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A Rich History

The Ghost – Is the Theatre Haunted?

dear_judyMysterious noises, ghostly apparitions, and chilly corridors are just some of the hair-raising experiences that have been said to occur at the Mount Baker Theatre.

“…the crews turned their first shovelfuls of soil to begin building the Moorish-Spanish structure, today one of Whatcom County’s architectural treasures. But legend has it that the diggers disturbed more than just the soil, and lore about an unfettered stage specter has shadowed the Theatre ever since.”–The Bellingham Herald, Barrett, Eldon and Santarris, Ben. 1996.

The Theatre’s restoration, which concluded in September of 1996 with a grand reopening, stirred the legend anew with a photograph tied to the overhaul capturing a ghoulish-looking haze off the balcony.

“We are thinking maybe we got a picture of the ghost,” says Barry Bonifas, [then] Theatre executive director. Most longtime Theatre managers and employees have heard MBT’s ghost stories. Some say the stories have improved with age.

Since the Theatre’s opening on April 29th, 1927, ushers and movie projectionists are said to have seen strange happenings, especially following the audiences’ departure. These reports have included gusts of cold air, balls of light, a rustling of skirts, a mysterious voice calling out names–in short, all the usual eeriness associated with ghosts.

Theatre workers tell of an amorous young woman named Judy, whose home was razed to clear the way for the Theatre, prompting her to haunt the corridor connecting the balcony and the mezzanine. Some Theatre employees believe she is particularly interested in male projectionists and stage hands and has learned to call out their names. “Not to worry,” says [then] Theatre House Manager Margaret Mackay, “I don’t think she’s malicious.”

Ruth Shaw, Theatre manager from 1984 to 1994, thinks that Judy is an invention. “Their theatrical imaginations, already fertile ground for ghost stories, were stirred by the sensations of a creaky, drafty old building with rich imagery painted and sculptures in the Theatres interior,” she says. “Faces of angels, nymphs, dragons, griffins, gargoyles, people, and animals populate the walls of the Theatre. From the lobby, an imaginative person looking into the orchestra pit can make out the shape of a coffin,” Shaw says. “Furthermore,” she added with a laugh, “every old theater has to have its resident ghost.”

Bellingham enjoyed an ideal location on the well-worn Pacific Coast vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. With a population of 35,000 and a well-deserved reputation as a ‘theater town’ (14 theaters were listed in the 1914 City Directory), Bellingham was targeted by West Coast Theatres as an ideal site for an addition to their growing network of movie palaces. Controlled by William Fox of 20th Century Fox Studios, West Coast Theatres brought out the majestic qualities in movie palace design while also insisting on magnificently structured buildings. Mount Baker Theatre was one result of this vision, and incorporated the most modern reinforced concrete building techniques with architect R.C. Reamer’s imaginative Moorish-Spanish motif and elaborate interior. Mount Baker Theatre was completed after only one year, the grand opening filling the house for the first time on the evening of April 29, 1927.

A National Historic Landmark

historic photoMount Baker Theatre was the creation of a nationwide movement to construct formidable theater buildings in the hearts of American cities. Now, decades later, the few remaining giant palaces of another era are involved in a new movement, this time to preserve a wonderful heritage and to restore the structures for community use, performing arts, and entertainment centers.

In 1978 the Mount Baker Theatre was placed on the National Historic Landmark Register. Through the cooperative efforts of the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, the State of Washington, the citizen-based non-profit Mount Baker Theatre Center and numerous private donations, the historic landmark Mount Baker Theatre underwent extensive restoration and remodeling of the 1517-seat facility to assure a permanent and useful place in the cultural life of the community. It remains true to its heritage of stage presentations and community use events.

The construction of the Theatre itself was a monumental task, employing several different contractors and over 80 craftsmen experienced in stone masonry, carpentry, and plaster casting. The 130 x 250-foot theatre was outfitted to accommodate vaudeville stage productions on a 26 x 75-foot stage under a 42-foot proscenium arch. Dressing and practice rooms behind the stage were connected by a tunnel to the orchestra pit, and the best in counter-weight lighting systems were used to enhance the live performances.

For more information, check out “A History of Whatcom County Theater,” by Dorothy Koert, at your local public library.

A Staple of Any Silent Film House

MBT Pipe Organ Photos-0275Equally well-equipped to show motion pictures, MBT had the latest in projection room equipment and gadgetry, a flying screen, and a top-of-the-line Style 215 Wurlitzer theater pipe organ.

Mount Baker Theatre was to be one of the last grand vaudeville/silent movie palaces built in the entire Pacific Northwest. Later in its opening year (1927), a film called “The Jazz Singer” introduced the talking motion picture, an event that historians feel signaled the death of vaudeville and thus the need for a full stage in movie theaters. In addition, the onset of the depression in 1929 brought an end to investments in opulent movie palace theaters.

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