Built in 1938 in Art Deco style, the Will Rogers Theatre has been a fixture of downtown Charleston, Illinois for generations. It was named after William ‘Will’ Rogers, a world famous actor, humorist, and columnist of the Progressive Era who died in a plane crash in 1935. Like many theaters, there are rumors that it is haunted. Since at least the 1990s, employees have encountered strange sounds and surreal events they attributed to a ghost aptly named “Will.” Will, however, is just a convenient moniker.
There are several stories behind the identity of this ghost, but no one knows for certain. According to Will Sailor, a former theater employee, the ghost is that of a man who died in the Charleston Riot. Lucas Thomas, who worked at the theater from 1996 to 2000, told the JG-TC that he heard it was the ghost of a projectionist who died of a heart attack in the projector room.
In 2007, Will Sailor related an eerie encounter to a reporter from The Charleston Chew, a one-shot newspaper created for the Eastern Illinois University Summer Journalism Workshop. “The first time I started working, I remember I had closed all the doors because I was sweeping,” he said. “I turned away from the doors to sweep somewhere else, and before even two seconds had passed, I turn back around to find that all four left doors were open… I was the only one in here. There is no explanation for it, and it’s not like these doors are easy to open.”
Sailor claimed to actually see the ghost on four separate occasions, mostly from the waist down. He described it as a short man dressed in an old fashioned suit, dark gray pants, shiny black shoes, and a bowler’s cap.
Thomas, on the other hand, only heard the ghost’s footsteps. This became a weekly occurrence, and he described them as “very distinct” and “as footsteppy as I’ve ever heard footsteps.” He also recalled sensing something moving in the projection office.
The Will Rogers Theatre closed in 2010. Katie Troccoli took over ownership in November 2011 and is hard at work renovating the 75-year-old building. Despite spending many hours there (including overnight), she told the JG-TC she has yet to experience any unusual occurrences. Has the ghost of Will moved on, or is he just quietly waiting until the theater’s seats once again fill with patrons? Only time will tell.
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