Friday, May 27, 2011

El Rey Theatre, Manteca, CA

A once-beautiful example of Art-Deco architecture and interior design, and one of the truly grand movie houses of the 1930s, the El Rey Theatre in Merced California opened it's doors in 1937. It functioned for 38 years, finally closing due to a fire that essentially gutted the interior. Ironically, on the night that it burned, the film that it was showing was The Towering Inferno.

The building stood empty, a burned-out shell, for over two decades until the Kelly Brothers purchased it and turned it into a restaurant and micro-brewery. But, of course, that's not the end of the story.

Since the Kelly Brothers establishment opened in the late 1990s, stories have begun circulating that spirits left from the old theatre days haunt the building. Customers claim to have seen people in clothing from earlier decades walking about, only to inexplicably vanish. Firefighters, in gear and uniforms from the 1970s, are sometimes seen wandering the building. It is said that hot spots appear in different spots around the building, as if in memory of the fire that destroyed the theatre. When a grease fire erupted in the kitchen in 2003, many people developed the belief that this was a result of the ghostly hot spots igniting the grease*.

*And not, oh, say the fact that there was flammable grease being heated ON A STOVE.

Discussion: I grew up about 15 miles south of Manteca. When I was a kid, it was little more than a small town near a sugar refinery that caused the downtown area to smell pretty horrible most of the time (earning it the nick-name "Man-Stinka'"). During the 1980s, and accelerating in the 1990s, a large number of people who worked in the Bay Area decided to purchase house in the Central Valley, and towns such as Manteca, Salida, Modesto, Stockton, and Dublin grew rapidly. While far from a thriving metropolis, Manteca has grown to be a small city with a more diverse population than it once had.

The growth of these Central Valley towns and cities has had numerous effects, both positive and negative. On the one hand, it has resulted in more money being available for local development and has made them nicer places to live, on the whole. At the same time, the fact that so many of the new residents spent much of their day commuting meant that they had less loyalty to local businesses, and often served as absentee-parents, both of which created their own set of problems. However, as the urban centers have grown, more people have found local work, and a greater commitment to the community has formed.

And that's part of what I like about this story. The construction of micro-breweries in the Central Valley is very much a result of the arrival of more affluent people from the Bay Area, the yuppification of the Central Valley, if you get what I mean. It is a very definite break in both character and culture with the Central Valley's past, which has its up side and its down side. This story, though, symbolically connects the old with the new. By having the ghosts of the past literally show up in a new type of business, it provides a folkloric continuity that I think is needed in much of the Valley.

Sources: Weird Fresno,,, Shadowlands, Cinema Treasures, Local Newspaper

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

AC/DC and Satanic Reincarnation

This one is not technically a ghost story, but it does involve someone returning from the grave, is interesting and, I think, deserves to be listed here.

As a kid, probably around the age of 12, I remember talking with one of the other kids in the neighborhood as we walked to the store one day. A car drove by, windows rolled down, hard rock blaring from the stereo's speakers. The other kid, has name was Ryan, looked at me gravely and said "that's Satanic music."

Being the sort of kid that I was, I looked at him with a smirk, and made a smart-ass comment. He rolled his eyes, and repeated his claim that the music was Satanic.

So, I asked "Really? You don't listen to it, how do you know it's Satanic?"

We stopped walking, he turned to me, and said "my uncle used to listen to that kind of music. And there's this one band, AC/DC, where their singer died. The band had songs about going to Hell to party, and about how everyone should use drugs and talk to demons, and things like that. My uncle said that he was pretty sad when the singer died, but a year later, the group put out a new record*, and they had this new singer. But the new singer looked and sounded and acted just like the old one, and he was singing this song about how he was back! My uncle said that it was pretty obvious that the song was about how he had died, and then Satan broght him back to continue doing the Devil's work!"

I rolled my eyes, and we continued walking. But the story stuck with me, as evidenced by the fact that I still remember it now, 23 years later. I think that part of what gave it its staying power, as silly as I thought it was, was Ryan's insistence that the story of AC/DCs Satanic reincarnation was true, and the distress that it seemed to cause him.

Commentary: I grew up in a small town to the north of Modesto, California. Like most towns in California, the residents were primarily Christian, and many were from one or another fundamentalist church (that is, of the minority who routinely attended any church), and a few of these churches were known for their "bunker mentality" approach to the world, where anything not from the church itself was considered suspect if not outright evil, and likely to assault the "godly" (which was, of course, members of that church, and pretty much nobody else). As a result, it is no surprise that there were a fair number of people who were convinced that horror movies were evil, D&D was a Satanic primer, Secular Humanists were trying to take over the world and abolish Christianity**, and rock music was, quite literally, music from Hell itself.

In this context, it's not surprising that Brian Johnson, the singer that replaced Bon Scott, was thought by some who are part of this particular Christian sub-culture to be a satanic reincarnation of Scott sent by Satan both to tempt more to Hell and to provide Satan with a prominent mouth-piece on Earth. Of course, when you consider that Johnson was not only alive, but had an active musical career, well before Scott's death, this reincarnation hypothesis falls apart, but paranoid sub-cultures have never been known for their adherence to reality.

I don't know if Ryan really had an uncle who told him this, as I have since heard the story told by different people in different places. It's entirely possible that multiple people developed this particular hair-brained hypothesis, helped along by AC/DC's lyrics and the fact that both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson both sing as if they are in the pained and advanced stages of throat cancer. Regardless, it was one of the claims that tended to serve as "evidence" of a massive Satanic influence on the "secular world."

This is, in no small way, a continuation of the rumors of violin virtuoso Paganini's alleged Satanic connections, which were both part of his commercial success and fed the worries of the delusional paranoiacs of his day.

Ironically, while the rumor of Scott's Satanic reincarnation was developing amongst this sub-culture, AC/DC fans were busy pointing to difference between Scott and Johnson and arguing over who was better. Two divergent it goes....

*It was the late 80s. We still referred to music albums as "records" even though they were coming out primarily on CDs.

**I remember often hearing this as a kid. Weirdly, as an adult, I discovered that there really was a group that identified itself as Secular Humanists, was relatively small in numbers, with no actual political power, and possessing an agenda so mellow that it's hard to imagine anyone who actually knew it having much of an objection to it. These people were often confused when they were informed that they were actually in control of the world's governments.