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Haunted Canada: true tales and eerie encounters at the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod

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 The Eerie Encounters Series: Ghosts: True Tales of Eerie Encounters, Ghosts: More Eerie Encounters, Spirits of the West: Eerie Encounters from the Prairies to the Pacific.


The Eerie Encounters Series: Ghosts: True Tales of Eerie Encounters, Ghosts: More Eerie Encounters, Spirits of the West: Eerie Encounters from the Prairies to the Pacific.

Robert C. Belyk has an open mind. As a writer interested in ghostlore and the paranormal, his work basically demands it. If you ask him, he’ll say that he tries to remain objective by approaching these true tales and eerie encounters from a scientific point of view, but whether you believe or not — whether you’re open-minded or objective — the stories in Robert’s series of paranormal books will have you looking over your shoulder in the dark, and questioning that noise in the basement.
The following excerpt is from Robert’s latest book, Spirits of the West: Eerie Encounters from the Prairies to the Pacific (TouchWood Editions, 2014). The Empress Theatre is one of the many locations included on the Haunted Canada road map, which compliments the ghostly series by compiling select locations of hauntings from all three books. For more information about the series, please visit HauntsWest.com.
Now Appearing at the Empress
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, of particular interest to readers of this book, 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.” 
In the early years, the green room, which also serves as the boardroom, was a hot spot of activity. Diana and several others witnessed two coffee cups rise several centimetres off the table. Then, to everyone’s amazement, they glided the length of the table before settling down again on the wood surface. For Diana, it was simply another event to add to the growing list of paranormal experiences at the Empress.
At one point, the theatre’s governing board faced a serious personnel crisis that divided the community. Diana recalled that, during one meeting at the theatre, a heated argument broke out. “All of a sudden people stopped talking. We heard someone crying.” The sound seemed to come from the green room, but it was impossible to determine where it originated.
Sometime later, a similar incident occurred when members of the theatre company heard whimpering sounds coming from one of the dressing rooms. They knocked on the door, but there was no response. Concerned, they tried to turn the doorknob, but the room was locked. Finally they were forced to break in, but to their surprise, not a living soul was in the dressing room.
Larger dressing rooms with showers had been added on the opposite side of the corridor from the existing tiny cubicles. The new rooms were certainly an improvement, but people taking showers were often aware of a cold wind that seemed to rise out of nowhere. It was more than a breeze — it blew with great force through the shower stalls. Then just as quickly, it would stop. It was unnatural, for there were no vents within the stalls. It was as if someone had opened the shower door and then, after a short time, closed it again in an invasion of privacy. Today, the cold shower wind seems to have died away.
A continuing occurrence is the pattering of tiny feet along one of the aisles in the auditorium. Unlike the heavy tread that is often heard in the corridor and on the stairs leading to the basement, these are the sounds made by a small child running up and down in the theatre.
Who are the ghosts that haunt the Empress? The most likely candidate is Ed, a janitor who worked there during the 1930s. Ed had a second job at the Macleod Auction House, where he shovelled out the cattle pens. The odour of manure mixed with the smell of cigar smoke in the theatre suggests Ed may be the ghost. Ed is believed to have been a burly man who often wore a cowboy hat. Adding to the lore, it is claimed he died behind the auction house under mysterious circumstances.
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.”
Although the blue jeans would have been in keeping with the dress of Ed the janitor, Lisa did not recall a cowboy hat, nor did she mention that he was a burly individual. The sweater he was wearing would have concealed his hairy arms. The stall door, though, would have partially obscured a full view of the entity. Lisa never had the impression that the ghost was angry, simply curious.
After death, at least, Ed may have become a fan of live theatre. During rehearsals, there have been reports of actors witnessing an older, burly man wearing a cowboy hat sitting in seat FF1 in the balcony.
