31 Dec 2009
Lights, camera, ghosts? Ghost hunters hit Tampa Theatre
Above, Tangie Burton uses a noncontact thermometer to check for any changes in temperature, which could indicate supernatural activity, during a recent ghost hunt at the Tampa Theatre. Left, Tara Schroeder and Kym O’Donnell use an electromagnetic frequency meter to monitor for possible paranormal activity during a recent Late-Night Ghost Tour at the Tampa Theatre. Photos courtesy of the Tampa Theatre
In the eerie quiet of the night, Janice Strand and her group climb to the Tampa Theatre's projection booth to speak to a dead guy named Fink.
"Are you there?" she asks into the air.
"Fink, we'd like to talk to you."
Then, after a long pause, "Is anyone there?"
The group, frozen in attention, waits for a sign. Any sign. When nothing happens, they move on, hoping the spirit is just out to lunch.
Strand proceeds to tell the story of Fink, a.k.a. Foster "Fink" Finley, who worked as a theater projectionist for 35 years before his death in 1965. A short, balding guy who took the bus to work, Fink arrived early every morning to shave and enjoy a cup of cafe con leche.
Fink fell ill with cancer and one day collapsed in the projection booth. Two months later, he died.
The next year, strange things started happening in the theater, according to its archives. A jingling of keys. Ghost-like apparitions. The scent of old-fashioned shaving lotion.
Could it be Fink?
The possibility has puzzled theater workers for decades and added to the lure of one of Tampa's oldest and most treasured buildings. Opened in 1926, the elaborate movie palace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In November, the theater started Late-Night Ghost Hunts for up to 30 people as a unique way to promote the theater and share its rich history. The next tour, on Jan. 23, sold out more than six weeks in advance. Another is in the works but hasn't been scheduled.
The 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. tour covers almost every cranny of the theater, including the orchestra pit, basement, green room and other areas not seen on daytime tours. Explorers split off into small groups carrying electromagnetic frequency meters and a noncontact thermometer to monitor atmospheric changes potentially caused by paranormal activity. Most everyone has a camera or a video recorder.
Guests are eager to see something supernatural, but the tour guides are careful not to declare every blip on the meter or dip in temperature a ghost. Rather they say things like, "That was unusual," or "that's very interesting," and tell documented stories about past activity. At midnight, everyone breaks for snacks, dessert and wine.
"We have a lot of occurrences, but can you say there's ghosts? I don't really know," said Strand, a fan of "all things creepy," who put together the tours as the theater's programming and marketing assistant. Strand hasn't seen any ghosts in her 1 1/2 years with the theater, but has sensed plenty bizarre. She's heard keys jingle and gotten a whiff of the perfume-like shaving lotion.
During the first ghost tour, guests experienced some unusual activity but nothing that screamed ghost. A few said the batteries on their fully charged cameras died, which seems to happen at the theater quite often for unapparent reasons.
One guide, Bob Pierce, said two nine-volt batteries burned up in his backpack while he was in the green room. (He assured the batteries weren't touching.) Lea Williamson, a longtime Tampa Theatre member, took some interesting photographs of orb-like objects in the mezzanine area.
"I still think it's a camera anomaly," she said. "But I don't know."
The guides warned dust, reflective surfaces, windows and even bugs could affect photos. Wiring and copper tubing could send the EMF meter into a beeping frenzy.
Still, ghost or no ghost, participants enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the 83-year-old working theater. They saw the green room where David Byrne, Ani DiFranco and other celebrities relaxed before concerts. They saw the 10-horsepower blower that powers the organ. They saw the original light board that controls the 99 stars in the theater's ceiling.
Guests ranged from history buffs to serious ghost hunters to one couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. Admittedly, walking through the bowels of an empty 1,446-seat theater in the middle of the night was spooky, they said.
The tour ended with a photo on the lobby staircase. "Oh no, the batteries are dying," said guide Tara Schroeder as she aimed the camera.
Not every ghost story is true.