By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
If you ever see a hitchhiker near Knoche Road ... you might want to keep going.
John Percy, Town of Tonawanda historian, tells the story — originally found in a 1920s Kenmore Record — of a mysterious woman seen in the graveyard at the former St. Peter’s German Evangelical Church, now the museum of the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society.
“That’s a very old ghost story,” he said. “It starts back in the 19th century, before the automobile became common. Someone who lived on Utica Street was on ... well, they call it Knoche Road now. And they saw a ghost in the cemetery.”
The long-ago driver did not, apparently, realize that it was a ghost, Percy said. “There was a girl in a flowing white gown who was hitchhiking. So he stopped his carriage and picked her up.”
Of course, in the fine tradition of ghostly hitchhikers, the girl wasn’t in the back of the carriage when they arrived at the destination.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. A friend who was a detective in the Town of Tonawanda department told Percy a similar story from the 1970s, involving a young policeman.
“He said a patrol came down Knoche Road in the wee hours of the morning and saw a girl,” Percy said. And like the driver in the 1920s story, the patrolman picked her up and took her to her requested destination.
“He went to let her out; she wasn’t there,” he said. “The story says the patrolman wouldn’t report it, afraid he would be fired.”
Percy himself wasn’t immune to the power of the story. He tells the tale of driving home at night and repeatedly seeing a girl standing by Del-Ton Plaza on Delaware Avenue ...not far from Knoche Road.
“I said, ‘You know. I just wonder,’ ” he said. “I finally got too curious and finally stopped and picked her up.”
The “ghost” wound up being a Cardinal O’Hara student.
“It wasn’t her,” he said with a laugh. “I dropped her off at Calvin and Brighton and that was it.”
Some of the most popular and frequently told ghost stories in the Tonawandas revolve around the area’s theaters ... one of them being the Ghostlight Theatre at 170 Schenck St. in North Tonawanda.
“There are some very good logical things that go on ... and a few that we can’t explain,” said L. Don Swartz, theater director. “Right away the deck is stacked against us because we’re a theater. People think we’re all hysterical.”
The old building does hold a spooky vibe. The former Evangelical Friedens Church was built in 1889 (the cornerstone was apparently laid on Halloween) and was closed in June 2000. The theater took over about a year later.
The stage was built around the original altar for the church, and the altar’s archway seems to be the site for some paranormal happenings, Swartz said. “Whenever we do a second-story window, we sometimes see figures walking past the window.”
That includes the theater’s latest show, “Halloween Dreams,” which recently finished its run. For the first time, Swartz, who describes himself as a skeptic, saw the phenomenon himself — although he originally credited it to shenanigans by the nine children in the production, so much so that he talked to the stage manager and acting coach about it.
“I said, ‘Guys, we can’t have the kids on that second story,’ ” he said. “They said they weren’t up there ... that the kids are scared to death to go up there!”
In a second occurrence, a number of people saw the unexplained figures.
“My brother, who plays the sheriff in this ... another skeptic ... stood up in rehearsal and said, “Who’s up there?’ One person went one way, one person went another ... but (there was) nobody,” Swartz said, pointing to the two curtained windows on the set’s upper floor.
Other unexplained sightings have been a “lady in red,” seen twice by two different people who couldn’t have compared notes and described as a “lady in a burgundy dress and chestnut hair, swept back,” and a young girl with pigtails and an old-fashioned dress who runs through the theater ... and disappears.
Author Mason Winfield, who has written nine books on the supernatural in Western New York and conducts ghost walks throughout the area, said the “lady in red” is a bit of a departure from the usual female haunts.
“Most female sightings are of a woman in white ... a flowing white dress,” he said. “But NT appears to have the apparition of a women in red. You get the feeling she might have been a member of the congregation.”
The incident that started all the Ghostlight ghost talk, however, dates from a production of “A Christmas Carol,” in 2004 when Debby Swartz took a photograph of her husband (as Scrooge) and brother-in-law Jesse Swartz (as Marley) on stage.
When the photo was developed, what seems to be a head is floating behind Jesse, over his right shoulder.
“There’s no room there. He’s right up against a wall,” Don Swartz said.
After that, about a dozen paranormal and ghost-hunting groups visited the theater, including Western New York Paranormal, which took a number of electronic voice phenomena recordings in which the words “God’s house” or “Get out” can be heard, Swartz said. “Either way, not good for us.”
Still, Swartz says the company has enormous respect for the former occupants of the building, and hopes the respect can be returned.
“I think if there is something going on here ... they’re OK with us now,” he said.