In 2006, during a matinee performance of a play, the show lacked the energy that typified other performances; the actors had been celebrating late the previous evening. Cast member Andy Jenkins remembered that “in the middle of a show we had an actor miss an entrance. Then suddenly the curtains closed and all the lights went out.” 
While one might have thought that the technician had accidentally closed the show, Andy said, “What was really weird was that from a sitting position up in the (technician’s) booth, you can’t do the lights and the curtains simultaneously. It was not as though somebody could bump something to make these things happen.” Furthermore, the following year, when an actor forgot his lines in the middle of a monologue, the lights suddenly went out, plunging the stage into darkness. “It is very rare to have two bad shows like those,” Andy observed.
One of the most frightening events was a phone call from the dead. The Empress’s former development director, Terry Daniel, often worked during odd hours at his desk in the ticket office, which is two doors down the street from the theatre. The same four telephone lines connect both buildings, and incoming or outgoing calls on one telephone line would light up a telephone’s active buttons in both locations. Often Terry arrived early in the morning to find one of the theatre’s phone lines lit up, even when no one was in the theatre and the alarm system was still activated. At first he thought it was likely that a previous call had not been disconnected properly. Then someone would phone him on a line that was apparently in use — a seemingly impossible situation. These episodes only foreshadowed a bizarre occurrence that left Terry truly discomfited. He recalled the event, which occurred one evening when he was working late:
“I was in the office by myself and the phone rang and when I answered it this voice sounded like it was coming from nowhere. It was really weird, really raspy. It said, ‘How do I get out of here?’ I said, ‘Where are you?’ I thought it was someone in the theatre trying to phone out. ‘You have to punch one of the outside lines,” I said. ‘In the theatre you just push the button for line one, two, three . . .’ Then the connection kind of dwindled on me. It just seemed to disappear.”
Terry replaced the receiver. The call left him nonplussed. Before he had time to think about it, the phone rang again and he answered it. The voice on the other end of the line said again, “How do I get out of here?”
“Where are you?” Terry repeated.
“At the back of the theatre,” the raspy voice said.
Assuming that someone had been locked in, Terry quickly walked the two doors down the street to the Empress. On the stage was a group of teenagers, participants in a short introductory theatre program under the direction of Jeremy Mason.
Terry’s first thought was that one of the young people had gone to the back of the theatre, where the phones were, to play a prank. But the area was in total darkness, and had one of the actors sneaked away, Jeremy would have been aware of his missing student and of the lights being turned on at the rear of the theatre. Also, Terry’s quick arrival meant that it was unlikely that anyone would have had time to turn off the lights and find his way through the dark back to the stage. What makes the idea of a prank even more unlikely is that it would have been necessary to dial the internal three-digit number of the office — a number that the students would not have readily known.
One may wonder if Ed the critic was having difficulty enduring the energetic yet inexperienced young actors in rehearsal and was looking for a means of escaping his long-standing haunt. Hence his call: “How do I get out of here?”
In his capacity as tour director, Andy Jenkins showed visitors the beautifully restored building and relates many of the interesting stories associated with it. One such account concerns disembodied tap dancers that had been heard performing late-night numbers on the stage. Visitors have snapped photos and frequently caught images of orbs. These photos did not usually impress their tour guide. The low-light conditions inside the theatre combined with the built-in flashes on digital cameras could produce such “floating” artifacts. One photo, however, surprised him. Evenly spaced across the stage were twelve semicircular objects that looked like the tutus worn by ballet dancers. The picture left Andy unsettled. No ballet troupe had ever performed at the Empress, but over the years, many of the local dance schools have used the theatre for their yearly recitals.
Some of these events, like the sound of a child running down the aisle of the theatre and the click, click, click of tap dancers on stage, are residual hauntings. As has been mentioned, such incidents are like a video or tape recorder playing back an earlier event. Thus, there is no intelligence to such events–witnesses simply see the same images or hear the same sounds repeatedly. Most occurrences at the Empress, though, are the result of intelligent beings.
