(LSM Oct/Nov 2010/vol. 3 – issue 6)
Ghosts, conventional cliché, theory and pop-culture wisdom all tell us, are usually found lingering about the kind of places that the living tend to steer clear of. Spooky graveyards, dilapidated, abandoned buildings, creepy bridges, attics and basements, gothic castles, Blockbuster video stores, etc. — in general, places where a disembodied spirit can enjoy as much peace and quiet as possible during their time trapped in the netherworld between this plane and the next one.
But that’s just “most” ghosts. Others, it seems, just gotta dance — or throw back a few phantom longnecks while people-watching from the dusty rafters of a venerable honky-tonk. It’s said that some ghosts are often trapped in this world because they somehow or other are unaware that they’ve died and are supposed to move along. But others may just be stubborn and unwilling to let go — like a drunk patron at closing time, or a diehard (pun intended) fan lingering by the backstage door or outside a performer’s bus hoping for an autograph. Maybe that explains why so many great music venues in the Lone Star State — from dancehalls like Sons of Hermann Hall, Gruene Hall and Sengelmann Hall to the Phoenix Saloon and Casbeers at the Church, seem to be “haunted.” Because contrary to another old cliché, the devil most definitely does not have all the best tunes — Texas does.
That’s our theory, any way, and we’re sticking to it. Whether or not you believe that any of the following places are actually inhabited by ghosts is up to you. The fact is, even if you’re a full-on believer, your own odds of having any kind of paranormal experience at these places (apart from the regular spiritual charge of great live music!) is probably pretty slim. Even the most social of ghosts seem to err on the side of being discrete, especially when you go looking for them. But the next time you’re taking in a show at one of these joints, consider drinking a toast or at least tipping your hat to the invisible music fan who may be — who knows? — standing … right behind you. — RICHARD SKANSE
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SONS OF HERMANN HALL
Dallas • 3414 Elm Street
214-747-4422 • www.sonsofhermann.com
The Order of Hermann Sons — aka the Sons of Hermann — is a non-profit fraternal life insurance organization (or “fraternal benefit society”) with lodge branches across the state. In 1910, four different lodges in Dallas came together to build the Sons of Hermann Hall at the corner of Elm Street and Exposition. Early on in its now century-long lifespan, the two-story structure, with a bar and a bowling alley on the first floor and a dancehall on the second floor, served as a place for German emigrants to gather during a period of anti-German sentiment. In more recent decades, though, the Sons of Hermann Hall — which is open to fraternal members and the public alike Wednesday through Saturday — has become better known as one of the best music venues in Dallas’ historic Deep Ellum entertainment district. Between the Thursday night acoustic jams and concerts held most Fridays and Saturdays, just about every major and up-and-coming act in Texas seems to have played the place — and odds are, they’ve all heard the rumors that the building is haunted.
Jo Nicodemus has been a Sons of Hermann member for 42 years and has essentially run the hall for the last 22 years. She says that she and other members have definitely felt the presence of spirits in the old building. It is not out of the ordinary, she says, to hear voices or footsteps in the upstairs dancehall. Sometimes, the sound of chairs and tables being moved around can be heard even when the upstairs area is closed. In fact, Nicodemus says that if she’s the only one in the building, she won’t even venture upstairs.
But there’s been some interesting activity in the rest of the building, too. Nicodemus tells of a particular night during a board meeting when the loud voices of several rambunctious children coming from the bowling alley on the same floor were causing a distraction. Nicodemus went across the hallway to ask the children to settle down — but upon opening the door, she discovered that the room was empty and the lights were out.
At other times, apparitions of a man and woman have been seen. Coincidentally, the adult children of two Sons of Hermann members, a young man and woman, were tragically killed in separate traffic accidents. One local cameraman did manage to capture an orb on film.
Earlier this year, when the Dallas band the Old 97’s set up shop in Sons of Hermann Hall to record part of their new studio album, The Grand Theatre, Volume One, bassist Murry Hammond was so determined to have a ghost encounter, he desided to spend the night alone in the upstairs ballroom. As a joke, Nicodemus says she thought it’d be great fun to try to sneak up and rattle him. After pretending to lock up and leave, she put a sheet over her head and went upstairs to sneak up on Hammond, only to foil her own plot by giggling before she got the chance to scare him. It wasn’t until after she left that Hammond experienced any paranormal activity — or at least what he admits might have been paranormal.
