U-Rock Albuquerque, The Haunted KiMO Theater

In 2009, I was approached by Joey who wanted to scare his co-star Stevo on the Halloween episode of URock Albuquerque. I was doing a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation that year so he agreed to promote the fundraiser in exchange for helping him scare Stevo on the show. The KiMO theater itself is not haunted. The origins of the ghost stories and how they grew into a legend are described in detail in my book “New Mexico’s Most Haunted:Exposed.”

 

Bobby’s Shrine at the KiMO Theater

Bobby’s Shrine, which lies in a lower stairwell on the west side of the theater has a sign that reads;

Bobby’s Shrine
He was a 10-year-old boy killed in the building in 1951
This is an offering place for a residents “Spirit,” please treat it respectfully.

The sign goes on the list several other conditions for placing an offering.

History of the KiMO Theater

Oreste Bachechi first became involved with the movies around 1919, when the Bachechi Amusement Association operated the Pastime Theatre with Joe Barnett. However, by 1925, he had decided to build his own theatre, one that would focus on the American Indian culture of the Southwest in its architectural design. The colors took several months to choose. Like its abstract symbols, color, too, was part of the Native American vocabulary. Red was a somewhat important color because it represents the life-giving sun. White expressed the approaching morning while yellow was representative of the setting sun of the West. Finally, the color black was symbolic of the darkening clouds from the North. The crowning touch was the seven murals painted by Carl Von Hassler. Some of the work he portrayed himself; the rest was traced from heavy butcher paper cut-outs that were taped to the walls and filled in with paint by workmen. Working from a platform hung from the ceiling, Von Hassler reportedly spent months on his creations.

The theater was named the KiMo and opened in 1927. The name is actually a combination of two Indian words meaning “mountain lion” but more often interpreted as “king of its kind.”The theatre cost $150,000 and was completed in less than a year. The elaborate Wurlitzer organ that was used to accompany the silent films shown at that time was an extra $18,000.

The interior included plaster ceiling beams that were textured to look like logs and painted with dance and hunt scenes. The air vents were also disguised as Navajo rugs. The walls were decorated with panoramic murals depicting the Seven Cities of Cibola which were accented by chandeliers that were shaped like war drums and Native American death canoes. However, its most prominent feature was the rows of garlanded longhorn steer skulls with eerie, glowing amber eyes. When the theatre was packed, the balcony, which spans the east to west walls without a center support, was designed to give and sway. It would drop four to eight inches in the middle at peak capacity.

The first movie shown in the KiMo was “Painting the Town Red”, and the first talking movie was “Melody of Broadway.” Frances Farney played the Wurlitzer organ during each performance.

The KiMo was also a significant employer for young people just getting started. Vivian Vance, who gained fame as Lucille Ball’s sidekick in the “I Love Lucy” series, also worked at the KiMo. The theatre hosted such Hollywood stars as Sally Rand, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix and Ginger Rogers.

A year after the KiMo theater opened, Oreste Bachechi died, leaving the management of the KiMo to his sons. They combined vaudeville and out-of-town road shows with movies and created extra revenue by adding a luncheonette and curio shop on either side of the entrance. In later years, the Kiva-Hi, a second-floor restaurant, and KGGM radio were housed on the second and third floors.

On August 1st, 1951, a water heater exploded during a full showing of Abbott and Costello’s movie “Comin’ Round the Mountain.” Several people were injured, and 6- year-old Bobby Darnall was killed. Apparently, at a particularly scary part, Bobby became so frightened that he ran downstairs at the exact moment a furnace exploded. He was the only one killed.

The 1960’s brought hardship and financial challenges to the theater. The KiMo fell into disrepair following the exodus from downtown that so many American cities have experienced. In 1961 the screen of the theater caught fire and was heavily damaged causing the theater to temporarily close. Two years later the main stage was also destroyed by fire but was haphazardly rebuilt.

