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Apparitions add drama to theater renovations

The new owner and work crews at the Capitol Theater are not the first to report spooky incidents at the old building, including ghostly images, footsteps and voices.

By AMELIA DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 1999


CLEARWATER -- Socrates Charos thought he was buying an empty building when he purchased the old Capitol Theater on Cleveland Street in July.

Empty, that is, as in no one living there.

Now he is not so sure.

"About three weeks ago at that door," Charos said, pointing to the west front entrance to the theater, "there was a guy that came from out of nowhere."

Charos said the man was wearing a blue cap "like a fisherman would wear," and a blue jacket, and had a mustache.

"I said, "Hello, can I help you?' " Charos recalled.

Instead of a reply, the man disappeared. And not by walking out the door. "It was more like he evaporated," Charos said. "One minute he was right there. The next, he wasn't."

In addition to the visitor, there have been other unusual happenings, he said:

Lights go on and off for no apparent reason.

Once, a heavy tool workers were using began to spin counter-clockwise. It stopped spinning for a few seconds and then reversed itself.

A decorator's book with a heavy cover flies open from time to time as if someone were looking through it.

Footsteps are heard in rooms where no human is present.

Concerned but not afraid, Charos, a Greek Orthodox Christian, recently asked a priest to come check out the old theater, which first opened in 1920. It has been closed since July when Charos, his wife, Dru, and a friend, Rena Brenner, bought it for $250,000 from a Tarpon Springs businessman who used it for Calvary Baptist Church youth programs.

A little more than a week ago, the Greek Orthodox priest performed a brief ceremony on a makeshift altar set up on the stage. Then he sprinkled holy water in the four corners of the theater and in other locations Charos referred to as "trouble spots."

One such spot is a wall on the theater's stage where an image that resembles a knife refuses to succumb to repeated coats of white paint. So far, 30 coats have been applied, but the image remains.

"Do you see the image coming through?" Charos said as a worker swabbed the area. A dark area was visible under the paint. "It always comes back. No matter what we do."

After the priest's visit, Charos and some construction volunteers painted white crosses and other religious symbols on the back wall of the stage. They filled the old lobby with statues of angels.

"If there was an evil spirit, it wouldn't stay here now," Charos said. "I am not afraid."

Neither is his childhood friend, George Spiridakos, who is supervising renovations in the theater. One day, when he was alone in the theater, Spiridakos also saw a spirit image.

"I was talking on the phone and I see the guy over there," Spiridakos said pointing to a spot just west of center stage. "Then he just disappeared."

Spiridakos said he went next door to Pat Lokey's dress shop to find a man he knows only as Frank. The man lives upstairs over the shop.

"I asked him if he believed in ghosts," Spiridakos said. "He told me he lives with one and described the man I saw."

Lokey, who has occupied the store next to the theater since 1993, said she had never seen a ghost. "I don't believe there is such a thing," she said.

Spiridakos and Charos have named the image "the captain" because of the cap he wears. "We believe he is a gentle spirit, perhaps an angel," Charos said.

* * *

Could there be a spirit living at the old Capitol? Some people who know the building and its history, as well as a couple of metaphysicians who visited the theater recently for the first time, say "absolutely."

Susan Demers, who performed with the Royalty Theatre Company at the old Capitol for many years, recalls it as an especially eerie place.

In 1981, the Royalty troupe was remodeling the Capitol in preparation for its first production there when the body of a former theater manager, Bill Neville, was found gagged, stabbed and beaten in the balcony. Police later arrested two people who were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison each.

Neville, a Clearwater High School graduate who had leased the theater in 1979, was said to love the place. He tried for two years to revive it by featuring old, classic movies and occasionally live entertainment. His mother described him at the time of his death as "a mild-mannered person who didn't have an enemy in the world."

A few years after the murder Demers, now head of dramatic arts on the Clearwater campus of St. Petersburg Junior College, and other actors were rehearsing a show called Tin Types at the Capitol. There was a night, Demers said, "that my ghost story happened."

"We heard voices," she said, "and we had no idea where they were coming from. We were not a bunch of wimps, but we abandoned rehearsal that night."

Jim Demetrius, with Creative Arts Unlimited in Pinellas Park, said one night he was at the Capitol building a set for another show.

The producer of the show told Demetrius not to stay there alone in the theater.

"I told him I had to finish," Demetrius said, and he stayed. Late that night, Demetrius said he glanced up at the balcony at the moment one of the chair seats slammed closed. "If you know those seats, you know how heavy they are," Demetrius said. "They don't close by themselves."

Believing Neville's ghost to be responsible for the noise, Demetrius said he stopped his work, walked to the edge of the stage and called out: "I'm sorry about what happened to you. I had nothing to do with it. Now I've got to get this work done."

"After that, it was like we had come to an understanding," Demetrius said. "I could stay and work, and he would leave me alone."

Demers, who has performed in theaters for 45 years, said she has never worked in one that some people didn't think was haunted. "It is the nature of theaters," she said.

Paul F. Daniels, president of the College of Metaphysical Studies on U.S. 19 in Clearwater, agreed. Daniels, who visited the Capitol on Friday afternoon, said spirits like living in theaters, especially old ones like the Capitol.

Theaters "used to be gathering places," Daniels said. And spirits "like to see the productions there."

Daniels, who visited the Capitol with four faculty members, said all five members of his group detected the presence of spirits in the theater.

"At least two appear to be living in the balcony," Daniels said. One of those, he said "is something that calls itself "William.' " Another spirit, Daniels said, is living in one of the upstairs dressing rooms. All of the spirits, he said, are non-violent and none of them want to leave.

Daniels said he did not see "the captain."

Former schoolteacher Marcia Bender, a Sarasota metaphysician, visited the theater earlier in the week. "I am certain there is something going on there," she said. Bender said she was overcome with the smell of a fire when she entered the door of the theater.

In 1910, a fire destroyed an entire block of Cleveland Street across the street from the Capitol. But the theater had not been built when the fire occurred. Local historians Mike Sanders and Ken Ford could not recall a fire at the Capitol. Ford did recall that "the big fire of 1910 occurred on Halloween night."

"I am certain there was some sort of tragedy," Bender said. She said she detected the presence of a woman and one or more children in the theater when she visited.

Daniels also detected the presence of a woman and said her name was "Ann." Daniels suspects the shadow that won't be covered with paint is actually an upside down "A," perhaps an initial carved into the wood by Ann.

Whatever is calling the theater home is going to be allowed to remain. Charos said he considered asking a priest to perform an exorcism to rid the theater of all the spirits. But he has changed his mind.

"Maybe they are angels," he said. "I believe they are."

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