“While I was alone getting ready to go to sleep — I made myself a little pallet to sleep on up by the stage — a neon beer sign turned itself off over the back bar,” Hammond reports. “And during the middle of the night, a gust of air just sort of blew over me where I was sleeping, and then went still again. I had turned off all the air upstairs and downstairs so I could make the building as quiet as possible, and the air had been utterly still. But there was that little wind. I checked for drafts, and there wasn’t any movement at all. So that was strange, but who knows.”
Hammond says that that’s his only firsthand “who-knows-if-it-was-a-ghost-run-in story,” but he’s heard enough stories from friends and acquaintances to sound more convinced than skeptical. “The bartender downstairs told me about how there were nights he would try to close up the place, and as he was driving away the lights would come on upstairs, and he’d have to pull in and turn them off again,” Hammond told LoneStarMusic via email. “He said one night it happened over and over again, until he asked it to at least let him drive away where he couldn’t see it turn on. He also told of a time when someone had left some music equipment upstairs after a show, including a spare kick drum head, and as he was closing up downstairs, he could hear that head sliding all the way across the room and bang against a wall, then sliding all the way back across the room and hitting the opposite wall, like something was playing hockey with it.
“And I used to hear some good ones from my old roommate Pete Baerwaldt, who was on the board down there and bartended all the time,” Hammond continued. “Pete told me one time he was walking up the stairs, and he had the sensation of something immediately behind his head growling. That one bothered me, like maybe some of the ghosts were possibly hateful or dangerous. It scared Pete more than all the other things that happened.” — MICHAEL SHANE BORDEN
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CASBEERS AT THE CHURCH
San Antonio • 1150 South Alamo
210-271-7731 • www.casbeers.com
For years, long before owners Steve Silbas and Barbara Wolfe moved their San Antonio music venue and restaurant from 1719 Blanco Road to its current home at 1150 South Alamo, in the heart of the King William Historic District, Casbeers was best known for two things: the consistently great lineup of Americana, roots rock and singer-songwriter acts, and arguably the best “truck-stop-style” enchiladas in the state of Texas. These days, Casbeers’ music and enchiladas (along with the rest of the menu) remain top-notch, but the beloved establishment also holds the distinction of being based in one of the most famously haunted buildings in all of San Antonio: the old Alamo Methodist Church.
Built in 1919, the Mission-style brick building hosted church services until the congregation moved in 1968. The church was vacant until being bought in 1976 by Bill and Marcie Larsen, who turned it into a restaurant and dinner theater. It was sold again in 2005, and Silbas and Wolfe signed a long-term lease on the building in 2008. The ink wasn’t even dry yet when the new tenants first started to notice … well, older tenants.
“We really didn’t know it was haunted when we first took it over, but then we started hearing some stories,” Wolfe says. “But we had some weird things happen to us before we heard the stories, which was interesting. I wanted to learn more about the history of the church, so I looked up Marcie, introduced myself, and she gave me the whole history — including a copy of the Haunted History show that the History Channel did on the top five haunted places in San Antonio. We were one of them.”
Marcie told Wolfe that she had once brought a psychic to the church, who identified at least three resident spirits. One was a woman — Miss Margaret — who had been an actress living in the neighborhood back in the Victorian era. “The psychic said that Miss Margaret was drawn to the place when Marcie and Bill started doing plays,” Wolfe relates. “One night before we opened — we had a month after we signed the lease to get ready for opening — I was here alone and smelled this really heavy kind old-fashioned perfume, real cloying, like rose water. I mentioned it when I was talking to Marcie later, and she said, ‘Oh, the perfume was Miss Margaret, that’s one of the ways you know she’s there.’” Wolfe also told Marcie about another time when she’d caught a strong whiff of cigarette smoke in the building, even though nobody smoked inside. Marcie told her that would have been her ex (and late) husband Bill, who had smoked all the time inside the church and actually died at the parsonage next door. The psychic had told Marcie that Bill’s spirit was hanging around the church, too.