In some sightings, the distance from the source and the reduced lighting in the auditorium have made it impossible to provide much of a physical description of the entity haunting the theatre. When Andy Jenkins began working in the summer performance program at the Empress, he did not believe in ghosts. However, over the years, he witnessed so many eerie happenings that he has changed his mind. In the early hours of the morning, in the summer of 2007, he and his friend Adam Cope were painting a set on stage when they heard someone walking. Andy recalled:
“I heard somebody go up the stairs toward the balcony. And then I saw a person walk under the exit sign. The light wasn’t on in the (balcony) hallway, but there was light bleed from the projection booth. I couldn’t make out who it was but I saw somebody walk by there. I immediately thought it was Chris, our technician, stopping by to fix something. I called up, “Hey Chris, it’s two in the morning. What are you doing? We’ll fix it later.” There was no response, and then I saw a figure in the projection booth walk from window to window. I looked over at my friend Adam who said he heard and saw the same thing.
Believing that it was a homeless person who had found an entry into the theatre, the two men went quickly to the projection booth to investigate. But no one was there.
The current janitor has apparently seen another entity in the Empress. Although she declined to be interviewed, several reliable sources have reported she saw the ghost of a woman near the dressing rooms and the green room. The phantom wore a formal dress flared from the waist. It has been speculated that the person may have been the pianist who played accompaniment to the silent films, or even Edna, the wife of Dan Boyle. It is possible that this woman was the source of the cries and sobs heard in the basement.
Some people have speculated that Boyle himself could be responsible for many of the happenings attributed to Ed the janitor. For more than twenty years, Boyle was president of the Fort Macleod Rodeo Association, and it seems likely that he would have worn a cowboy hat at times. He also had a penchant for cigars. Rather than resembling the heavy-set man often described as haunting the theatre, Boyle was a tall, thin individual who was a dapper dresser.
Whether it is Ed or another entity, the Prankster is one of the most active ghosts haunting the Empress. This presence seems to have an unusual sense of humour. Following movie nights, volunteers are charged with cleanup duty, which involves picking up the candy wrappers, soft drink cups, and popcorn containers. In the process the seats will be pushed into their upright positions to allow vacuuming of the rows. Often, to their surprise, the workers will find the seats pushed down again as if they were occupied. This is not easily explained, for they remain firmly in the up position, and moving them down again requires some force. This moving of the seats was noted as early as 1989 and continues to this day.
Another of the ghost’s favourite tricks is to wait until volunteers have picked up the trash from the auditorium and emptied it into containers in the basement. When they arrive the next day, all of the trash will be strewn over the floor. Not surprisingly, the volunteers do not appreciate the Prankster’s sense of humour.
While the ghostly activity at the Empress has never been malevolent, the Prankster seems to enjoy playing tricks on people connected with the theatre. Yet the haunting of the Empress has involved more than practical jokes. In one case, the dead came to the assistance of the living. During a visit to the theatre, one of the society board members stepped backwards off the stage. Although the distance to the floor is only a little more than a metre, the board member was no longer young, and she could have been badly injured. The woman did not strike the floor though; something broke her fall. She said it felt as if she had fallen onto a soft body.
In the early hours of the morning of November 19, 2011, an inexplicable event left theatre people very puzzled. The building’s intruder alarm system was triggered again. A video camera that was set to capture any attempted entry at the fire door did not pick up movement in that area, but it did record something strange. The wide-angle lens caught a white wispy form moving across the stage. It is visible for only the briefest time, but its appearance adds to the great volume of evidence that the Empress is one of North America’s most haunted theatres.
Theatres are often closely connected with ghosts. Many researchers have suggested that the energy generated by actors during live performances might precipitate these events. Further, the emotional responses of the audience that seep over the years into older theatres like the Empress may have some association with ghostly manifestations.
Permissions: Map and excerpt courtesy of TouchWood Editions.

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