Spirit of projectionist blamed for spooky happenings

Is there a ghost in the Fox Theatre?

Rumors about a spirit resurface every now and then – most recently as part of the discussion over whether the movie house will have to close down again.

One thing is certain: the Fox won’t be shuttering, thanks to a fund-raising campaign secured by the generosity of the recreation and parks district.

The other thing – the one about the ghost – remains a mystery depending on your views of the supernatural.

Some believe the theater is haunted by the ghost of a longtime projectionist who, one night half a century ago, conked his head on the projector and died three days later.

He’s the likely suspect for those who believe in ghosts.

His daughter doesn’t, but if believers want to remember her dad that way, it’s fine with her.

“I don’t particularly believe in ghosts, but if people want to believe that it’s O.K. with me,” Sandra Murch says with a shrug, then adds matter-of-factly, “If anyone was going to come back to haunt the theater it had to be him.”

The “him” is John Edward Springer, who came to Taft as a teen-ager to get away from an overbearing stepfather.

Began as Hippodrome

He began working at the downtown theater when it was known as the Hippodrome.

Built in 1918, it burned down twice, the first time in 1925. It was rebuilt a year later but destroyed by flames again in 1950 and resurrected a year after that as the Fox.

While the ashes were cleared away and a new theater built, Springer managed the National Theater Corporation’s two other outlets in Taft – the Bace Theater (now a church) in Ford City and the Sunset Drive-In Theater on Fourth Street about where a storage facility sits.

On his 25th anniversary with the company, NTC executives presented him with a silver lifetime pass for he and his family.

Murch, a retired nurse who spent 25 of her 42 years in the profession working at West Side Hospital, remembers going to work with her dad at the Hippodrome when she was seven or eight years old.

“He would set me on a stool in the projection room and tell me not to move,” she recalls. During intermission she got to take a bathroom break and visit the snack bar.

Balcony included

The layout of the theater was different then.

“It was reversed from the way it is now,” she said. “The lobby was at the other end of the building. It was a huge lobby – a lot bigger than it is now. The projection room was on the ground floor and the lobby and restrooms were upstairs.”

There was a balcony too.

That’s where someone left a cigarette smoldering that is blamed for the 1950 fire.

It reopened to a flashy premier complete with red carpet, celebrities and klieg lights.

Murch was 13 then and helped get the place ready.

“I helped clean out the air conditioner and helped set up the candy counter,” she said.

Her mother made sandwiches that were sold along with the popcorn and sweets.

The premier was “The Great Caruso” starring Mario Lanza.

“Chill Wills was the emcee and I remember him saying, ‘boy, I sure like the trees you have on your hills’ in reference to our oil derricks.”

A few years later Murch went to work at the theater.

Like other employees, she rotated among three different tasks.

Staff dressed up

“I was an usherette and worked the snack bar and the box office. We wore uniforms and carried flashlights, and the manager wore a tuxedo.”

Going to the picture show was a big thing in those days and the staff at the theater took everything quite seriously.

Dad, of course, ran the projection booth and handled maintenance chores when he wasn’t showing the movies.

He was serious about his job – and his daughter’s.

“One morning he woke me up and said, ‘you left the snack bar a mess last night. Now get down there and clean it up.’ I said, but dad . . . and he said, ‘no buts, now get moving,’ so I got dressed and went down to the theater. You just didn’t argue with your parents in those days.”

When the manager noticed her cleaning the snack bar and asked her dad what she was doing there, he repeated his claim about the candy counter mess from the night before.

“But she worked the box office and not the snack bar,” the manager replied.

“Dad didn’t say anything, but he paid me for cleaning up the snack bar,” Murch said.

Of all the tasks she performed, working the box office was her favorite because “you got to see everybody.”

Projector room mishap

Springer was the first to arrive and the last to leave the theater, she said.

After finishing up in the projection room he would check the theater before locking up.

“Some parents would use the theater as a babysitter,” she said. “Dad would sometimes find little kids asleep in the seats. Then he had to find someone to come and get them.”

John Springer would tuck away his last reel of celluloid in 1963.

“One night he raised up and bumped his head on the housing of the projector,” Murch said. “He was embarrassed and said how stupid it was to do that. He died three days later of a subdural hemotoma.”

Murch, who spends many hours a week volunteering at the West Kern Oil Museum cataloguing photos and items for exhibits, said she cherishes the time she spent with her father at the theater.

Now she’s trying to wrap her arms around the theory his spirit is engrained there.

At least one current employee is beginning to believe.

“When I’m cleaning up late at night sometimes I hear voices,” said Richie Brown, “but I always pass it off as the college kids who live upstairs.”

But there’s one event he can’t explain.

“A couple of times now when I’ve had the front doors propped open they would slam shut really hard,” he said. “I’ve tried to duplicate that but haven’t been able to. So maybe it’s him. Maybe it’s the ghost of the Fox Theatre.”

Theater management is playing along with the ghost theory.

They’re planning to incorporate a “Spook Night” with their endeavors to keep the projectors humming – just like John Springer did all those years.