“And then there’s another one, called Little Eddie,” Wolfe continues. “The psychic said that he’s a 10-year-old child, and he came here when they’d brought in an old wheelchair to use as a prop in one of the plays — the medium said he was came with the chair. And, he’s like a prankster. Marcie said he’s pulled people’s hair a lot, especially red heads, because apparently he had red hair.”
Neither Wolfe nor Silbas have red hair, but they’ve certainly experienced their share of pranks. That month leading up to the grand opening (on July 4, 2008) was one frustration after another. “Right before opening day, we had all the AC units checked, all the kitchen equipment — we’d gone over everything with a fine-tooth comb and everything was working,” Wolfe says. “And then we opened, and the AC went out and the exhaust van in the kitchen went out. All this stuff that we had just had checked. It was crazy, and things like that went on our whole first week. It finally got to the point where, when we were ready to have our first show in the sanctuary upstairs — with Sisters Morales — I stood in the middle of the dining room and said, ‘OK you guys, you spirits, hear me. What’s going to go on tonight is what we’re going to be doing here. We’ve put our heart and soul into this, and we’re good people — you’ll see! So please quit screwing with us!’ And it was weird, because after that show, it was kind of like they got it, like they approved, because all that stuff kind of stopped.”
Well, most of it. “Every now and then, something will happen and we’ll think, ‘Oh man, they’re messing with us a little bit — it’s probably Eddie,’” Wolfe says. And, she adds, the spirits seem to be really big fans of songwriter Michael Martin, leader of San Antonio’s much loved rock band the Infidels. “There’s something about Michael that they’re really attracted to,” she says. “Anytime people take pictures of him here, there’s orbs all over him.”
“Yeah, it’s weird,” Martin admits when asked about his ghost appeal. “I kind of make a point now to acknowledge their presence there, because I think it’s important. I was playing a solo show there earlier this year, and right after I dedicated a song to the ghosts, I felt this hand grab my shoulder — and I was the only one onstage. Another time, when I was opening for Peter Case, I dedicated another song to them — a song called ‘China Doll’ by the Grateful Dead, about an attempted suicide. And during that song, the lights went really hot bright and it was white onstage for a few seconds. The light man was apparently away from the light board at the time and had to run back to turn the lights down.”
However active the spirts may be during his performances at the church, though, Martin insists that he’s never felt uncomfortable at Casbeers. “Things like the hand on my shoulder — I’d never experienced anything like that before,” he says. “But I’m not scared of those things. I feel comfortable — like they like the music or something.”
Musicians have always felt pretty comfortable at Casbeers — which may explain why Wolfe is convinced that the late Doug Sahm, a Casbeers regular back at the original location before his death in 1999, checks in on the old gang at the new building from time to time. Wolfe says that every time Doug’s daughter, Dawn, walks through the door, a Sahm song seems to cue up on the stereo, be it on one of the house mix CDs or over the KSYM airwaves.
Coincidence? Maybe. But if Casbeers at the Church does indeed have unseen residents (and VIP paranormal guests), Wolfe insists that’s she’s happy to have them around. Asked if she’d want the place “cleansed,” she answers with an adamant no. “I love it,” she enthuses. “I feel like they’re part of this building, and I feel safe. It’s just a soulful building. It was a little freaky at first, because new experiences, whatever they are, can be frightening. But now … I think it’s wonderful.” — RICHARD SKANSE
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New Braunfels • 193 W. San Antonio Street
830-643-1400 • www.thephoenixsaloon.com
Three years ago, I didn’t believe in ghosts. Now, I’ve learned to live with them.
John Sippel (who took his own life in 1900) is my favorite. His shadow regularly drifts along the second floor hallway, usually accompanied by a slight, chill breeze. I must confess to having a soft spot for Mr. Sippel. He built the building in 1871, but later fell into depression. His wife left him and she took up with a man who lived at the foot of the hill out by Landa Park. Some nights, a little worse for drink, Sippel would apparently climb the hill with his rifle, settle himself, and then shoot down at the house. It was evidence of a life sadly spiraling out of control. On April 25, 1900, according to a newspaper report of the day, he blew his brains out on the second floor of the Phoenix Saloon “with a single pistol shot to the right temple.” Just a few feet away, in fact, from where I’m sitting now to write this.
