After hours on a night just like any other, Ryan Culbert closed up shop in the projection booth at Texas Theatre. On his way up one of the old stairwells above the office on the second floor, he saw her.
“[It was] in a black mist form — a figure of a woman in a dress coming down the stairways from the projection booth, and from the art Safe Room stairway as well,” he said.
Culbert, who’s worked at the theatre since the first day of its reopening in 2010, says he knows what he saw five years ago. And it wasn’t the only time. When he saw her again, she was hovering over the stairwell to the art gallery that faces the street.
“You think your eyes are playing tricks on you but there’s times that you do a double take and it’s still there,” he said.
Rumors of ghosts that may haunt parts of Dallas aren’t in short supply. Creepy stories and lasting urban legends about the Lady of White Rock Lake and the lurking spirits at Hotel Lawrence and Sons of Hermann Hall find anyone who ventures a quick search. Yet little has been written about spirits that may haunt the Texas Theatre.
Built in 1931 and financed by aviator and movie tycoon Howard Hughes, it’s commonly known for one major historical event: the location of the finding and arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, who allegedly shot President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Much-discussed files released last week point to Oswald as the lone gunman. Conspiracy theorists won’t be deterred, as they maintain the truth is in records still withheld. To crack open the book on decades of Dallas history outside of that publicly dark moment is to wonder: what else happened at the Texas Theatre?
Culbert said there’s not much public documentation apart from the Oswald incident. At some point in the late 30’s, robbers sacked the theater. After Oswald, the United Artists franchise kept it open throughout the 70’s and 80’s as a grindhouse theater up until it nearly closed for good in 1989.
There were a couple of unsuccessful attempts by the Texas Historical Society to keep it open but in 1995, a fire ravaged the auditorium that left a hole in the roof. Squatters occupied the building and it was used only intermittently for screenings before it was renovated in 2001 by the Oak Cliff Foundation.
At its base, the original brick and mortar floor is worn and smoothed from generations of long-gone patrons who wandered the halls and stairways of the buildings. Inside, smattered white stucco walls cover the skeleton of the theater that once had a more intricate, classic design. There’s one place to view the old building – a transparent cutout in the wall to the left of the entrance reveals an antique staircase, a window to the theater’s architectural past.
Behind locked doors, a complex of hallways and hidden rooms wraps around the auditorium all the way up the projection booth on the third floor. Twisted, dusty chairs are scattered around the second floor balcony of the auditorium.
Countless memories that are left up to the imagination left an imprint on these spaces. They leave a residual ambiance that seems eerie and possibly supernatural.
Several theater employees say they’ve had some particularly creepy experiences during their shifts: shadow figures, whistling in the bathroom, unexplained footsteps and even senses of uncomfortably close breathing – when no one else is around.
Mostly they don’t talk about it. But Culbert did tell Chris Trent Billings, who on any given weekend night is tending to the concession desk, selling tickets, popcorn and soda for a line of moviegoers.
Billings says he knows for sure no one has died there since the theatre reopened. But he doesn’t doubt that it’s happened within the eight decades of its standing.
“You just know that so much has happened in this building,” Billings says. “You can feel it. It’s weird; there’s like a presence.”
Culbert’s encounter with the black mist isn’t the only sighting kept quiet. Turns out Tatiyana Kellogg, one of the bartenders, saw a similar apparition during her closing shift. This time it was in the auditorium. Kellogg, admirer of the old building as she is, peered inside.
“I was walking by parallel, I look into the theater and I see these skirt tails – white – just white skirt tails,” she says. “As I’m walking, I see them walking the same direction as I do. No feet. Just the skirt of like a petticoat, like, something that wasn’t of our times.”
The employees had never exchanged stories until Billings brought it up in conversation.
“That’s pretty damning right there. They both saw the same thing without discussing it,” he says.
Who could the woman be? And why is she still at the theater? The only sure thing is that a complete history of the Texas Theatre, outside its well-worn mile markers, is in order.