In December of 1970, the theater is closed. According to the Albuquerque Journal the KiMo, in recent months, has undergone several shifts in viewing policy- adult “art” movies, then, Spanish, then, Spanish-English. However, by October 1972 the KiMo is active and running plays. A review of the play “The Amorous Flea” runs in the Albuquerque Journal. However, the downtown area was being abandoned for uptown shopping centers and twin screen movie houses.  The theater struggles to survive.

The final blow comes in November 1974 when the Madowhy Corp and the Mature Pictures Corp file charges against the Commonwealth theaters, who are operating the KiMo, accusing that the KiMo is showing a bogus, unauthorized and illegal copy of the film “The life and times of the Happy Hooker.”  The suit sought a permanent injunction and $75,000.00 in damages. By 1975, the old theater is slated for demolition. Within a year, the city of Albuquerque is interested in buying the theater in hopes of repairing it as a part of the revitalization of the downtown area. The Albuquerque Journal ran a short story on September 30, 1976, that reads:

 

“The City Spirit group said the KiMo is no longer usable as a modern movie theater but might be restored and used for performing arts. In addition to the theater, which remains closed; the building contains two small retail stores and several offices.”

 

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The KiMo was eventually saved in 1977 when the citizens of Albuquerque voted to purchase this historic theater. The second bond to provide matching funds to a federal grant was rejected by the voters, so the City of Albuquerque allocated 1.1 million dollars for a partial renovation.

Another clue about the “haunting” of the KiMo Theater

In 2006, the Travel Channel aired episode 20 of “Weird Travels.” The show has the employees of the KiMo Theater and  Albuquerque’s Mayor, Martin Chavez, telling the ghost story of Bobby. Below is the transcript of the television episode. It contains a slightly important clue that is vital to discovering the origin of the theater’s ghost story. I have transcribed the audio from the TV show below;

 

“Tourists looking for history in Albuquerque, New Mexico find it in Old Town. A few blocks of adobe homes and churches. But just outside of Old Town, where the city begins to look more like a modern Metropolis, there’s one structure that has remained the same. Its Albuquerque’s most beloved landmark KiMo theater.

 

Martin Chavez: “There is nobody in Albuquerque that doesn’t know about the KiMo theater and frankly there isn’t nobody from New Mexico that doesn’t know about this.”

 

The KiMo stands out amid its modern surroundings, and its strange decor carries on inside the theater. From skeletons hanging on the walls to a mischievous child ghost, this theater will not only entertain you, it will scare you to death.

 

Craig Rivera: “The building does have kind of a scary character, and there are some people who are quite moved. They feel a presence.”

 

Built in 1927, the KiMo theater was considered the area’s finest picture house.

 

Craig Rivera: ” It was built as the grandest movie palace in Albuquerque and people wanted to see it, and they did come and see it.”

 

And the unique native American Pueblo Deco architectural style continues to draw crowds.

 

Craig Rivera: “We have people from all over the world who just come to see the KiMo theater. Not to see what’s playing but they want to see the building itself.”

 

Deb Slaney: “The KiMo was special because it was the only theater that was dedicated to the Native American.”

 

The theater’s royal name is also Native American.

 

Dennis Potter: “The word KiMo is actually a combination of two Indian words that mean king of its kind or mountain lion depending on which way you’d like to interpret it.”

 

The 1950s brought cowboy flicks to the KiMo’s screen, making the theater more popular than ever.

 

Craig Rivera: “On a matinee, you might imagine over a thousand kids sitting in there watching anyone at the famous stars from that area.”

 

Deb Slaney: “We have a lot of photographs of children’s bicycles lined up in front of the KiMo.”

 

Craig Rivera: “They didn’t have to fear about anybody stealing their bikes back then. It was a different era.”

 

But one afternoon,  a tragedy would bring an end to this peaceful time. That day, a group of unsuspecting kids went to the KiMo to watch a western.

