For Halloween, let’s do three stories in one.
The first has to do with haunted radio stations. I understand that many of you do not believe in ghosts, or a supernatural presence, or what have you. That’s fine. Had you worked with me at WXLP in the Quad Cities, you may have an opinion that is more in line with what I have come to believe, which is that I don’t know what I don’t know. (That line comes up a lot with me. The theme of my application essay for doctoral study at Michigan State was basically that, and it worked.) Many radio stations I’ve been in over the years have been said to be haunted. Supposedly a former engineer walked the halls of WPXR in Rock Island, appearing in the spot where the transmitter located was to take meter readings – refusing to abandon duty after death. The ghost of Russ Salter, the founder of Aurora’s WKKD, was said to appear at the former building on Plain Avenue before it was torn down. (I spent a year in the building and never noticed anything of the sort.) The ghosts of WXLP, if they truly exist, were less well-known and more sinister.
WXLP broadcast then, as it does now, from a building called the Rock and Roll Mansion at 1229 Brady Street in Davenport, Iowa. The mansion started its existence as the Weerts Funeral Home. That’s right – the radio station was housed in a former mortuary. It was a huge building, and only spaces that needed to be renovated for what was, at the time, two stations were updated. The rest of the building was left as was found. The music director’s office was housed in the organ loft for the chapel. The morning show, Dwyer and Michaels, used the old embalming room as their office: this was perhaps the creepiest space in the building, as the overhead work lights and drain in the center of the floor still remained. The upstairs storage area, mostly empty, was formerly the casket and urn display area, and the freight elevator used to take bodies from the lower level up to the work room still went bump in the night. I knew about all that went bump in the night as I worked nights in the building – usually alone, save for a few researchers – from January until September 1991. When I wasn’t there at night I was the copywriter/continuity director with a desk in the traffic office. I saw strange things in both places.
Things moved in the traffic office all the time. The office was in the spot where viewings used to take place, and my desk (I learned) was right about where the bier used to be. It was common to go to lunch and come back to find your work moved around your desk, or piles neatly relocated from the desk to the floor. This happened often enough that the office staff affectionately named the spirits Ben and Gus. I never asked why, but started using those names. One afternoon one of the gentlemen paid my office a visit. I was sitting at my desk, which was against the wall. I was turned 90 degrees from it, having a conversation with Teresa, the traffic director, who sat about ten feet away. In the middle of the conversation Teresa’s eyes suddenly became as big as dinner plates. When I asked what was wrong, she could not speak – she merely pointed at the shelf above my head. The reel-to-reel tapes on the shelf were falling off of the shelf, one at a time, as if an unseen finger was flicking them off of the shelf towards my seat. We both sat there, watching and waiting until the whole row of them fell. I simply picked them all up and went back to work.
Nights were another matter. The first Friday night I was there by myself that side of Davenport went through a power outage. I braced myself for the worst, but nothing happened – that time. Most nights I stayed after the show to work on production. I lost count of the number of times my work was interrupted in that room because I had the feeling of being watched. The production board was at a 90 degree angle from the door, and I’d sense that perhaps Steve Donovan, the overnight jock, had come in the room to ask me something. I’d turn and find no one there, and the door unopened. The night I remember most, though, was with a building full of people. The call-out research department worked a few nights a week. It was all girls about my age, so I wasn’t beyond putting on a long song to make my way to the break room when they took their dinner break. One night while I was chatting them up there was this loud crash that came from upstairs. We all fell silent. No one was up there. Leah, the group leader, suggested that perhaps I should go and investigate. Reluctantly, I went up the stairs to the morning show office. I turned on the lights, and noticed that all of the chairs in that office were in a pile in the corner. I turned off the light, went downstairs, told the girls “I don’t think you should go up there,” and went back in the studio, where I refused to come out until Donovan showed up at 11pm. At that point, I said “All yours!” and ran for my car.
Some years later a morning show brought in a psychic on their show to walk around the building. I’ve never heard the audio of the bit, but was told that the psychic ended the bit early, insisting that she needed to get out of the building right away.
