COLUMN: The ghosts of the Elsinore

This column was originally written for the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society’s publication in a slightly different form and is shared here with permission.

Salem has a lot of scary stories in its history. Before his death in 2020, Tim King conducted ghost tours in Salem. Starting in 2015, his tours were extremely popular, entertaining, and scary! 

Tim published in 2018 the only fully researched book, “Haunted Salem, Oregon”, as part of the Haunted America series.

While Tim’s book covers a wide number of story locations, I do have my favorite stories. I remember going to see movies at the old run-down Elsinore Theatre, not realizing its tragic history. 

The Elsinore Theatre

The beautiful gothic building originally cost over $200,000 to build in 1926. Theaters in the early 20th century were opulent palaces, transporting visitors to a magically setting for several hours daily for just a few cents. 

The well-researched online Oregon Encyclopedia article by Joe Fitzgibbon notes that the theater was named after the Danish castle that served as background for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which has its own ghost in the form of Hamlet’s father. 

The Elsinore Theater opened for silent films and vaudeville shows on May 28, 1926. I remember going there to see the first run of Star Wars in the 1970s.  The waiting lines wrapped around the block. By the late 1970s the theater due to neglect and vandalism was relegated to running low budget B movies and other types of live entertainment. Plans were made to demolish the theater and replace it with a parking lot, as happened to the old Salem City Hall building.

The Elsinore Theater in 1926 (Courtesy/National Park Service)

It is rumored that a young boy was murdered in the men’s room. In the past, visitors to the theater have reported feeling a cold chill and the presence of lost souls and whispering. Perhaps this was just the wind blowing through cracks in the floor with the sound echoing within the sound enhanced building. It has been suggested that the sounds have come from the ghost of the builder/owner George Guthrie, moaning the sad state of his once beautiful theater. Perhaps it is more likely his daughter, who reportedly fell to her death from the balcony, many years ago. Guests claimed on occasions to see the ghostly outline of a woman ghost appearing up in the balcony. Scary indeed!

Tom Moyer, the theater giant, had purchased the Elsinore as a part of his movie empire.  When reconsidering the great cost of renovation he chose to offer the rundown Elsinore building to the Salem Theater-Auditorium Group Enterprises (STAGE).  Beginning in 2002 a major effort has been undertaken to restore the theater to its former glory with some added modern technology.  “The restored Elsinore has attracted tens of thousands of customers for silent films, concerts, live performances, and regional national entertainers,” the Oregon Encyclopedia said.

The Elsinore now beckons for all to enter.  Let us hope that George Guthrie and his daughter and other ghosts will now rest in peace, as all is well with the Elsinore.

Editor’s note: This column is part of an effort from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate in Salem Reporter’s local history series, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected].

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