 

Dennis Potter: “And at some point during the film, one of the young boys for whatever reason, decided he needed to go downstairs. And while he was on the staircase there was an unfortunate explosion.”

 

An aging boiler suddenly exploded having disastrous consequences.

 

Craig Rivera: “What took place was a boiler underneath the stairwell exploded, blowing out. We don’t have evidence where this young man was standing, but it did claim his life in many other people were injured in the explosion.”

 

A young boy named Bobby was the only fatality. His young life tragically cut short. It wasn’t long after he was laid to rest that strange things started happening. Things that continue to this day.

 

Dennis Potter: “As you go around and lock up at the end of the night there was definitely a feeling that there was someone or something in the building when no one was there.”

 

Recently while the KiMo was under renovation some nearby office workers got a fright they will never forget.

 

Dennis Potter: “There was a person in an office across the street called our business office and said there’s a young boy waving at me out of the window of your third-floor building that’s under construction.”

 

Craig Rivera: “So what I did immediately is I went up there. I knew we had some construction going on. The doors are locked I did a thorough investigation of the third floor. There’s nobody up there. There’s no way anybody could get in there.”

 

Perhaps the spirit of the ill-fated boy is as mischievous in death as he was in life.

 

Martin Chavez: “You can track which performances have gone well which ones have not gone well, and I would contend to the good relationship between those that have not gone well and what they’ve done in terms to Bobby. They have to take care of Bobby or Bobby doesn’t take care of them.”

 

Apparently like most children, Bobby has a sweet tooth that can’t go on satisfied for too long.

 

Dennis Potter: “When large productions set up usually there’s a coffee break in the morning. Nobody wants to be a pig and eat the last donut out of the box. So the last donut would usually hang around. Sometimes the donut would be gone, and there would have been no one in the building.”

 

Could Bobby’s playful spirit be the culprit? Many anxious actors and crew were sure of it and began leaving donuts backstage. But for those who don’t believe the punishment is severe.

 

Dennis Potter: “The director of this particular show saw a large number of donuts hanging across the back wall and made the crew take the donuts down. Their next performance was a complete and total disaster. Light bulbs exploded. Things fell out of the ceiling. Actors fell down on stage. Doors and windows on the set open and close by themselves.”

 

Concerned members of KiMo production constructed a shrine to appease the child’s specter.

 

Craig Rivera: “This is a shrine to our resident ghost. Performers since the 80s have left our ghost a little trinket.”

 

Nowadays, Bobby gets an otherworldly assortment of gifts. From guitar picks to lipstick stains in the walls, KiMo staff knows the importance of pleasing their specter.

 

Craig Rivera: “If you play the KiMo don’t mess with the ghost. You might want to leave a little trinket or something.”

 

In the end, those who work and perform at the KiMo enjoy having Bobby the Phantom prankster around.

 

Martin Chavez:  “He also makes every single event a little more special not just for those attending but for those performing in particular because they know that there’s another present there.”

 

 

Did you see the clue?  The majority of the ghostly encounters involve the theater staff or the production crew and actors. This usually occurs when the ghost of Bobby has not left some sort of offering. However, there is one deviation from this pattern.  It is the story of a young boy waving at people from the window of the third floor while the building was under construction.  From the theater’s history, it is known that there was construction on the third floor in 2002. I suspect that this may be the incident that Craig Rivera referred to in the television show. However, the story of a boy being seen in the window predates 2002. It was known by many of the theater’s staff and some of the local actors.  I suspected that this may be the genesis of the ghost stories, but I could not find anything to back it up until October of 2005.

Recently, I was on the 94 Rock morning show talking about ghosts for the annual Halloween show. Towards the end of the broadcast, I told the listeners that we were looking into the haunting at the KiMo theater and if they had any information or stories, I would love to hear about them. The following morning I received an e-mail from a listener named Martin. The e-mail read;

 

“I heard you guys on 94 rock talking about the ghost of the KiMo theater where a boy had been seen in the second-floor window. I know that was not a ghost. In the late seventies, my high school had volunteers go to the theater to help clean it up. My friend Paul brought his little brother with him. He had to keep an eye on him, but after a couple of hours we were goofing around and lost him. Paul freaked out, and we searched all over for him. Eventually, we decided to check upstairs and found him in a room, waving at people on the street. I think this is what everybody is freaking out over, but it was not a ghost but a real boy.”

