|The Spectral Symphony of Kerr County
By Logan Hawkes
Itís not unusual for large buildings to have their own personalities. By personality, I am not referring to their architectural design. I mean, specifically, large buildings are often known to be eerie places, especially when they are empty and you find yourself alone and inside. From the sounds of the building settling to the changes in temperatures on metal roofs, for example, itís not uncommon to ďhear thingsĒ in these structures, and on occasion, you might catch a slight movement out of the corner of your eye, a rattling experience when you know for certain you are the only person inside.
Many years ago (its seems like a different life time), starting out a career of public service working as a parks & recreation director in the City of Kerrville, I became intimately associated with one such large, and in this case public, building, the Kerrville Municipal Auditorium. The 800-seat auditorium was the focal point for large meetings, performing arts programs, offered meeting rooms for community functions and local groups like the bridge clubs who used the facility three times each and every week for their afternoon tournaments. It also housed the offices of the parks & rec department.
During my nine year stint with the city I had the responsibility and pleasure of maintaining the facility, renting it out to interested groups and organizations, providing sound and lighting services for a number of productions, and opening and closing the facility after major performances. It also provided me the opportunity to become acquainted with the performing ghost(s) that seem to frequent the building and provide just enough mystery to make my time there more interesting than it might have otherwise been.
I should note that in my early years of adulthood I wasnít particularly interested in such things as ghosts or paranormal activity. Rooted in a career of public administration, I spent the first few months on the job denying the possibility that a ghost might inhabit the overly large brick and mortar structure. I had been told the stories of strange noises, cold spots on the stage and in the dressing rooms, the faint sounds of whispering when the building was locked down and it was certain no one was inside. It wasnít long, however, that my skepticism began to give way to the truth that inside this wonderful building some really strange things were going on, and in spite of my determination to prove they were the result of explainable and natural causes, I soon learned that not all things in this world are so easily explained.
But before we get into the details, let me provide a little background into the building itself.
Constructed in 1960, the auditorium was the result of a benevolent gift from the estate of Walter Jarmon. More correctly stated, the property was donated by the Jarmon estate for the express purpose of establishing a war memorial to honor those in the community who had sacrificed for God and Country. Jarmon was close friends with the Garrett family who lived on the property where the auditorium was built, and the Garretts had sons who fought in World War II, one of them paying the ultimate price for his service. City leaders thought the property might best be used to construct the municipal auditorium and use the walls of the foyer to display photos and plaques to tribute those of the community who had served the nation well.
In 1960, the auditorium building project represented an ambitious community achievement. It was soon being used for concerts, local performing arts, and a host of smaller meetings and gatherings. Not long after its opening, the Cuban Missile crisis developed and the building was equipped with Civil Defense items like a large pressurized cooker and a store of non-perishable foods to support the community in the event of natural disaster. It wasnít longer before the facility was designated as an official Red Cross emergency shelter, and more than once it had been opened for that purpose, once to house refugees during a Texas coastal hurricane and another time during local heavy floods that displaced a number of residents.
During my years of service, the auditorium was divided into three sections. Entering the building you would discover the foyer, Just to the left of this foyer were three meeting rooms divided by sliding partitions. To the right were a number of double doors that opened to the theatre seating section proper. One door in the foyer led to a staircase and a control room upstairs where the sound and lighting systems were operated. At the front of the seating, of source, was a large and attractive permanent stage complete with multiple rows of flying curtains counterweighted to provide a first class performance area for large and small performances and many rows of lighting overhead also flown from the ceiling. To the left and right of the (back) stage were dressing rooms and storage areas, and at the back corner of the stage and just out of view from the seating area there was a large metal cage (beneath one of the dressing rooms) where the local performing arts group stored a very expensive Steinway Grande Piano under lock and key. This area was not accessible to anyone without first asking me to unlock the massive stainless steel padlock that secured the double metal doors that kept the piano safe, and I had the only key.
Now, back to our story.
It was common, as the years progressed, to have a great variety of shows and functions staged at the auditorium. The famed Kerrville Folk Life Festival used the building in their early days, there were statewide conventions held there, a series of seasonal performing art productions, large meetings like the Future Homemakers of America and Future Farmers of America regional programs. There were also traveling shows, like major concerts that were staged there, and even professional wrestling matches were on the menu.
Event after event after event it was my responsibility to make certain we had personnel available at each and everyone of these functions to provide sound and lighting services, assistance with electrical connections for productions and to provide on-the-spot janitorial services as required. With a small staff, I often found myself working late hours for various functions, and for the most part enjoyed most every aspect of my time there. In fact, after six years and a comprehensive improvements and renovation project for the building, I was eventually moved into City Hall and became one of several assistant city managers for the growing community, a job that largely took me away from the years of pleasant association with the grand old auditorium.
But during my active days in the facility I can tell you there were many strange things that happened there. For one, the roof was made of metal with a gravel overlay, and it was subject to the harsh summer sun of Central Texas. In the evenings, after the sun would set, the old building would moan and creak and that in itself was difficult to become adjusted to these sounds of natural causes. In time, however, I could recognize - and explain - these sounds; could even tell what area of the roof was settling. It was such a study (after stranger things started happening) that I could almost gauge the temperature outside with the changing sounds of those creaks and moans of the building.
