Hidden beneath climbing vines and shrubs sits a well-known secret. Behind the unassuming doors sits a lobby of immense proportions, with tables around a large fireplace, 1920’s-era ambiance, all with the smell of buttered popcorn in the air. While it could very well by a themed cafe, this historic building is much more, providing culture to the citizens of Seattle, and providing others with a voice. It is a theater now, but it was not always so, and like so many places, echoes of the past still return to old grounds, walking where many dread to tread, reminding patrons of the present of things that came before.
Some places seem to cry out to ghosts. They may have been built on land already tainted, or may be the homes to the fevered dreams of artists. Whatever the case, these places, more often than not, do not fear their otherworldly visitors. Rather, they welcome them, embrace them, treat them with the dignity they deserve. After all, how many places can legitimately say that they hold the distinction of being haunted?
Little is known about the land on which now stands the theater prior to the building’s construction. What is known is at some point just at the turn of the century, a man was killed in a brawl in a home that stood on the grounds. When the house was razed, a new home went up in its place. Three stories tall and with a large receiving area on the ground floor, the luxurious building was first used for a home.
In 1920, the home became the headquarters of the Women’s Century Club, whose main concerns were the rights of women in Seattle. Chiefly concerned with women’s voting rights, the group used the building exclusively until the 1960’s, when it was sold to a pair of Boeing engineers named Art Berstien and Jim O’Steen., who were thought of by most as simply “eccentric film buffs.” In 1968, the Harvard Exit Theater, so named because the exit is actually on Harvard Street, opened its doors. But it was apparent from the tales of the members of the Women’s Century Club, who still met in the building, that things were not as they should be. When occurrences began, many thought the phenomena to be only in the imaginations of the owners, who at least one person described as a “bunch of wild hippie types.”
In the 1970’s, the “eccentric” owners turned operations over to the Landmark Theater Company. Within ten years, they opened another theater on the third floor, and opened up the theater to independent cinema and festivals. Also, despite the departure of the “wild hippies,” the phenomena continued.
Every era of operations of the theater, from it’s construction to the present, has its own stories to tell. While none of the spirits in the historic building appear to be dangerous, their presence has given many of the employees frights nonetheless.
The man who died on the site before the theater was even built is reputed to haunt the ground floor. Most often seen as a fleeting image out the corner of witness’ eyes, he is most often described as a good-natured fellow named “Peter.” On more than one occasion, Peter’s been blamed for film canisters being shuffled inside locked rooms and for projectors that have been found running by the crew coming in for the morning shift. When they go to investigate, often they find the booth locked from the inside, with no possible means for escape. But try as they might, the staff is unable to find a living culprit.
Far from being the only spirit, Peter is joined by at least three female entities, one of which was reputed murdered in the building in the 1940’s by suffocation. Many of these apparitions have been seen in photos that were taken by patrons of the supposedly empty room. A former manager of ten years encountered what she described as a woman dressed in period-style clothing who simply melted into thin air in front of her. The women are also credited with occasionally starting the fire in the hearth before employees arrive in cold months. The most common female entity seen is thought to be that of Bertha Landis, a former president of the Women’s Century Club.
The Harvard Exit Theater today is the home to more than just ghosts. It is well known for hosting independent and foreign film, as well as the Seattle International Film Festival and “Three Dollar Bill,” the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Also, the Women’s Century Club still meets in the building twice a week. As for the patrons that just don’t seem to leave, they’re still around, and are accepted by the staff as just part of what makes the Harvard Exit Theater special. Even managers who, over the years, have proven skeptical have turned into believers after witnessing the myriad of phenomena.
The theater has been investigated time and again by psychics, ghost hunters, and paranormal investigators, all of whom come up with the same answer. “Yep, it’s haunted.” The best plan of action is to come for a show and keep your eyes open. It once had the honor of having its lobby named “Best Place to Wait,” so even if there are no spirits at the time of your visit, you’ll at least be watching in comfort.
See you in two weeks!
– Scott A. Johnson