The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.
Built in 1938 at a cost of $90,000 in Art Deco style, the Will Rogers Theatre has been a fixture of downtown Charleston 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. During the 1980s, Kerasotes Theaters divided the 1,100-seat auditorium and began showing movies on two separate screens. The Will Rogers was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and designated a Landmark Property by the City of Charleston in 2011.
Like many theaters, there are rumors 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.
AMC closed the Will Rogers Theatre on November 28, 2010. It was already struggling as a result of the new 8-theater multiplex out on Route 16. Katie Troccoli took over ownership in November 2011 and worked hard to renovate the 75-year-old building. Unfortunately, a water pipe burst and flooded the basement and auditorium, hampering repairs. Troccoli fought off the specter of foreclosure, but even by 2017 the prospect of once again seeing its glimmering marquee lights appeared dim.
A non-profit group called the Will Rogers Theatre Project approached Troccoli about working together to restore the historic theater, but she balked at their request to share ownership. “That is never going to happen,” she reportedly said.
Despite spending many hours there (including overnight), in 2012 Troccoli 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.
- “Opening of theater in Charleston this week,” The Decatur Daily Review (Decatur) 6 February 1938.
- “Phantom of the Theater: Will Rogers employee insists it’s haunted,” The Charleston Chew (Charleston) 19 July 2007.
- “Will Rogers Theatre restoration remains a work in progress.” JG-TC (Mattoon) 10 August 2017.
- “Will Rogers partnership unlikely; no noticeable changes in years.” JG-TC (Mattoon) 18 May 2018.