Since we bought the building in 2008, I have spent many nights alone here. Typically, cupboards will open wide, doors slam shut and footsteps pad across the roof in the wee small hours. But, if that all sounds kinda scary, somehow it’s not. I’ve stopped reaching for the flashlight in the middle of the night. There’s a cranky, hard to open second floor sash window. Every few weeks I find it bafflingly levered up a few inches and I have to heave all my weight on it to close it again. And I regularly have to get a ladder to close two particularly inaccessible cupboards in the kitchen. But this all feels more like a game than a haunting. The ghosts aren’t scary to me … most of the time.
Up on the third floor, pictures fly off the wall and door handles turn when there’s no-one there. Ask anyone. In the basement, meantime, things move around. And the door to an old blocked-up tunnel (used for running out bootleg booze during Prohibition) somehow opens itself up no matter how firmly it has been jammed tight shut.
I don’t think it’s just Mr. Sippel. One time saloon proprietor Walter Krause died in 1885 from injuries he sustained in a barroom fight. And there is talk of some hushed-up accident in the basement. For many years, there was also a Masonic Lodge on the third floor, and I can’t help but give credence to odd goings on up there after hearing so many people tell uncannily similar stories of getting “spooked out” on the stairs. “I felt like someone was walking behind me,” is the most commonly heard refrain.
It took us two and a half long years to first finance and then renovate the Phoenix Saloon. We love the building and have tried to embrace its full history. It housed various bars for nearly 50 years, then it was a department store for more than 60. We exposed the original 1871 brick wall, salvaged the old Phoenix Saloon beadboard paneling and re-used various old shutters, sinks and lights. Trying to celebrate all aspects of the building, we constructed the 40-foot-long bar from the old department store cabinetry, flipped a mirror from the old shoe department upside down behind the bar and re-located a three-way dressing room mirror in the ladies restroom. We have tried to recycle everything and somehow … it just feels right.
I could be deluding myself, but I like to think Mr Sippel approves of what we’re doing with his building. I hope so. — ROSS FORTUNE (owner, Phoenix Saloon)
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New Braunfels •1281 Gruene Road
830-606-1281 • www.gruenehall.com
Green Hall is widely known as the oldest continually run dancehall in Texas — and maybe even one of the most famous dancehalls in the world. So it stands to reason that if any dancehall is going to be haunted, it would be this one, especially considering the history of the land it was built upon …
Long ago, the valley below the town of Gruene was inhabited by numerous sects of Native American tribes, including the Tonkawa, the Karankawa and the Lipan Apache. They set up camp on the banks of the Guadalupe River, embracing the magic of the river as well as the necessity of running water. These early inhabitants were followed by generations of Mexicans, Europeans, and eventually the newest American settlers, the German-American. What we now call the Historical District of Gruene was established in 1872 and Gruene Hall itself was built a few years later. Little or no excavating was done on the land itself before the Hall was built, and it’s very possible that it sits on an ancient burial ground of an early tribe — therefore making it just a short float for spirits and ghosts to come and hang out with us.
Not much has changed physically at the Hall since it was first built. Much of the beer-soaked wood is the original wood, and aside from some necessary repairs, we’re dancing and communing in the same building that’s existed for over 100 years, built on land that’s been inhabited for centuries. If the walls could talk and the creaky floors could tell us what lies buried in the soil beneath them, we would have a Holy Grail.
When I first stepped foot into the place in 1980, I definitely felt something spiritual in the old building. And as the venue’s booking agent for the past 28 years, there’s seldom been a time that I’ve walked through the doors and haven’t felt that same good vibe. If Gruene Hall is indeed haunted, as it’s history might suggest, then it’s good ghosts hangin’ out and not the spooky kind. Well, for the most part.
There are some pranksters that like to hang out in our rafters while a show is going on. They like to swoop down and tap your date on the shoulder and then laugh while you look around trying to find out who did it. I’ve seen many lovers’ quarrels started due to these mischievous spirits. But it’s the after-hours that the spirits really seem to like. In the early days of Gruene Hall, there was no such thing as a “bottle boy” to go around picking up empty beer bottles after the show. The tables, the same ones that are here now, would be totally covered with glass beer bottles by the end of the night. More than once a bartender would come in the next morning to find the bottles scattered across the room, dripping their remains into the cracks in the floor, and bags of chips opened and scattered everywhere. Clearly, someone or some thing was having a good ol’ time after the doors were shut and locked.