The stations, as I said, are still in that same location.
I saw a story on Saturday morning 10/29 that the Willowbrook Ballroom burned to the ground the day before. The Willowbrook was a longtime south suburban Chicago staple, dating back to its days as the Oh Henry Ballroom (sponsored by the candy bar) in 1930. Countless formal dances were held there, including my junior high school’s 8th grade dinner dance in 1982. Yes, sadly, the first place that I ever danced with a girl is no longer standing. To say that the building outlived the romance is an understatement, as it was still standing the next morning.
The Willowbrook is well known in Chicago lore as it is inexorably linked to the legend of Resurrection Mary. Most locales have their own version of the “vanishing hitchhiker” legend – a story in which a motorist picks up a passenger who disappears at some point along the journey. In the case of Mary, she is always seen as a figure in white, looking a bit out of date. It’s thought that she is coming from the ballroom. In one famous instance, she told the driver “The winter came early this year,” and when the driver looked in the rear view mirror to answer, the passenger was gone – just as he passed the gates to Resurrection Cemetery on Archer Avenue. Much has been written about the legend. Years ago, I had the late Chicago ghost hunter Richard Crowe as a guest on my show at WCFL, and he detailed the legend (and others) with great theater. There are too many links for me to list here – a Google search on “Resurrection Mary” will yield plenty for you to read.
Do I believe the story? I’m not sure. I had always hoped to have a first-hand experience. As generations of my family are buried at Resurrection Cemetery – a set of my great-grandparents, both sets of grandparents, my mother and stepfather, even a friend from high school who passed away my junior year – I have a connection to the hallowed ground whether I want it or not. Perhaps on a future visit, if Mary is still wandering, I’ll see something to report.
The legend is so widespread that it spawned its own hit record: Dickey Lee made the Top 40 with “Laurie (Strange Things Happen),” which made #14 in the early summer of 1965, but it gained plenty of airplay around Chicago each year at Halloween. It’s one of the tracks I used on the air around the Richard Crowe interview, which aired on WCFL on September 23, 1993. It’s a long interview, in which we discussed The Melody Mill, the Grimes sister murders, Bachelor’s Grove, the totem pole on the north side of Chicago that changed its appearance, and many other fascinating Chicagoland ghost stories. Richard passed away in 2012 – perhaps he and Mary have since had conversations.
As a kid in Chicago, I watched – despite my parents’ warnings not to – Creature Features on WGN-TV. Every local market had its own horror movie show. The cool kids in Chicago watched Jerry G. Bishop, and later Rich Koz, play Svengoolie, who mixed comedy routines into breaks in the movies on the competing show on WFLD-TV. (As a pre-teen and young adult, I was drawn to Koz’ show, since he’s one of the funniest people on television. His parodies of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and the Empire Carpets ads still make me laugh.) But if you just wanted the movie, you watched Creature Features. It was on this show that I first saw Bela Lugosi play Dracula, and first learned of Abbott and Costello as they “met” all of the monsters. What I remember – even as a small child – was the cool intro to the show. It featured a montage of the best-known horror films while an announcer – either Carl Grayson or Marty McNeely from the WGN News Department – whispered a creepy poem over even creepier music that went something like this:
Gruesome ghouls and gristly ghosts
Wretched souls and cursed hosts
Vampires bite and villains creep
Demons scream and shadows sleep
Blood runs cold in every man
Fog rolls in and coffins slam
Mortals quake at full moon rise
Creatures haunt and terrorize
The creepy music was synonymous with the show. It wasn’t until working in a production room years later that I wandered across a copy of Henry Mancini’s greatest hits and found the tune – “Experiment in Terror.”
I can’t seem to locate an original version of the show’s intro. It has been re-created here, and I know that I have a cassette recording made off of the television somewhere.
To make your own creepy Halloween soundtrack for your own ghost stories with the original “Experiment in Terror,” click here. And if you have any haunted radio station stories, please feel free to share them.