtain, I was startled to find that there was no one there but me!
I quickly searched the area, and even the rest of the theater, but
the place was completely empty.
Other unexplained incidents have occurred around what may be the
most haunted spot in the theater. It is a metal, spiral staircase
that is located in the back corner of the stage. Many witnesses
claim to have had unearthly encounters on and around the staircase.
For example, in 1994, an entertainer who was performing in a
traveling production reported that he saw a man lurking on this
staircase. He was in the back corner changing his costume when he
heard a voice whispering to him. When he looked up, he saw a shadowy
figure on the steps. He was unable to describe the figure, but he
was convinced that it was a man. He complained about the presence to
a nearby theater staff member, but when they checked the staircase,
they found it empty. The man was gone but there was nowhere that he
could have vanished to! Strangely, the actor had no idea about the
legends of the Lincoln, nor that the staircase was rumored to be
In addition, I can personally vouch for at least one encounter on
this intimidating staircase, because it happened to me. I still have
no other explanation for what occurred, other than to say that I was
followed up the stairs by one of the theater's resident ghosts!
I was in the theater one evening in October 1995 with a reporter and
a cameraman from a local television station. They had contacted me
about haunted places in Central Illinois for a news special and one
of the places that I took them to was the Lincoln Theater.
After an interview about the hauntings, I decided to join the
cameraman, Robert Buchwald, for a trip up the spiral staircase. He
took his camera along, hoping to film the theater's stage from this
vantage point. It was a good thing that he brought it, because we
would have had no other source of light to make the trip up there
with. We rounded the staircase and then reached the top. We looked
around the small and confined space for a few moments, exploring a
small room that leads to the theater air ducts. Other than this
dusty chamber, there is not much else to see up there. We stood
talking for a few moments, and then what happened next was enough to
convince even a skeptic like Robert Buchwald that there may be more
to the Lincoln Theater than first meets the eye!
It seemed innocent enough at first. We had climbed the spiral
staircase and left the reporter down on the stage by herself. We
weren't surprised to soon hear the sound of her footsteps as she
followed us up the stairs. Her hard-soled shoes made a distinctive
sound as they echoed on the metal steps. Realizing that we had the
only portable light, and the staircase was quite dark, Robert leaned
over the railing with the camera so that the reporter would have
some light to see by. Just as he did this, from out on the stage, we
heard the sound of a voice calling out to us. We looked and saw the
reporter standing in the middle of the stage ---- dozens of feet
from the base of the steps and much too far away to have been
climbing the staircase just moments before!
We suddenly realized that the footsteps on the staircase had not
belonged to the reporter. So, who was climbing the staircase? We
didn't know but when the sounds finally stopped, we didn't stay up
there long enough to find out!
Does the ghost of "One-Armed Red" really roam the dark corners and
back hallways of the Lincoln Theater? Or is he just a legend created
to explain the generations of strange phenomena that has been
reported there? Could there be a large number of spirits still
inside of the building, drawn to the energy of almost a century of
sadness, heartbreak and tragedy?
Most importantly, is the Lincoln Theater really haunted at all?
If you are skeptical about the many tales of the theater, I
challenge you to wait before answering these questions. Wait to
ponder them until some night when you have the opportunity to come
to the theater and sit in the dark auditorium --- by yourself. Is
this place really haunted? Or is that just the sound of an old
building settling in the shadows behind you?
Is it your imagination ---- or is it something else?
© Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor.
All Rights Reserved.