Martin’s story does check out historically. An article in the Albuquerque Journal (April 27, 1977) states that;

 

“Volunteers from Albuquerque Boys Club, Rio Grande High School, and the Downtown Exchange Club wiped into every nook and cranny as the dusty seats, and faded carpets began to reveal some of their former luster.”

 

I replied back to Martin and asked him for some more details. In particular, I wanted a description of the boy’s shirt and his hair color. He replied, telling me that it was a solid white collared shirt and that his friend’s brother had dark brown hair. This description matches the early accounts from 1978, so I am relatively confident that it is was actually a little boy, not a ghost. The descriptions are identical enough to suggest a rational explanation.  The boy in the window is what provides the suggestion that the theater is haunted by the ghost of a small boy. As Wendy Jay pointed out, the specter was initially nameless. The doughnut tradition had started as a result of the suggestion, so when donuts went missing or appeared to have small bites taken out of them, it was related to the hungry ghost.

New insights to the KiMO Theater

Today the ghost of Bobby Darnall is said to haunt the KiMo theater. It is believed that Bobby is prone to playing tricks and pranks on the crew if they do not appease him by bribing him with doughnuts or other trinkets, leaving them out before performances so that he won’t interfere with the show. The dozens of ghost stories at the KiMo theater provides a proliferate amount of information that makes it challenging to sort out. The easiest way to make sense of it is to take a sampling of the stories that have been presented in ascending chronological order.

The tradition of hanging doughnuts on the back wall of the stage is started in September of 1985, two years before the play the “Christmas Carol.”

12/02/1987: The opening night of a “Christmas Carol” by the New Mexico Repertory Theatre occurs. This is the apparent beginning of the ghost story. However, in a slightly strange twist of fate, one of the crew members from the play, Wendy Jay,  had now joined the Southwest Ghost Hunter’s Association. This is her recollection of the events from that night.

 

“I was working with the Andrew Shay, the New Mexico Rep at the time. There was no reference to the ghost being Bobby Darnall. The crew simply referred to him as “the hungry little ghost.”

During the production of A Christmas Carol, the Rep took down the stale doughnuts, which didn’t please the little ghost one bit. The technical rehearsal before the first performance was a disaster, as everything went wrong! When new treats were hung on the wall the following day, everything went smoothly for the production. This has happened many times since. As long as doughnuts are hung on the water pipe, everything works fine, goes smoothly as this child ghost is happy. If the doughnuts are taken down and not replaced, disaster happens with the technical effects”.

Wendy’s comment on the identity of the ghost is important because within the next seven months the ghost will be associated directly with Bobby. However, before this, the ghost is known merely as the hungry little ghost. It also shows that the catalyst that starts the belief that the theater is haunted by a little boy is already in place before the play even starts.

 

07/10/1988: The first printed article about the ghost of the KiMo Theater appears in the Albuquerque Journal. Written by Carole Mazur, it appears in the theater section of the paper. Written only 7 months after the performance of “A Christmas Carol” the article contains several critical clues about the ghost story and is provided below.

 

“Thirteen donuts hang from pipes on the back wall of the KiMo Theatre this month, the past year’s peace offerings to a child-like ghost with a sweet tooth and a talent for computer hacking.

 

Things go wrong in mysterious ways whenever anyone removes the little round talismans, insists Tony Marsh, the KiMo’s technical director. Along the dark-red brick wall at the rear of the stage the 13 donuts, one of them chocolate, dangle on ribbons or strings at irregular intervals. Two tortillas, one corn, and one flour add Southwestern flavor to the collection.

