A Homeland Security officer, a massage therapist, an HVAC tech and an elementary school teacher walk into a theater…
Sounds like the lead-in to a bad joke, doesn’t it?
But on a recent Saturday afternoon, there is no punch line, only members of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group (TPRG) loading equipment into the historic Lyric Theatre downtown.
Cases and cases of equipment start to pile up in the dusty lobby.
Cameras, recording equipment, wires, monitors, flashlights, bottles of water, and what looks like miles and miles of extension cord leap out of boxes and into the hands of the TPRG members.
Outside of the actual ghost hunting, Scott McCloud (the HVAC tech) tells me, this will be the most time consuming part of the evening.
I simply stand back and let the group do their thing, helping when asked but mostly doing my best to not get in the way. I am the only “civilian” present this evening, here to watch and learn about what the TPRG does and how they do it.
The Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group has been investigating reported phenomena since 2007. The earliest investigations on their web site include Smith Hall on the University of Alabama campus, Sloss Furnaces and Bryce Hospital. Although based in Tuscaloosa, the group travels throughout the state to perform their investigations.
Skepticism is a healthy thing, something this group is cognizant of and incorporates into their investigations. Using video cameras, audio recording equipment, photography and other devices such as thermal imaging cameras, the TPRG bases their investigations on tangible, scientific evidence. Otherwise, if the evidence does not prove or disprove an experience, it is just a story.
As McCloud explained after our evening at the Lyric, “Several of the team members had some personal experiences, but until the evidence proves it, they will just be great stories.”
Two hours after arriving at the Lyric, the team finishes setting up the equipment. The cameras are recording and the monitor set up at the evening’s “base” (the lobby) is checked to ensure it is receiving the feeds from the nine cameras placed throughout the theatre. Now, it’s time for a break and some dinner.
Throughout set-up and dinner you can tell what a tight-knit group TRPG is. They know of each other’s work, families, hobbies. They joke and banter back and forth like old friends. Two members are engaged to be married (to each other), and another member will be leaving town shortly after the ghost hunt tonight, heading home before he is transferred to Tuscaloosa permanently with his job.
The obvious thing lacking in this group is the stereotypical “I’m feeling someone’s presence” type of spiritual medium often seen on television shows and in movies, which is refreshing. I can imagine it is easier for people to take them seriously when they are NOT pulling out the Ouija board every time they enter a haunted building. Their scientific approach certainly made my job as a historian and a researcher much more interesting.
Aside from the usual dinner chit-chat and getting to know one another, lead investigators McCloud and David Higdon tell me about some of the work TPRG has done over the years. These investigations range from confirming the presence of “something” in peoples’ homes to refusing a client when they arrive and the person answering the door is incoherent and has pupils as large as saucers (make your assumption here, but you likely understand why they would turn down that potential client). The group does not charge, so they tend to be selective in which cases to accept.
During dinner is when I find out the group has been to the Lyric before. Back in 2009, the TPRG made their first visit to the corner of Third Avenue and 18th Street.
Thanks to reports of strange smells, apparitions and unexplained noises, the group investigated. A few of the members present tonight were also in attendance for the first investigation. Throughout the evening, members talked to me about their first-hand experiences of smells, noise and what they believe to be responses to music from the theatre’s heyday.
Full of history, the old theatre will soon be a centenarian and has seen everything from vaudeville’s popular circuit performers to Deep Throat, likely the country’s most well-known piece of cinematic pornography.
The Lyric has sat unused and in disrepair since the 1970s, but remains a beloved piece of the city’s history. As did many of the theatres and buildings of its age, the Lyric had a “negro” entrance and seating section. Unlike many of its peers, the Lyric was integrator: African-American and white audiences saw the same show at the same time, albeit not seated next to one another.
Nowadays, the Lyric is home to critters like pigeons and rats, plus insects and arachnids, all living together in a strange harmony. As you walk through the dust and over the creaking floorboards, you are as likely to stir up a tiny skeleton as you are an old movie ticket. The only seating that remains is in the “colored balcony.” The only performance from the stage is the cooing of pigeons. Unless, of course, you know what to look for.