It was the other sounds that were perplexing, the most frightening of all, however, was that clear and ringing sound of a Steinway Grande breaking the silence of night with a melodious ring in prefect pitch and key. It didnít matter if it was a single note, a solitary piano key that had triggered the hammer to strike the exact piano string assigned to that key, or if it was a sequence of notes played on different keys. Each time it happened it was like a dagger thrust into the senses.
With a staff of about nine and a part time staff of 20 or more (depending on the season), this strange ringing of the piano keys was an experience that several had heard, often more than two or three of us at the same time.
Keep in mind I was the only person in the world with the key to that cage, one that could not be duplicated except by the factory, and on a lock that was hardened and resistant to bolt cutters and hacksaws. The piano cage was large but empty except for the big Steinway, and there was no way a hand could slip in the tightly woven chain fence; even a wire coat hangar straightened out could not reach the piano. Above the piano, which had a large and heavy linen cover, about seven feet above the floor of the stage, there was the concrete floor of the dressing room that served as the ceiling. Located in the corner of the stage there were two cinder block walls of the building (on two sides of the cage). The large metal door/gate was hinged securely and welded on to the cage frame, and the solid wooden floor of the stage allowed no access from below.
The mysterious playing of the piano became so frequent that both our department secretary and our custodian refused to be left in the building alone. At least two of my senior staff, young, athletic-types with strong sports backgrounds, were uneasy over the incidents and hated the locking the place down after long lasting concerts at night. On dozens of occasions several of us would be standing in the seating area looking directly at the stage with curtains open wide when those piano strings were struck. In haste we would scuffle the 60 or so steps up one of two movable staircases that allowed access to the stage where we could clearly see the piano behind the cage, always with its cover in place. Each time the note would cease as soon as we headed in that direction, but often the clear and reverberating ring could still be heard when we got the piano in sight. Yet nothing had been disturbed. The cover was on, the door was locked, there was no movement (and no one) inside the cage. Many times we opened the cage doors, removed the cover and examined the piano inside and out, thinking perhaps a mouse or squirrel or some other small creature had managed to nest inside the piano. Never was their a sign of such a thing, and our intensifying investigation led us to use powder on the floor whereby we could spot footprint of an intruder, animal or man. Yet we would hear the key, and rushing to see, discovered the powder had not been disturbed and the cage was always locked.
Imagine, now that you know the details, how unsettling it could be when late in the night, after a concert or program had ended, packed and loaded and departed the building, you would find yourself the last one in the building. You have locked all the doors from the inside and checked each one twice. You have inspected every room including bathrooms and stalls to make certain no one is left stranded in the building. Certain you are the last one remaining, you head down to the stage. On stage and against a wall are located the electrical boxes and panels that control all the power on, above and across the stage and backstage. To turn out the stage lights and dressing room lights and every other electrical outlet on the stage or back stage area, you were required to throw a dozen or so large switches. Once you did, you would find yourself standing in the dark. There were small aisle lights in the seating area, but you could not see these from the location of the switches. In fact, the first few steps toward stage front (and the steps down into the seating area) are pure guesswork, for backstage, when the lights go out, it is darker than night, black as black can get.
A few steps in the right direction though and you begin to see the slight glow of the aisle lights and after a dozen steps or more you pass into the stage front opening and can see all the little, dim lights and exit signs that provide faint illumination in the seating area. Quickly down the steps and up the aisles to the back of the auditorium you pass through swinging doors into the foyer where the lights, fortunately, could be left on and were controlled by switches near the exit door. But often times, occasionally right after turning out the stage lights and while standing in the dark less than ten steps away from the piano cage, a key would strike a string or two or three, and as you turn the lights back on you realize the eerie incident is by any standard a paranormal experience. Itís unsettling, often aggravating, and always mysterious.
But it was one of many strange things that happened in that auditorium. Whispers could often be heard in several areas of the big building. In the rear and to the side of the stage there was a work area with small tools and such. You could leave the area and return moments later and items will have moved from where you left them, from tools to coffee mugs to various objects of various sizes. The kitchen area, where the Civil Defense and American Red Cross had stored boxes of non-perishable foods, was particularly eerie. Mostly used for storage, the smaller room was full of noises that could not be identified and there was a feeling about the room as if someone was constantly watching you.
Many patrons of various events and even a number of performers experienced their own strange encounters, from feeling a presence in the dressing room to see movement up and down the stairs though no one was there to strange noises in the stage area.
One popular performer, the famous dancer Jose Greco, related strange experiences he had while rehearsing for a performance on the stage there. As my memory serves me, he commented that it was the most eerie stage he had ever danced. When I asked him the nature of his encounters, he looked nervous and would simply reply he was not the only one dancing on the stage, though the part he was rehearsing was a solo performance act.
So well known were the strange incidents at the auditorium that more than one newspaper reporter visited the building and interviewed both staffers and patrons about the strange things that happened there, running features about the spirits that seem to haunt the place.
After changing careers and moving from Kerrville, I lost contact with developments at the auditorium. Research shows that there was a another major renovation project and a name change, the facility now known as the Kathleen C. Cailloux City Center for the Performing Arts. It is my understanding the center is now much more advanced and greatly improved and the home of numerous quality programs and shows. Whether the old Steinway is still there and whether the spectral concerts continue or not, I have no idea. But regardless, nothing will convince me that something truly strange was a foot at the old municipal auditorium.