 

The hanging of the donuts started three seasons ago, Marsh recalls.

 

In the fall of 1985, the crew foreman of Opera Southwest brought a box of doughnuts and coffee for his technical crew each morning. When they left at night, there would always be one or two doughnuts left in the box. But the following morning the doughnuts would be gone.

 

“Now I would be the first one here and the last one to leave, and I didn’t take them,” says the slender Marsh. “But the doughnuts would be gone. So as a lark, crew members started tying doughnuts against the back wall. Eventually, there were six or seven doughnuts up there, and nobody really thought anything about it.”

 

The next chapter came in December 1986, when the New Mexico Repertory Theatre moved in to set up “A Christmas Carol.” Since the Victorian set design called for a bareback wall, the Rep’s crew removed the crumby decorations.

 

“The night of the Tech rehearsal before the first performance everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Marsh remembers. “Light cues didn’t work. Sound cues didn’t work. Actors were walking into each other. It was a total disaster.”

 

The Rep stage manager placed some doughnuts backstage the next morning and the preview night went like clockwork.

 

“It became a ritual with the Rep that whenever they moved in they would hang a doughnut on the wall,” Marsh says, “and everything was great. But then the opera quit bringing doughnuts, and the same thing happened to them.”

 

These days Marsh can’t remember the production’s name, but the chaotic rehearsal remains vivid.

 

“It’s always the same thing,” he says, “nothing goes right technically.”

 

The many computerized light and sound cues the crew spent many hours running and re-running without a hitch would suddenly malfunction for no discernible reason. Then the next day the computer program would run perfectly again without any readjustments.

 

“Now, whenever something goes wrong,” Marsh adds, “somebody says, “It’s time for a doughnut.” If nothing else, it gives people time to calm down. Minor mishaps occasionally occur even with the doughnuts on duty,” he says. “But it’s mainly human error, things  that you can explain away.”

 

Some people believe the calamities are the work of the ghost of a child killed in the theater, Marsh says.

 

On Aug. 2, 1951, 6-year old Bobby Darnall was killed when a hot water heater exploded in the lobby. Bobby and two friends, Lou Ellen and Ronald Ross, were in the balcony for a matinee of Abbott and Costello’s “Comin’ Round the Mountain” when Bobby startled, apparently at a noise in the movie, and started running down the stairway to the lobby. He headed straight into the blast.

 

Ronald Ross, now an Albuquerque attorney, said in a telephone interview that no one ever figured out exactly why Bobby left his seat. (Attempts to contact the Darnall family were unsuccessful.)

 

Marsh says that he has occasionally heard a door closing or the sound of whispering when he has been alone in the theater.

 

“I haven’t actually seen a materialization,” he says while gazing towards the balcony, “but I have heard things that were kind of strange. And this is a pretty spooky building when you’re all by yourself at 2 in the morning.”

 

“Theater people are a superstitious bunch, says Marsh, so nearly all the Albuquerque performing groups who use the KiMo now contribute at least one doughnut per production to the back wall’s decor. If an old doughnut happens to crumble and fall, the group will immediately replace it, even if it means working shorthanded while someone races to the nearest doughnut shop right before a performance.”

 

Out-of-town groups playing one night stands usually come unprepared for the KiMo tradition. But once they find out about it, they don’t want the doughnuts taken down, Marsh says.

 

“Sometimes there are doughnuts all over the place, ” Marsh says, estimating that he throws away about 50 during the season. “They’re in the dressing rooms, the prop shop, the boiler room. But I try to draw the line because on the stage wall is where they belong.”

 

At the end of July, Marsh removes all the doughnuts to make room for new ones in the upcoming season.

 

“That’s the way we officially signify the end of the year,” he says. “We’re closed in August to do repairs. We’ve never done a show right after I’ve taken the doughnuts down. I’d be curious to see what happens.”