Have I actually seen a ghost at Gruene Hall? No. Nor, as best as I can remember, have I ever heard of anyone else actually seeing one, either. But more than a few spirits have seemed to turn up in photos taken at the Hall over the years. Many such photos feature what ghost experts called “orbs.” Shelley King has some photos on her website taken at one of her gigs at the Hall. There are little round orbs on the photos — hundreds of them. Now, some folks will say that these hazy circles are just water or dust spots, but if you research orbs you’ll find just as many people that believe they are little spirits boppin’ around. Who knows for sure?
There’s one picture that I took myself after an especially karmic Sunday evening show with the great guitar slinger Bill Kirchen. And I promise, no touch ups! I was taking a picture of the little shops that line either side of Hunter Road in downtown Gruene, which were bordered with their white Christmas lights for the holiday season. When I took the shot, the street was deserted. But when I got home and uploaded them to my computer, I noticed that one of the shots had a “ghostly” image on it. When I snapped the picture, I swear there had been no one on the street or in front of me. And yet, there they are, clear as day, on the bottom right of the picture. Two ghosts — dancing, right in the middle of the street in front of Gruene Hall. Dancing ghosts, caught when they thought no one was looking. Ha! — TRACIE FERGUSON (talent booker, Gruene Hall)
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Schulenburg •531 North Main Street
979-743-2300 • www.sengelmannhall.com
Sengelmann Hall, located in Schulenburg, Texas, about halfway between Houston and San Antonio off of Highway 10, was built in 1894 and originally called Two Brothers Saloon. The Sengelmann Brothers built the hall in the tradition of their native land; dancehalls, the cultural hub of many Czech and German communities, were often the first priority for European emigrants, as they became the central location for weddings, celebrations, barbecues, and, of course, dances.
Like many of these places, though, Sengelmann Hall closed its doors at the outset of Word War II and eventually was mostly forgotten about by local townsfolk — that is until very recently, when the historic building was painstakingly restored to its original splendor by new owner Dana Roy Harper. The dancehall’s reopening in 2009 helped to revitalize the little town of Schulenburg, and it wasn’t long before the venue was hosting concerts by legends like Billy Joe Shaver and other mainstays of the Texas music scene. It also wasn’t long after its reopening before Sengelmann’s employees discovered that the hall was apparently haunted.
Heather Taylor remembers that, during her first week working at Sengelmann, she was talking to Harper in the saloon area. She had been looking over Harper’s shoulder at a family that was dining, noting that the children in the group were being a bit rowdy. As the family got up to leave, she felt a downward tug on her coat. She looked down, but no one was there. Continuing the conversation with Harper, she felt another tug at her coat in the same spot. Once again, she looked down but there was nobody there. Then, as the conversation continued, a third tug was felt. The third tug was much more firm than the first two. Taylor was then sure that she’d had a ghostly encounter — that someone was trying to tell her something. Speaking with the local historians, she learned that women weren’t allowed in the bar area in the old days, so wives would send the children in to retrieve their husbands — sometimes by tugging on their clothes.
Chef Kenny Kopecky tells of a night when he heard men in the upstairs hall arguing. Since restoration had not yet begun in the upstairs area, he decided he’d better see what was going on. Creeping up the staircase, he peered into the room to find no one was there. Later, after an elevator was added, another employee was in the ticket booth folding t-shirts when she heard two women yelling at each other. Alarmed, she left the booth and walked into the hallway — just in time to see the elevator door open by itself. Other potentially paranormal occurrences have been observed as well, including lights and fans turning on and off and, in one instance, a door apparently locking itself, forcing the staff to exit through a window.
According to some older locals, a sheriff was apparently shot to death on the back steps of Sengelmann Hall, and another man was stabbed to death during a fight over a woman. And visitors with a keen eye might note the marble pillar with a bullet hole in it, marking the spot where another man tried to find cover while being shot at. Whether or not the place is haunted may be open to debate, but one thing’s for sure — Sengelmann Hall has clearly seen a lot of action in its long lifetime. — MICHAEL SHANE BORDEN