We return to the Lyric after the sun disappears, finally erasing the majority of ambient light coming through the boarded-up windows and doors.
In the lobby, the office building,and parts of the stage area, streetlights still shine through the windows and cracks in the boards.
The theater is almost completely dark. Flashlights are needed by those wandering the building.
And now, the ghost hunt begins.
The team is incredibly safety conscious: investigators travel in pairs, carry flashlights and handheld radios, and everyone is encouraged to stay hydrated. Just because we are indoors does not mean we are immune to the July heat, especially in a building with no air conditioning or adequate ventilation. We break up into four teams . For the evening I am an honorary member, soon to be accompanying investigators as they wander the building. But first, I take a shift with investigator Karla Valentine watching the monitor at base.
I am fascinated by the black and white images on the screen. Broken up like the opening montage of The Brady Bunch, it allows one to wander easilyfrom one part of the theater to another. Cameras are set up in the dressing room under the stage, in each of the balconies, facing toward and away from the stage, and in the basement under the lobby.
It is here at base, watching the monitors, where I have my only experience with something I cannot readily explain. My eyes light onto the camera view pointed directly at the stage. I see something run across the front of the stage – almost as though they missed their cue – and come to a sudden stop at stage left. Karla and I briefly talk about it, but there are other things happening and people calling each other on the radios. I cannot help but continue to stare at stage left, and I still see a fuzzy outline that looks to be holding a cane reflecting the stage lights. Shortly after this, the outline and the cane disappear, and the teams reassemble in the lobby.
I never get a chance to speak of this further. The investigators who were in the basement below the lobby recorded noises, and the group focuses on this potential evidence. The recordings sound like a woman in high heels walking across the floor above. Of course, the floor above them was the lobby – where Karla and I were seated the entire time and both wearing rubber-soled shoes.
After listening to the recording, the group’s first inclination is to determine if they can disprove it. Lucky for them, a group on a walking ghost tour of the city (really, I could not make that up) happened by the Lyric. Two of the investigators introduced themselves to the group and explained what was going on inside the theatre, including the recording. After determining that one woman was wearing shoes that could make similar sounds, the investigators asked her to walk across the sidewalk to compare the sounds her shoes made with the recording.
Once the tour group resumed their evening, we regrouped and headed out for another 30 minutes of investigation. My group started in the balconies, moved to the office building, then met up with everyone at the stage. Once assembled, David played clips of music and vaudeville performances. Unlike a few years ago, this time there was no response.
Again, we broke up into groups, and I joined Scott and Karla in the dressing room under the stage. Likely the coldest part of the structure, it looks and feels like a concrete bunker. Dust, cobwebs and 90-year old graffiti are everywhere. We heard a few things which, unfortunately, ended up being other investigators on the stage above us.
I have not yet seen or heard anything about the TPRG final report on our experiences that night. I am very interested to know whether or not I was the only one to see the cane on the stage. There are over 60 hours of video footage the group will review, so despite my impatience, it is unrealistic to expect a speedy response. In addition to the footsteps and my cane, members smelled matches being struck and cigar smoke and experienced “cold spots” moving around the orchestra section while David played the recordings. As Scott said, until these things are proven, they are just good stories.
We called it a night around 2:30 a.m. Sunday . Like a well-oiled machine, members disconnected and packed the equipment and their vehicles in about 30 minutes. We snapped a few photographs of the group, then headed in different directions and back to our regular lives. With any luck, I will get to join them on their next adventure in Birmingham.
I often wonder why this building does not suffer from graffiti, destruction and squatters like other vacant properties throughout the city. Maybe the current “residents” are what keeps the building together. Hopefully, those of us who love the Lyric will be able to do them justice and bring the Lyric back from the dead in time for her 100th birthday.
Learn more about the Lyric Theatre and ongoing efforts to restore it at http://savethelyric.com.
Haunted Tuscaloosa, authored by Higdon and Brett Talley, will be released later this year and available through Amazon. For a review of the book, visit the Tuscaloosa News web site.
Rebecca Dobrinski is a contributing writer at Weld for Birmingham and a Lyric Theatre volunteer. This is her first appearance at Weld Local. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.