That haunted feeling
By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
At the historic Cuban Club in Ybor City, according to legend, the piano plays by itself, a woman wails and the elevators carry invisible passengers.
At the Tampa Theatre, a dead projectionist named "Fink" is known to play pranks and spook the staff.
It turns out the Tampa Bay area is home to more than football, cigars and scenic views; it's also home to hauntings.
"We do have a ghost here at the brewery company," confessed Dale Swope of Swope Law Group on Fifth Avenue in Ybor City, formerly the Tampa Florida Brewery. The six-story brick building (once Tampa's tallest) opened in 1897 with a grand ceremony and free libations for all.
Legend has it, two men argued over a mug of beer, a punch was thrown and one of the men died.
"We noticed it right after we began construction in 1999-2000 (to renovate the building)," Swope said.
"Some parts of the building had been closed up since the '60s (but) we began hearing this very drunk man with a heavy Hispanic accent," he said. "We thought it was a homeless person; maybe someone discovered a secret passageway and had been living there."
But when construction ceased the ghost remained, laughing and muttering after dark and making his presence known once a month to the firm's 25 employees.
"Used to be I'd get scared as hell and I'd come charging up with a light," said Swope. He checked fire escapes and roofs or explained it away as street noise. Lately he doesn't bother; no harm, no foul, after all.
Three years ago he might have told you differently, but now "I am completely convinced this is not a living person."
Members of Tampa's Historic Cuban Club, founded in 1899, prefer to think of their ghosts as helpers or maybe even marketing tools.
"They're half the charm of the place; I swear one of these days I'm going to do a spend-the-night fundraiser," said Angie Manteiga, a member and past president of the Cuban Club Foundation, which owns the neoclassic Ybor building constructed in 1917.
It has boasted a grand ballroom, clinic, cantina, gym and library but it is the club theater that's ground zero for the paranormal.
Tours of Hillsborough Community College students have run out after seeing a piano in the locked theater begin playing by itself.
Even Tampa's finest have taken to their patrol cars white-faced after a brush with a wailing woman rumored to be the mother of a club president shot during a heated political debate there.
"Then there were a few apparitions in the cantina," recalls Krista Jones, who worked at the building for five years and is now general manager of the Italian Club. "They were just kind of white, ghostly, cloudy figures."
There have been sightings of men in suits and bowler hats, spirits whistling tunes from begining to end and ghosts riding the elevator.
But overall, "the ghosts here are pretty friendly," said Jorge Diaz, president of the club. "They're in a real good mood."
So is the dead projectionist who pops into the Tampa Theatre.
"The shenanigans started in the late '60s," said Tara Schroeder, film and marketing manager. "Nothing scary. The most common thing is the jingling of keys."
Sometimes Fink likes to move things from one spot to another or brush someone's neck.
Said office assistant Callie Lawson, "I was leaving the auditorium and going up the stairs and one of the urns started shaking."
Fink, actually Foster Findley, is believed to have the second-longest tenure at the theater, working there for 40 years until he died of a heart attack.
Last year, a St. Petersburg paranormal investigative team came with equipment to check him out. There were some hot spots, employees said. Some could be explained away; others could not.
The staff takes it in stride.
After all, there is good film and good food, said Schroeder. "Where else would you spend your afterlife?"
The hauntings aren't limited to Hillsborough.
The second, fifth and sixth floors of the Don CeSar in Pinellas are said to be haunted by the ghost of Thomas Rowe, who built the hotel in 1928. Staff have reported seeing an older man wearing a dark suit and a Panama hat. The ghost of a nurse also has been seen, presumably because the Don was a convalescent center during World War II.
"About nine years ago, there were so many noise complaints that the general manager built a room for (Rowe) in between the floors and asked him to please stay there because he was scaring the guests," said Michael Chagnon, director of sales and marketing. The hotel uses the ghost stories as a marketing tool, hosting haunted tours for $10 per adult.
-- Times staff writer Tom Zucco contributed to this report.
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