Continuing in the tradition of haunted theaters, the Riviera Theatre at 67 Webster St. in North Tonawanda has any extremely ghostly reputation — so much so that John Crocitto of Tonawanda, co-founder of the parahistorian group Beyond Ghosts, said that it’s one of the top five haunted locations he’s visited.
Executive director Frank Cannata said that reputation has started to get around.
“There’s lots of folklore around this theater,” he said. “We get more requests than we can handle, from 30 to 40 groups, to do ghost hunts here a year. Because of staffing limitations, we can only accept three to four groups — all of whom have indicated that they’ve found evidence of spirits on their expensive equipment that I don’t understand.”
The Riv’s regulars apparently include the apparition of man who’s said to haunt the theater after he died during its construction (by falling off the roof) and the spirit of a 12-year-old girl named Mary, killed in a performance on stage back in the late 1920s, Cannata said. “One thing that is kind of eerie is that they’re all picked up on the presence of a young girl, in her early teens.”
Crocitto (whose group does indeed have EVPs of the voice of a girl and an older female at the Riviera) said he was “blown away” by all the activity that was in the theater — including one situation that still unnerves him. He was walking up in the balcony area while doing an investigation when it happened.
“I stopped cold, dead in my tracks and I saw a man standing there,” he said “What I saw was the shadow of a man, within 12 feet of me.”
The shadow, that of a tall man perhaps 6 feet and 3 to 4 inches tall, Crocitto said, turned and looked straight toward him.
“My blood ran cold; I freaked out,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
He was frozen for several moments, he said, “and it was gone, down the hallway like a lightning bolt. I saw a shadow man.”
Cannata himself has had a somewhat more prosaic experience with phenomenon at the theater.
“As far as my own personal experience with ghosts ... I have never personally seen one, but sometimes I’ll be on stage and I’ll hear sneezing in the balcony area,” he said. “I’ve gone up there because I could swear there’s got to be someone up there. It’s happened three times. And nothing sounds like a sneeze.”
Crocitto’s group, which he describes as paranormal researchers who specialize in places of historic interest, was fortunate enough to investigate another local theater that is now a ghost, of sorts, itself.
“I was actually able to investigate Melody Fair theater before it was demolished,” he said. “It was a great place. I think we’re the only (paranormal) team that was ever allowed in there legally before the wrecking ball hit.
“From my experience, whenever you deal with opera houses or theaters ... I don’t know if it’s the emotions, but some of these actors leave so much of themselves on the stage. Melody Fair was no different.”
The site, he said, had about two feet of standing water and was a shell of its former shelf.
“I was surprised at the amount of evidence we found, especially the audio,” he said, speaking of EVP recordings. “We got your typical ambient sounds of the environment, maybe people who were there for a concert, people who worked there. But there were actually a couple of children’s voices we captured, little boys.”
In the recordings, the voices seemed to follow the group around, especially taking a liking to one female researcher, Crocitto said.
“The kids seemed to really like her. You never know what you’re going to find,” he added. “I would never have expected to find that there.”
When the new Walmart being constructed at the site opens, Crocitto said, the managers just might want to have the group back.
“I’d be willing to bet you … and I’ve been doing this a long time ... whatever was there at the Melody Fair theater will be there at the Walmart,” he said.
In his book “Village Ghosts of Western New York: Actors in the Half-Light,” Winfield describes Hannah Johnson — the so-called “Black Hannah” — as “the most famous single ghost” in North Tonawanda.
“She was the only African American living in NT in the early 1800s,” he said. “She was probably into voodoo, definitely a power person, probably a herbal healer.”
Johnson apparently lived on Chadwick’s farm, “the second lot west of the corner of Fremont and Payne on Fremont,” Winfield wrote. (Fremont is now Tremont.) She was a beloved babysitter, fortune teller and healer before she died in 1883 and was buried in the Sweeney cemetery.
Johnson was thought to haunt a space named for her, “Hannah’s Woods,” near the end of Goundry Street, but no 21-century sightings of her have been reported, Winfield said.
In another case labeled “The 1920 Incident,” a weeklong series of mass sightings of a nighttime apparition shook the city. The phenomenon was centered around Sweeney, Bryant and Thompson streets.
“There was even a bicycle club that went out chasing it every night,” Winfield said.
For all the ghostly events in other areas, one municipality in the Twin Cities and Ken-Ton region shows a distinct dearth of haunted happenings.
Despite its many old buildings and love for Halloween (as evidenced by the plethora of decorations), the Village of Kenmore seems to have few “real” ghost stories.
Winfield acknowledged this.
“Some areas are more haunted than others,” he said. “Kenmore does not stand out as a legendary haunted site.”