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Royal Oak theater may be part of Metro Detroit's haunted history

Eric Henrickson / The Detroit News

Maybe they're attracted to the drama, but ghosts and old theaters go hand-in-hand. From the Bonstelle to the Majestic, Metro Detroit's theaters inspire many stories of spirited shenanigans.

In the 12 years I've been a member of Stagecrafters, a community theater group that owns and performs at the Baldwin Theatre in Royal Oak, I've heard several stories of mysterious noises, moving objects and shadowy apparitions, but I'd never experienced them myself. When the troupe brought in three professional ghost-hunting groups in preparation for a recent Halloween-themed fundraiser, I got to tag along on some of the expeditions.

Their opinion: We're haunted.


I've always been fascinated by ghosts, an interest fueled by recent popular cable shows such as "Ghost Hunters" on Sci Fi, "Dead Famous" on Bio, "Most Haunted" on Travel Channel and the upcoming "Paranormal State" on A&E. When I've watched them alone, they have led to more than one sleepless night. And a recent Associated Press poll says about one-third of people believe in ghosts and almost a quarter say they have seen one or felt its presence.

There are actually two theaters in the building -- the Main Stage and the Second Stage, which is the old balcony turned into a smaller venue. It's up there, along with the attached lighting control booth, that seems to be the hot spot, the ghost hunters said.

On with the hunt

On my first trip, a band of Stagecrafters members joined the hunt with a group called ParaHaunt on what was its second trip through the theater.

"It was rather exciting, actually," says Scott Hattis, who founded the group in 2000 and has done hundreds of investigations and, it turned out, is home delivery supervisor for Detroit Media Partnership, which runs business

operations for The Detroit News. "Because it's so old and has so much character, it was really interesting going through." ParaHaunt will soon be setting up a camera to record overnight in an effort to find more evidence.

We mostly stayed out of their way and didn't experience any tell-tale signs of paranormal activity. Photos they took around us showed some promising orbs (floating balls of light), but nothing definitive. Orbs were all that showed up in any of the group's photos, Hattis says. "We did hear stuff, but as far as walking away with any real evidence, the pictures are probably as good as we got."

Orbs can be tricky, I was told, because they're so easily explained away. The most common cause is dust, which certainly isn't in short supply in an old theater. But these orbs were photographed in the same place over the course of a few hours and were a bit bigger than normal. Dust moves around.

That's kind of cool, but for my first brush with the paranormal, I was disappointed. I wanted the icy-cold finger on my neck or the mysterious footsteps I'd heard about. I wondered: Were the ghosts staying away because they didn't like that night's earlier theatrical performance? Or were we just being too loud and giggly, and scaring them away, instead of vice versa?

On my second trip, with a much smaller entourage, I shadowed Scott Stephens, one of the investigators from another group, D-N-R Paranormal Investigations. He first went around the building with a device to find anything that might create an electrical field, such as a conduit behind a wall or active outlets. He also took temperature readings. It's grunt work, but it has to be done so that all possible explanations can be exhausted.

D-N-R was founded 18 years ago by David Dennis and has done investigations at castles in Germany. They did six trips to the Baldwin and are still going through video footage.

Up on the Second Stage, Stephens taunted the ghosts a bit, asking them to show themselves by knocking or tapping us, or making the temperature drop as we sat in the audience area. And it did! It wasn't the dramatic drop of 20 degrees they experienced on a previous visit, but it was noticeable and wasn't easily explained by air circulation since the system had been shut down.

When we started walking around, there were a few of these cold spots around the stage, among the seats and at the back of the steeply inclined auditorium, which should have been the warmest part of the room. And there were some strange electromagnetic readings in the same spot where the orbs had shown up on my previous visit.

The hairs on my arm and the back of my neck were standing up.

At one point, the group split up, with Dennis and investigator-in-training Sarah Davis going down to the Main Stage. While down there, the full batteries on their digital cameras died, then shot up to half-full when they came back upstairs. Spirits feed off that kind of energy, I was told, and it frequently happens when there are ghosts around.

Was I finally getting my wish?

The third time was definitely the charm. On my final trip, D-N-R Paranormal set up infrared cameras around the Second Stage, and we watched their images on Stephens' laptop. There was a rehearsal going on down at the Main Stage, and the orb activity on the cameras was high. To me, they mostly looked like dust or snow falling hard, but a few of them moved like they knew where they were going. An extra-large one lazily floated in from the side of the screen, came closer to the camera as if to check it out (maybe making a face at me), and then slowly moved on. Whoa -- cool!

Then we saw a white hand move from behind a black wall on one of the cameras. "What was that!?!" At first we thought it may have been Dennis, who was taking readings, but he hadn't gone far enough into the room for the camera to pick him up. Had I finally seen my first spook? Those arm hairs were getting a workout.

And then things got really interesting when Stephens stepped on the stage to call out the ghost. As he talked, a camera pointed toward him picked up an orb floating stationary in front of him, and the temperature around him dropped 12 degrees in just a few minutes. Davis got similar results when she tried. The temperature around me also was noticeably falling and rising.

By the end of the night, I was feeling giddy about this trip.

"We actually collected some good, solid evidence," Stephens says. "Some of the pictures were outstanding. We hope to find good evidence like that. We also want to debunk things that are easily explained."

Healthy skepticism

Of course, it may not have been anything. The skeptic waiting for me back home pointed out that I might have been hoping so hard to find something, I did -- a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe, but that doesn't explain the hand.

Regardless of what may have happened in the theater those nights, I hope no one is dissuaded from attending a Stagecrafters performance. I've never head of patrons reporting strange happenings during a show, and many, if not most, people just think we've got an old theater full of understandable creaks and groans.

It was, after all, built as a vaudeville house in 1922. It served as a movie house and even a bomb shelter and survived several small fires over the years before finally shutting down in 1984 when a final fire destroyed the backstage area. Stagecrafters bought it and started renovations the next year, according to a 1985 article in the Royal Oak Daily Tribune. The old bones are bound to protest now and then.

But if there are ghosts at the Baldwin, they seem content to be courteous members of the audience.

Detroit's haunted theaters

Bonstelle Theatre: Namesake Jessie Bonstelle has been seen near the stage's curtain and other spots.

Fox Theatre: Some say the building's stone lions have gone on the prowl at night.

Majestic Theatre: Magician and ghost debunker Harry Houdini's final performance was at the Majestic, and apparitions, and footsteps and other noises have been reported since.

Masonic Temple: The building's financier, George D. Mason, who jumped off the roof, is said to haunt the building.

Orchestra Hall: The ghost of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's second music director, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, has been seen in his old office and rehearsal rooms.


Ghost hunters

If you seriously believe your home or business is haunted, the groups that investigated the Baldwin Theatre may be able to help you:

D-N-R Paranormal Investigations: (248) 629-5160,

Paranormal Researchers in Southeast Michigan (PRISM): (734) 883-3724,

ParaHaunt: (734) 934-5473,

You can reach Eric Henrickson at (313) 222-2799 or ehenrickson@