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Lincoln Square Theatre

by: Becky Ray

On September 3, 1915, construction began on the Lincoln Square Theatre in Decatur, Illinois by Clarence Wait with its grand opening in 1916.

Several fatal fires had occurred on this site in the early 1900s, including two fires in the Arcade Hotel that was formerly at this site. In 1904, the Arcade Hotel was damaged by fire, however, this was repaired, and the hotel reopened a year later. They were not so lucky in 1915 when a fatal fire consumed the hotel claiming several lives and destroyed several other adjoining businesses.

Clarence Wait insisted that the Lincoln Theatre be fireproof, and he saw to it that the structure was made of steel, concrete, and fireproof brick. He also had many other fireproofing elements built into the Lincoln. One was that the boiler room was not in the theatre itself, but rather in another building and separated from the theatre by a two-foot thick concrete wall. All his efforts paid off, as the fireproofing saved the theatre more than once.

Designed by Charles Aschauer of Aschauer and Waggoner Architects, the Lincoln Theatre was made in the Beaux Art style that was popular at the time. Original seating for the theatre was 729 floor seats, 48 presidential box seats, 125 mezzanine box seats, and 469 balcony seats, totaling 1371.

Appearance wise, the Lincoln resembles the turn of the century opera houses rather than the large movie palaces that were built in the 1920s and 1930s. The foundation was designed so that more stories could be added to the structure in the future.

During its prime, the theatre itself was mostly used for vaudeville acts, plays, and movies. Several of the top names of the time performed there. These included Will Rogers, Anna Pavlova, Al Jolson, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Chico Marx, and Bob Hope. In fact, Bob Hope got his start teaching the Charleston at the Lincoln.

Controversy surrounds whether Houdini actually performed at the Lincoln or not. It is well known that Harry Blackstone did, due to the 1942 fire. This debate is from a hole that a magician had cut in the stage to use as a trap door for his act. To this day, they refer to it as the Houdini Hole, but chances are it was probably Harry Blackstone. The trap door remains there to this day.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Lincoln was used mostly as a movie house since movies were the newest form of escapism and people attended them in huge numbers. When the modern cinemas were built, the larger theatres could not compete, and many have been destroyed or allowed to fall into disrepair.

For many years the Kerasotes chain owned the Lincoln. During this time, it featured two large columns that flanked the stage. The columns were topped by bowls of light held up by seahorses. Much of the original plasterwork has been covered or torn down.

Presently the theatre is used for vintage film festivals, theatre productions, choir performances, ballet troupes, high school performing groups, and small rock concerts.

Back to the subject of fire, the Lincoln has suffered two major fires. On September 2, 1942, Harry Blackstone was performing for 1000 children as an afternoon matinee. After being notified of a fire in an adjoining building, (Rambo Pharmacy) Blackstone had to evacuate the theatre without causing panic.

From the stage, he calmly said to the children, Im going to perform a few tricks for you, it will one youve never seen before and never will again. It is a trick so large that it cannot be performed on stage. You have to go outside for it. Slowly. First this section. When you are out, theres a surprise for you. Look up in the sky and youll see it.

One woman was stuck in her seat, so Blackstone and a stagehand unscrewed it from the floor to save her from danger. Within fifteen minutes, the theatre was empty and no one had panicked, thanks to Blackstones calm behavior.

This fire destroyed the Rambo Pharmacy and Cook Jewelry Store. After an in depth inspection, it was revealed that the Lincoln had not suffered any damage except for some smoke and water damage.

On March 5, 1960, the next large fire hit the Lincoln. This was a much more complicated fire to extinguish due to the freezing temperatures and the location of the fire in the Lincoln Square Tavern south of the theatre. The two foot thick firewall was the only thing that saved the theatre. Damaged in this fire were the Rambo Pharmacy, Lincoln Square Café, Walley & Son Jewelry Store, Darby Beauty Salon, and the entrance to the theatre. Several businesses that were located on the second floor of the theatre were destroyed. While the lobby took four months to be remodeled, the second floor was never rebuilt.

