If there is one building in downtown Jacksonville that’s likely to be haunted, it’s the Florida Theatre.
Literally millions of people have been through the theater since it opened in 1927 and, although there are no records of such things, you have to think one or two must have passed away while watching a movie or a concert or a dance recital. And before the theater was built, the property was the site of a downtown police station and, before that, a hotel and billiard hall dating back to 1870.
So it’s no surprise that patrons have reported strange sensations and seen inexplicable movements. In 2010, a paranormal investigation team caught an apparition on video in the theater’s balcony that experts still haven’t been able to explain.
You can see for yourself Saturday night when the theater opens its doors for Paranormal After Hours Tours.
“There’s quite a bit of paranormal activity here,” said Pamela Theresa, a spiritual medium who will be part of the tours. “This is kind of prime Earth-bound real estate.”
There’s nothing malevolent about the spirits that haunt the theater, said Steve Christian, host and producer of the “Local Haunts” TV show that airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on CW17. In fact, he and Theresa said wouldn’t even classify the place as haunted. “They enjoy the public coming here,” she said of the spirits that hang out in the theater.
Christian and his crew were filming from the Florida Theatre stage in 2010, using infrared cameras, when they noticed movement upstairs. “Even in the dark, we were seeing movement in the balcony and hearing the chairs,” he said. “Sound carries really well in here.”
The cameras captured something in Seat E2, Section 500, up in the balcony, where the original 1927 seats are still in place. Watch the video and it appears as if someone is sitting there, moving his arm. A crew from SyFy Network’s “Fact or Fake” show later studied the video and visited the theater to try to re-create it, but couldn’t find any evidence that it was faked.
Someone who saw the show later emailed Christian, suggesting that the apparition could be Joseph Hilton, an organist who worked at the theater in the ’20s and later committed suicide. On a subsequent visit, Christian’s crew made audio recordings in the projection booth and other places around the theater. Listening to them later (a technique called EVP, for electronic voice phenomenon), Christian said he found a recording that says “I’m Joseph Hilton.”
A voice from beyond, or simple power of suggestion? Theresa, for one, said she believes there are spirits among us, and there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t hang out in the Florida Theatre. “This is a very clean space,” she said. “It’s quite organized; most places are very chaotic.”
Christian said others have felt something odd about the theater.
“I’ve gotten lots of emails from viewers telling me about their personal experiences here,” he said. “They’ve been touched or seen something out of the corner of their eye.”
Kendall Barsin, the theater’s director of marketing, has worked there for six years. She said she’s never seen a ghost, but she’s felt an “energy” in the office building next door.
Last month, she was taking a fellow employee on a tour of the theater and was standing on the stage talking about ghosts when two small rocks fell from the ceiling and landed at her feet.
“Mind you, it is a 1927 building …” she noted. Still, she said, she was creeped out.
For the paranormal tours, guests will travel around the theater and learn about its history — the St. Marks Hotel and the Hotel Togni, and later a police station stood on the same property — and about the investigative techniques and equipment that paranormal researchers use.
What it definitely will not be is a Halloween haunted house, with costumed actors jumping out of darkened corners to scare people out of their wits.
People also shouldn’t expect visits from any long dead nasties. “They’re not at all unfriendly,” Theresa said of the Florida Theatre’s spectral residents. “They like to provide proof — they don’t want to scare the crap out of you.”
Tom Szaroleta: (904) 359-4548