Arcata's Minor Theatre opened way back in 1914, so long ago that's it never been established if it was the first one in the nation built primarily as a cinema, but it was sure close. It's never been made clear whether Harry Houdini performed there in the 1920s but the lore is more fun if it's accepted as a (non-verifiable) fact.
So, can a 107-year-old local cinema really not be haunted? That's one worth pondering. In the early 1990s, while in college, I got a job at the Minor, which at that time was jointly owned and operated with the nearby Arcata Theatre. So I worked at both, then climbed up to manager, which also included some projectionist work on the two theater's now long-gone 35mm projectors.
Eventually, I got kicked upstairs to working as PR flak/jack-of-all-trades, although my small office was at the Arcata Theatre. That place was a relative youngster, only dating back to 1938, and while it had the oddest staircase in the county and a pretty recurrent problem with silverfish, haunted it did not seem to be. The Minor, however, was another story.
The Minor was built by Arcata dry goods and land magnate Isaac Minor, who had such a fortune late in his years that he was looking to spend some coin. After founding a bank, he sought more and built a grand-for-a small town cinema across the street, and his bearded, stoic visage can be seen in an aisle seat in the Minor's iconic opening night photo. He died less than a year later.
Now, a structure built the year the Titanic sank is bound to be a little creaky, despite the millions spent in upgrades and restoration over the years. (The original auditorium has never been altered; the two smaller theaters were built in a directly adjacent building in 1989.) But I had heard tales of strange sounds and odd happenings before I even worked there. I had a natural curiosity but also a strong streak of skepticism.
But then ... .
One night at the Minor, I sat at the box office counting the till, around 9:45 p.m. It was a slow night and the only other employee was Heather, who was sitting on the south stairs and reading a book. Lobby deserted, not a soul in sight. For whatever reason, I had just looked up from my work and out at the corner of 10th and H streets. No one, not even a car. Looked back down.
And then, loudly: "Shhhh!" I froze and then looked around again. No one indoors or out, but a silent reading Heather on the stairs.
And then from Heather:"Did you hear that?" "What?" "Someone going 'Shhhh'!" "No," I lied, for whatever reason. I was still a little freaked out, I guess. We both heard it. No one was in sight. Again, not a soul. No vent or anything in the building made that sound.
And about a year later, when I was backing out of the third-story projection booth in the main auditorium while checking in on how the projector and platters were doing on Short Cuts, I had a sense that somebody was walking up the stairs behind me — I turned around and again, not a living soul. Co-workers quite often talked about odd noises, hushed voices or sounds of footsteps. And while I dismissed most of the stories as the result of a building doing what TV's Mike Brady (an architect, remember) would call "settling," some other accounts were spooky. After all, my then-girlfriend, as she walked around with me while I was closing up one night, had the double whammy: She felt steps coming up behind her and heard a loud "Shhhh" when I was nowhere nearby.
Joshua Neff, the current owner of the Minor, did not return my request for comment. David Phillips, who along with various partners owned the Minor from 1972 to 2016, said simply in an email, "I have to believe it's runaway imagination or just enhancing the mysteries of the Minor deliberately. All of which is OK but for me to believe it, I'd have to be there."
Well, jeez. That's no fun. Phillips did, as he did way back when he my boss, point out that that are a lot of places in the Minor for non-ghost pranksters to hide and do their mischief: There's a floor trapdoor, for instance, which goes to the old Vaudeville-era dressing rooms under the stage, plus some odd passages in the upstairs. He also mentioned that decades back there had been séances held in the lobby, with "plenty of opportunity to be spooky if you know the building."
Séances do suggest a case of searching for what one seeks to find, much like setting off on the hunt for the abominable snowman and keeping at it until you find some shreds of evidence (or fall for someone pulling your leg). But in my long ago days at the Minor, I came aboard as a skeptic and would eventually leave curious, and still a little baffled.
David Jervis (he/him) is an Arcata-based freelance writer and editor.
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