BRAWLEY — For decades, the old Brawley Playhouse Theatre has been a landmark in the city of Brawley that has withstood the test of time — sort of. The theatre survived an earthquake and nearly became a victim of arson. Yet, despite the past brushes with near disaster, this icon of a bygone era has suffered a great amount of damage at the hands of time and the elements of nature. While the dilapidated building has been closed down for many years, local legend has it that it has become the permanent residence of ghosts.
The theater was built in 1922, opened in 1924, and closed in 1979. During its 55 years of business, the building has been a live and musical theater, a burlesque house, a speakeasy, and a movie theater. After the theater closed its doors for good, it stood abandoned and undisturbed until it was donated to the Brawley Community Foundation in 2011 by local filmmaker Ryan Brandt.
Since renovations and plans to restore it began, however, eerie stories and claims of the paranormal have surfaced. According to Jay Kruger, vice president of the Brawley Community Foundation, a volunteer working on the restoration came to him with a claim of an uncomfortable experience in the theater’s upstairs balcony.
“She said she felt something strange and when she came downstairs and was telling the rest of us about the incident, she said, ‘Well, I was up in a certain area and I just felt like a cold chill or something,'” said Kruger.
“She said, ‘I’ll be happy to volunteer, but I just don’t want to go upstairs anymore,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s fine,'” he said.
According to Kruger, the upstairs area where the volunteer experienced paranormal activity is the alleged location where a man was shot during the Prohibition Era when the theater served as a speakeasy. A month after this first incident, another outside worker reported a bizarre occurrence.
“A lady came up and said, ‘I’m really glad that you guys are working on this and so is he,'” said Kruger. “I said, ‘What do you mean he?’ ‘The guy who died here.'”
“‘A guy died here?,'” Kruger asked her. “‘Yeah, on the second floor he died here, but he feels better now,’ and she just walked away.”
Weeks later, another woman confronted Kruger with a claim that the spirit of a man who had been shot to death upstairs in the theater was now at peace thanks to the work being done to restore the place. It was after these strange incidents that research was done and an account of the Prohibition shooting surfaced.
The story was recounted by older Brawley residents and police officers. However, there is no actual documentation or reports of a shooting, or any deaths occurring inside the theater. If the claims of paranormal activity inside the Brawley Theatre are true, but there is no evidence of a shooting ever taking place there, then who or what is haunting it?
In 2013, the Arizona Paranormal Research Society visited the Brawley Playhouse Theatre and conducted an investigation into the claims of the supposed haunting. In an attempt to capture any paranormal activity they could find, the team came prepared with state-of-the- art equipment such as cameras and sound recording devices in order to document proof of ghostly phenomena. Unfortunately, the team came up with nothing after their investigation concluded.
Although the Paranormal Research Society may not have found any solid proof the theater is haunted, many still claim the possibility cannot be ruled out entirely. If there are restless spirits residing inside the old building, perhaps they merely chose not to interact with the living on that night.
“I personally don’t believe in ghosts,” remarked Kruger. “But if somebody has a bad feeling about something, I believe them.”
While the Brawley Community Foundation hopes to fully restore the theater in the future, someone who does believe in the stories of ghostly apparitions can only wonder if the spirits of the past will remain there to haunt the site for years to come.