Sunday, August 02, 2009
Is the KiMo Theatre really haunted by the spirit of a boy killed there in 1951, or is it urban legend?
By Rick Nathanson
Journal Staff Writer
It's a poltergeist tale that has been retold in numerous books about haunted New Mexico sites and is resurrected regularly for newspaper, magazine and TV features — especially around Halloween.
The story? The KiMo Theatre in Downtown Albuquerque, known for its Art Deco and Pueblo style architecture, has for decades been home to the restless spirit of a child killed in an accident in the theater's lobby in 1951.
The story is so pervasive that a team of paranormal investigators a couple of years ago scoured the KiMo with electromagnetic field detectors, dowsing rods and other tools of the trade. They claim to have detected wisps of light and energy called "orbs," as well as other "anomalous" energy surges.
"It's all very dramatic, but there's no science to it," says Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a national publication dedicated to exploring claims of the unusual, including the paranormal.
Like many ghost stories, the one involving the KiMo Theatre contains a "nugget of truth," but upon further examination the evidence of a ghost is as ethereal and insubstantial as an apparition, says Radford, 38, of Rio Rancho.
Assisted by a colleague, Radford investigated the story in 2007 and 2008. The conclusions of that probe were published in the May/June 2009 edition of the Skeptical Inquirer, which is based in New York.
What is true and verifiable from newspaper accounts of the time is that 6-year-old Bobby Darnall was attending an Aug. 2, 1951, screening of an Abbott and Costello movie at the KiMo, a building constructed in 1927. Darnall had just walked down a stairwell from the balcony when a water heater serving the lobby's food concession exploded. More than a dozen people were injured. Darnell died en route to a hospital.
Based on his research, Radford says "the name of Bobby Darnall wasn't invoked again until a 1974 Christmas Day performance of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol.' "
"Workers at the KiMo had apparently kept a string of doughnuts hung to a back stage wall as an offering to the ghost of Bobby Darnall, though I couldn't find anybody who knew exactly when that started or why," he says.
The sources, none of whom was present on the day of the performance, maintained that the play's director, Andrew Shea, removed the doughnuts despite warnings from cast and crew to leave them alone or risk angering Darnall's spirit.
The next performance of the play was allegedly plagued by a litany of strange occurrences: Actors forgot their lines and tripped on stage, well-anchored props toppled over, bulbs exploded, gels fluttered from above, cables fell, set doors and windows opened and closed on their own.
According to that version of the story, Shea quickly purchased two boxes of doughnuts and had them re-strung throughout the theater. The remainder of "A Christmas Carol" performances went off without a hitch.
If this ghost of a Christmas past had a hand in these events, it certainly wasn't 1974, Radford says. That's because the venerable KiMo Theatre at that time was showing triple-X-rated pornographic films. Checking the Albuquerque Journal archives, he located an advertisement listing the Christmas 1974 film feature as "Teenage Fantasies."
Radford was subsequently able to pinpoint the Andrew Shea-directed production of "A Christmas Carol" to December 1986. Shea also directed the play at the KiMo in 1987.
"If someone tells you there was a supernaturally ruined performance of a play in front of hundreds of witnesses, that's interesting, that's something to look at," says Radford, who interviewed a number of the actors in the play. None recalled anything out of the ordinary.
"When you can't find corroborating witnesses, the assumption then becomes that this is likely an urban legend based on third-, fourth- and fifth-hand accounts."
Before he could definitively draw that conclusion, Radford found Dennis Potter, the KiMo's longtime technical manager, who claims to have witnessed the event but wasn't sure of the year.
Radford then located director Shea, now a professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas, Austin, and an independent filmmaker.
Shea said in a phone interview with the Journal that "I vaguely remember something about doughnuts hanging up somewhere." He concedes he "may have removed the doughnuts" for one of the productions because they were visible to the audience, but that action didn't result in any of the performances being marred by unexpected problems or events.
For more than 20 years Shea says he has been fielding questions about supposed strange occurrences during a performance of "A Christmas Carol."
"I can tell you flat out nothing like that happened at all — nothing paranormal or supernatural," he says. "I guess I should be pleased and flattered that after all these years I'm remembered as the guy who took down the doughnuts and angered the ghost."
Potter, who admits he has never seen the ghost of Darnall, is equally adamant that the strange occurrences did happen. "I was there. I know what I saw," he says. "A whole bunch of events happened that individually can be explained. But having so many of them take place at the same time in the same show is incredibly unusual and unexplainable, possibly bordering on the supernatural."
About 1990, give or take a few years, the doughnuts were removed "for public health reasons" and replaced by a shrine to Darnall made of toys and trinkets, Potter says. It is currently in a stairwell on the west side of the stage.
His investigation complete, Radford says it appears that the only "witness" to the poltergeist-plagued theater performance was Potter, "who is apparently also the source of the ghost story."
People frequently "mis-remember," Radford says. "Psychological studies show that when people retell a personal experience they're often not remembering the original event, but actually remembering the last version of the story they told. The problem is that over time details are added or omitted and the story changes. I believe that Dennis Potter sincerely believes these things happened."
But don't count Radford as a disbeliever. "I'm open to it," he says. "Nothing would please me more than to be the guy who finds Bigfoot or who shakes hands with a disembodied spirit. I'm not afraid of ghosts, they're afraid of me. Every time I go looking for them, they disappear."