Note: Before I start this article, on September 9, 2012, the historic theater burned to the ground. A new building has been erected on the ashes of the ruined theater. The Garman stood along East High Street, across from the Centre County Court House. It has been replaced with an office building.
After being closed for years, when the Garman Theater reopened in 2000 it brought movies back to Bellefonte. I regularly found myself sitting in the comfortable seating with my large bag of popcorn to watch the newest title that played on the big screen. The experience was definitely better than the hard seats of any other theater in the immediate area.
The Garman’s place in Bellefonte’s history was a unique, yet important, one. Erected in 1881 by Daniel Garman, the Garman House had some problems in its early years with fire. In 1887 and again in 1890, the Garman House burned. It was rebuilt after the 1890 fire with the addition of the Garman Opera House — Daniel’s son William managed it.
Over the years, the stage brought a variety of entertainment to town. The Garman had the privilege of having George Burns and Gracie Allen, Harry Houdini, and a number of Wild West shows, along with other one-act shows grace its stage. According to legend, the song “After the Ball is Over” was first performed on the stage of the Garman.
The theater continued vaudeville entertainment even as films became popular in the region. In 1931, the Garman was renamed The State Theater, but unfortunately, when the multiplexes made their debut in the 1950’s, downtown single screens lost their appeal and The State Theater stopped showing films in 1961.
After the theater closed, a local furniture company used the Garman as a warehouse for thirty years. It was scheduled to be torn down when several downtown businessmen came together and bought the Garman. The theater went through a number of owners, each improving it until a movie theater once again came to Bellefonte in 2000. The Garman became victim to another fire in 2012. Unlike the fires from the early years, the theater was not able to recover and the complex was torn down and replaced with a modern building.
Though it is gone, the theater was – like many other theaters – rumored to be haunted. Reports of ghostly activity in the Garman had existed since I could remember, though nobody is exactly sure who it is that haunted the historic building. Reports over the years include a light seen floating on the balcony, lights turning themselves on and off, strange shadows appearing, a mysterious light appearing in a window, and objects being moved by unseen forces.
Who haunted the theater? It could have been any of the actors or actresses who graced its stage. One possibility was the ghost of Harry Houdini, who promised he would return after his death to perform once more on the stages he had when he was alive. Houdini had an interest in the paranormal, so it would be no surprise if he returned at least once to perform on the Garman’s stage.
If not Houdini, maybe it was the ghost of another actor or actress, who may or may not have been famous, but nonetheless fell in love with the beautiful theater and returned nightly to act out their lines once more.
Another possibility was the ghost of a former employee haunted the building. Rumor stated that an employee fell to his death while remodeling the inside of the theater. Of course, word of mouth also states that every theater or entertainment complex is supposedly haunted by the ghost of somebody who had supposedly died during its construction. While I have never read anywhere of anyone dying while remodeling the Garman, this story was very popular to explain odd events that happened in the theater.
During the conversion of the Garman from a warehouse back into a theater, the contractors were often the victims of ghostly pranks. More than once tools would disappear only to reappear later at a different location. Maybe the phantom construction worker needed to borrow them to make a quick fix of his own.
However, a previous owner tells this story about the identity of who haunted the Garman. He claims that the ghost was an understudy to a famous actress. The understudy, while living, was in a struggle with a rival understudy to fill the actress’s role if needed. Upon arriving in Bellefonte, the lead fell ill and the two understudies had the chance to fill the role. While she was the favored one, her rival, knowing she probably would not get the part, tricked the young girl into leaving, falsifying a report that girl’s mother was ill. The poor girl ran to the train station and waited for the next train to return home.
While waiting at the train station, word was received that the favored understudy’s mother was not ill. The girl hurried back to the theater only to discover her rival was receiving the applause for the performance. Distraught, the young girl ran out into the road and was struck and killed. Though the story has all the parts of a great romance, it too is merely word of mouth with no evidence to prove this really ever happened.
So who haunted the Garman? We may never know. However, I do have two stories to share. The first comes from Ryan B. who emailed shortly after the original article was posted. Ryan writes: “This happened a year or two before they started showing movies in the place (The Garman). With nothing to do in town, my girlfriend and I would often just walk around searching for something to do. One evening we were sitting on the steps of the courthouse talking with some other friends when she pointed at the Garman and asked “What is that?” We all turned to where she was pointing. In the second floor window was a glowing ball of light. It hovered there for a minute or two before disappearing – it didn’t move away from the window, it just vanished.” In a follow-up email, he added a couple more details. “It was roughly the size of a baseball and it glowed bright yellow. Whatever it was, it seemed to be giving off its own light. It freaked my girlfriend out enough that when they started showing movies there, she refused to go see any.”
The second story I’m going to share about the Garman is a personal one – one I personally witnessed at the Garman one summer afternoon. That day a handful of us were greeted with an interesting event that will probably keep us scratching our heads for awhile. While watching the movie, the video suddenly stopped and the house lights came on. Then lights behind the screen flickered on and off a few times, the house lights snapped back off, then on, then off one more time and the movie resumed. We were apologized to as we left the theater that day with the owners stating, “We’re not exactly sure what happened…it was a technical difficulty.”
Strange indeed…very strange indeed.
With the Garman now gone, it will be interesting to see if the spirits that lingered there finally were freed or will they continue to haunt the new building. Only time will tell.