SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The Gillioz Theatre has had a rich history since opening its doors in 1926. It’s a hard-to-miss staple of downtown Springfield. However, that history has some hair-raising stories that make the Gillioz a part of the many haunted destinations in the Ozarks.
The Gillioz Theatre History
According to the National Parks Service, Maurice Earnest Gillioz was a well-known builder and developer in southwestern Missouri early in the 20th century. He financed and built the theater, which was named in his honor. Because of the materials to which Gillioz had access, the theater is constructed of steel and concrete like a bridge, using wood for only the handrails, doors and door frames.
The Gillioz introduced talking pictures in 1928 and Technicolor in 1936. By then, the theater was famed for the outstanding service of its 10 ushers and doormen. Throughout the Great Depression and during World War II, the theater hosted community songfests to raise morale.
In an early version of American Idol, the Gillioz featured “Beauty with a Voice” competitions in which 15 girls sang on stage and the audience voted for its favorite. Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended a premiere at the Gillioz in 1952, and Elvis was spotted there (before he died) sneaking away between his matinee and evening performances at the Shrine Mosque.
By 1970, customers were leaving downtown for theaters in suburban malls. A tarp was draped over the old unused Wurlitzer, and the Gillioz began to fall into disrepair.
In 1980, the theater closed its doors following a final performance of “La Traviata.” By 1986, Springfield’s homeless population had settled into the abandoned space, setting oil barrel fires to keep warm. While this did some damage to the interior, the steady human presence also protected the landmark building from vandals.
When restoration efforts began in 1990, the owners learned that the theater was so well built that it would have cost as much to tear it down as to preserve it. Fortunately, preservation of the theater and its historic character prevailed.
A local group headed by Springfield business Bass Pro Shop Founder Johnny Morris had begun to talk about returning the building to its historic appearance and identity as a theater. The group banded together to purchase it that year and, by 1991, had also formed a non-profit organization: the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Gillioz opened its doors again on October 2006, 80 years after the original opening. The current restoration is true to the original design, minus all the heavy, flammable drapery that was common a century ago.
Is the Gillioz haunted?
One of the earliest signs that the theater was haunted was in the 1960s. Before sharing the bathrooms with Dublin’s Pass on the first floor, the Gillioz’s bathrooms were on the balcony. Guests and employees claim that the spirit of a little boy lingers around there. He is said to be dressed up like a newsie.
There are also stories about a woman in a yellow dress who peeks outside the former manager’s office before disappearing.
Gillioz Associate Director Joy Bilyeu-Steele said she doesn’t know who the child or the woman is but is confident that the balcony inside the theater is haunted by an old projectionist who died while on the job.
One night, Martin Kirschner was preparing a midnight movie on New Year’s Eve in 1962. Ten minutes before the showing, the general manager at the time checked on Kirschner to see if he was ready to start the movie. Kirschner confirmed he was ready.
At midnight, the movie was supposed to start, but it didn’t. The audience stomped their feet to let the staff know that the movie had not begun, so the general manager went up to the projection booth to see what was going on. He found Kirschner’s body on the ground, dead of a heart attack.
Kirschner worked at the Gillioz as a projectionist from 1926 to 1962, but some people believe he still roams the balcony to this day.
Several people have reported that an unknown source would touch their hair and even give them a pat on their behinds.
“It always happens to females,” said Bilyeu-Steele. “That’s why we attribute it to Martin.”
Former employees have also mentioned seeing a man with a hat who appears to have fallen asleep while sitting in the middle of the auditorium disappear before their eyes when they approach him.
When asked whether she believed the Gillioz was haunted or not, Bilyeu-Steele said she is unsure because she knows that lights turn on and off frequently for her. After telling more ghost stories to OzarksFirst, she gave up and said with laughter, “I’ve never seen that (ghost), but the people that did see it … saw it. So, I guess I would have to say, ‘Yes!'”
A ghost hunt was conducted by the Southwest Ghost Finders during our visit. We managed to get some activity that was caught on tape. Check out the video above.