Pine Bluff’s Community Theatre has a long and fascinating history that started nearly 125 years ago when the structure at 207 W. Second Ave. was erected by then-local resident U.S. Congressman Clifton Rodes Breckinridge, a son of former Vice President John C. Breckinridge. The elder Breckinridge was defeated by Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.
About a dozen years before the theater’s construction, a two-story home — which would become known as the Honnett-Barrow House — was built at 817 W. 5th Ave.
Jack Stradley and his wife, Kathy Majewska, own both properties. They’re currently renovating Community Theatre, which is slated to re-open in January as a live entertainment venue.
Meanwhile, the couple have painstakingly restored their residence to much of the grandeur for which it was originally admired before it eventually faded into decay. Their dedication to that project earned them an award last year from the Pine Bluff Historic District Commission.
But while Stradley and Majewska have sole possession of the sites, they’re convinced that they’re never the lone occupants of either. They’ve accepted and become comfortable with those arrangements, although they would like to become better acquainted with their guests.
At their home, they believe they’re hosting at least two ghosts.
They and a few others, including private contractor Victoria Norton, have encountered a gentle, silent spirit that has been affectionately tagged as “Rose.” The name was earned by the fragrance of a popular late 1800s and early 1900s perfume that becomes pervasive at times within confined areas of the house, often coinciding with what Stradley and Majewska believe are appearances by Rose in an undefined mist.
Stradley figures Rose has materialized near him on several occasions, as he thinks he’s seen her “out of the corner of my eyes.” But when Stradley turns his head for a better view, Rose vanishes.
Another housemate, the couple said, is a friendly and playful female child. The yet-unnamed girl, who frequents a stairway, has appeared in full but transparent form on several occasions to a young niece of Majewska.
Stradley, Majewska and others have at times heard what seems to be a girl’s giggling, and Majewska’s niece said the apparition is typically wearing attire common to the 1890s era and that the girl always has well-groomed hair. It’s also believed that the specter may sometimes be carrying a doll. Majewska said visiting relatives have reported hearing piano music during overnight hours when no one was known to have been near any of several pianos within the residence.
The house was purchased by Majewska’s grandmother in the 1940s, and Majewska acquired it in 1985.
Spirits haven’t made themselves visible at Community Theatre, but they’ve made themselves heard, Stradley said.
Jay Hester, foreman of a construction crew there, said Tuesday that “something or someone” communicated with him while he was working there during the past summer. As Hester was repairing a portion of a high ceiling, he heard distinct, repeated rapping on a nearby, upper window. Hester was familiar with the window, in part because workers had covered it with cement.
“I know what I heard,” Hester said. “I’m the kind of person who if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist, but the window thing frightened me. It was the sound of someone knocking on the glass. There was no way to explain it but that it was a physical entity. I’ve been in this business and have worked on a good number of buildings for more than 10 years, and I’ve never had the stuff that’s happened here happen anywhere else.”
Hester said some of his workers have related odd experiences they’ve had at the location, including apparently seeing unknown people at a quick glance only to have the figures suddenly disappear into shadows. Stradley said he had been told that one laborer had reported overhearing apparent conversations from unoccupied areas of the facility, built by contractor William I. Hillard, who also constructed the Jefferson County Courthouse.
The building housed a department store until the theater took over in 1922.
Majewska said that if there are phantoms in the movie house, they may be somehow connected to a tragic incident of several decades ago. She said a man who was having an affair had accompanied his mistress to the theater, where they were watching a movie from balcony seating. The man’s wife tracked him down and confronted him. An argument ensued, and the man left his chair, either to exit the theater or ward off his wife.
The wife purportedly shoved her husband, who lost his footing and fell over a balcony partition onto the floor below, suffering fatal injuries.
Majewska said she had seen documentation of the incident among the papers of a former owner of the theater, Charles Bonner. Bonner’s father, Victor Elbert Bonner, began managing the theater in 1929. The Bonners purchased the theater in 1942 and operated it until its 1963 closure.
Clifton Rodes Breckinridge had a link to a violent death himself. Jefferson County Sheriff John Middleton Clayton challenged Breckinridge for his congressional post just a year before the theater was built. With more than 34,000 votes cast, Breckinridge claimed victory in what has been described as the most fraudulent election in state history.
Clayton contested the outcome and ventured to Plumerville to investigate an election incident there in which four masked white men raided a largely black precinct. The armed bandits made off with a ballot box that was figured to have contained a majority of Clayton votes.
Lodging in a boardinghouse while there, Clayton was slain when struck by a shot to his head through a window from an unknown assailant. Public and national media reaction was swift and demanding. A $5,000 reward was offered and the crime was investigated by the respected Pinkerton Detective Agency, but no one was ever charged.
In 1890, the U.S. House of Representatives ruled that Clayton had indeed been victorious. Breckinridge was booted from his seat, which was declared vacant.
Breckinridge died in 1932 and was buried in Kentucky.
Clayton was buried at Pine Bluff’s Bellwood Cemetery, which is only a short distance from the theater.