 

But then Marsh adds, with a nervous laugh, “If a major show suddenly got booked, I would probably go out and get some doughnuts myself, because I know it works and I’d just as soon not mess with it.” (Mazur, 1988)

This article reveals that some myth-building has taken place. The events happen during a tech rehearsal, not during the opening night as the legend suggests.

For the next 6 years, there is not much written on the ghost and the theater. During this time the ghost story is “brewing.”  The effects on the story become apparent in 1994 when the ghost story of the KiMo Theater first appears in the book “Adobe Angels” by Antonio Garcez. The book gives more evidence of myth building on page 21 as facts are now becoming confused.

The accident that killed Bobby did not occur backstage but in the theater’s lobby. The book also listed firsthand accounts of the ghosts that are rumored to be in the theater. The apparitions were seen by a theater employee named Jewel Sanchez.

According to the written account, she was making her way up the stairs around 5 p.m. when she gazed across the lobby and saw a little boy running up the stairs on the opposite side of the room. He was wearing a striped shirt and blue jeans and appeared to be playing a game. When he reached the top of the stairs, he vanished.

There are two issues with this sighting. The first is that if the boy stopped at the top of the stairs, he would be concealed behind the support pillar located there. Jewel did not go over to see if anyone was behind the post, she merely assumed that it was the ghost.

Secondly, this could not be the “ghost” of Bobby as she was confident that the figure she saw was wearing blue jeans, a clothing item that was in fashion for boys in 1951. After James Dean popularized them in the movie Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, wearing jeans became a symbol of youth rebellion during the rest of the 1950s. Because of this, they were sometimes banned in theaters, restaurants, and schools. Blue jeans were not in fashion for boys in 1951.

 

“In 1951, sports coats and slacks came first in the teenage boy’s wardrobe, as well as fun patterned sweaters and flannel shirts. For younger boys, plaids, corduroy, and frontier knits in various styles.” (Pearson)

 

What is remarkable is that the myth building occurred very rapidly, taking only six years to make radical changes in the myth. In addition to Bobby, there is another ghost mentioned, the apparition of the woman in a gingham pattern dress.

One of the major “red flags” that indicate that myth building has occurred is the sudden addition of more ghosts. The question is, how extreme has the myth-building been?

The apparition of an unidentified woman in “pioneer” garb was also described by Jewel Sanchez in the book. In her account, she says that she only saw the “ghost” once and that it had not ever been seen by any of her co-workers. However, when I first investigated the theater in 2005, no one working at the theater knew anything about this ghost. There are not any additional sightings to collaborate her account, so the focus was shifted to search for further explanations.

This apparition was seen by Jewel in the hallway that leads to the women’s restroom. The only available light was coming from the exit sign at the end of the hall. She said she saw a woman about 25 feet away from her at the end of the hall. The ghost was described as being female, wearing gingham pattern dress and a bonnet.  Jewel could not make out any facial features. There are two essential details listed in the account:

 

“My eyes could not focus clearly.” (due to the dim light in the hallway)

“She seemed shadow-like with an aura of grey.”

 

These are especially important when you know that Jewel wears prescription eyeglasses. The highly polished surfaces of spectacle lenses reflect light off the front and back surfaces of the lens. The new thinner and lighter weight lens materials reflect more of the available light than the old style glass and plastic lenses. The wearer will see the reflections from the back and front surfaces of the lenses. These vague duplicated images (ghost reflections) create a distraction and cause the eyes to make additional adjustments between the ghost and real images. The ghost image was caused by the light from the exit sign reflecting on the inside of her eyeglasses. The “aura” of the figure is the tell-tale sign of the alternative explanation.

I replicated the effect using a pair of similar eyeglasses and found that the result was especially pronounced as one enters the hallway. If the subject moves forward, the reflection vanishes due to the change of the angle the light is coming from.

I’m still looking into this one, but so far there seems to be some alternative explanations for the ghost sightings at the theater. I’ll post more when I have something new.