Today the theatre has cracked walls, peeling paint and wallpaper, missing floor tiles in the lobby, badly worn carpet, and is filled with the stale smell of age. None of this takes away from the theatres enormous size and clear beauty. Present seating is down to 1250 as the box seats have been removed. Managed by volunteers as a not-for-profit organization, all profits from the theatre are used to restore and preserve the landmark building. Downtown Decatur has been trying to revive the Lincoln Square area, and a true focal point of this restoration is the Lincoln Theatre. If you wish to help support these efforts, contact 217-422-1711

Rumors of hauntings in the theatre have circulated since the 1930s when strange activity was noted in the balcony. These reports continue to this day as strange sounds, sights are still reported, especially in the balcony, and on the spiral metal staircase located in the back corner of the stage left wings. Trustworthy witnesses and non-believers have reported out of the ordinary apparitions and encounters on the staircase.

One story that has been told time and time again is about One-armed Red. He is said to be the ghost of stagehand who was killed tragically during a performance. As the story goes, he fell from the catwalk 70 feet above the stage. During his fall, his arm got hooked on the curtain ropes apparatus and speed of his fall tore his arm off. They say he lived long enough to promise to return to his beloved theatre. Historically speaking, the only person named Red who worked in the theatre was not a stagehand, and would not have been on the catwalk, but the story exists to this day.

My experience at the Lincoln was on one of Troy Taylors Overnight Excursions.

Sun Data: X-rays Active; Geomagnetic Storm Quiet
Sunset: 4:50 pm
Sunrise on January 11: 7:17 am
Moon Data: Waning Gibbous with 91% visible disk
Moonrise: 8:55 pm
Weather: High 34º Low 17º
Visual Weather Check: Overcast

Equipment Used:
E.L.F. Zone EMF Detector by Enzone
Gauss Master aka Dr. Gauss
Non-Contact Infrared Thermometer
Olympus VN-1800 Voice Recorder
Sony ICD-B7 Digital Voice Recorder
Two 35mm Disposable Cameras
Kodak Max HQ with Ektanar Lens, 800-speed color film
Kodak Black and White with Ektanar Lens, 400 speed B&W film
35mm Easyshot 550 loaded with 800-speed color Fuji film

I met the group of 24 other people and Troy in the lobby at 9:00 pm, and Troy led us on a tour of the theatre and all its haunted locations. At 10:30 pm, we split into groups and took turns investigating each section.

The first area our group worked on was the stage and spiral staircase. At 11:04 pm I got the feeling of being watched from near the bottom of the spiral staircase. In the area in question, both Gauss Meters being used hit a hard 10. After a few seconds, the reading went back down, and the feeling was gone.

Our group then left the stage area and headed for the lobby. I went back to the stage alone in the dark to get my backpack. At 11:15 pm, while I was putting my backpack on, I saw someone in the area near the bottom of the staircase watching me. When I turned to see who it was, there wasnt anyone there. The person I saw was a male, approximately 6 tall, and either wearing a gray suit or gray coverall or overalls. He was just standing very casual as if he belonged there. No one in the group of 25 was dressed this way. I looked down to grab my camera, but when I looked back up, he was gone. I took a few photos, and did get some odd images. Here is the link to the phtoo I took immediately after I saw the figure. PHOTO

Next, we went to the green room under the stage. Shortly after arriving there, we heard someone heading up the spiral staircase. It wasnt until a few minutes later when we heard the group walk across the stage that we realized we had not heard anyone cross the stage before the previous sounds were heard. I asked a few of the members of that group if anyone had gone ahead, and they looked at me like I had three heads. None of them left their group, as they were a frightened bunch.

While in the green room, we sat in silence. One member of our group stated that someone did not like her sitting on the bench. I took a couple of photos at this time, but got nothing. At 12:06 am, she was pushed off of the bench by something behind her. She said she felt two hands push her. I was to the left of where they were sitting, and no one was behind them. It was at this time that the air seemed to become very stagnant in the green room. No movement of air at all. At 12:12 am, the air returned to a normal feel. The temperature at that time was still 67º, but it felt even cooler.

A few other people experienced some things, but I did not witness them.


Contact Info

Address:  141 N. Main St.      Telephone:  (217) 422-1711
Decatur, IL, 62523        


Web Sites




the book: The Lincoln Square Theatre by Jasper P. DeVidal. 2001. Published by DeVidal Productions. Decatur, IL.


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