For TNL: Haunted tales of the Wendy Williamson

Alaska, Print, Uncategorized

Originally published in The Northern Light

Mysterious doors that lead to a wall, showers and sinks running on their own, pianos playing by themselves, an elevator shaft that leads nowhere and lights that will never reach the stage are just a handful of the spooky scenarios that have occurred in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium.

With construction beginning in 1973, the auditorium sat dormant for 18 months before money became available to finish the building. When the builders finally completed the building, there were multiple mistakes.

Creating doors that lead to walls, an elevator shaft that leads to a second floor that never was, a catwalk visible to no one and a spotlight room angled in a way that makes it impossible to spotlight the stage are just a few of the unusual engineering aspects of the auditorium.

Many cultures attribute energy to spaces. The Confucius Institute has even been said to have visited the auditorium; telling the manager that the energy of the space was evil and the feng shui was all wrong.

“The lightroom is by far the most sinister, but all the place is funky,” Shane Mitchell, a UAA alum, the auditorium’s manager and director at TBA theater, said.

Mitchell, who has worked in the auditorium for twenty years began his relationship with the theater as a student in UAA’s theater program in the 80s.

“When I started here in 1982, the place had a reputation for being haunted. It hadn’t even been open for a decade yet,” Shane Mitchell said.

The auditorium bears the name of John Wendell Williamson, professor of music at UAA since 1971. Williamson, nicknamed Wendy, passed away in 1988. The auditorium was named in his honor.

“Weird things happened way before he passed on,” Shane Mitchell said.

Shane Mitchell has his own share of less-than-ordinary occurrences. Once while acting in a performance of “The Monkey’s Paw,” Mitchell opened up the coffin he was going to use during the show, backstage. The cast and crew surrounded him as he lifted the coffin to see what was left inside by other cast members. As Mitchell opened the coffin door, all the props for the show flew off a table and against the wall, just about ten feet away from them.

“It became a habit to open up the coffin backstage before I went on. The whole cast gathered around me to crack up. With all the cast around me, all the props flew off the prop table, against the wall. Like someone flew them off with their arms,” Shane Mitchell said.

In that same show, about 350 school age kids were in attendance on a field trip. A question and answer session soon followed the conclusion of the show.

“This one kid raises his hand and says, ‘at the end of the play, how did you make the lady in the white dress float above your heads?’ The director said ‘what?’, then the teacher said, ‘he just wanted to know how the special effect worked.’ The director said ‘next question.’ There was no special effect,” Shane Mitchell said.

Many years ago, a self-proclaimed psychic and FBI profiler toured the building and sent a thorough document explaining the energy and presence inhabiting the auditorium.

“She mailed a document that listed things that made her seem pretty credible in our eyes. She said she sensed five beings, one of a little girl who died in an automobile accident on Lake Otis, the ghost of a teen boy, a young woman, and two men, one kindly and one violent,” Shane Mitchell said.

“The worst part is people always ask ‘did you see something or hear something,’ you get these horrible, horrible feelings that you’re just not safe. I can explain anything I see or hear, but something I feel? I’ve had things happen that I can’t explain,” Shane Mitchell said.

Twin brother of Shane, Wayne Mitchell, is a technician in the auditorium who has his own share of spooky tales.

“There used to be a nighttime janitor here, after a while he stopped coming and asked what happened to him. I was told he got reassigned because he doesn’t want to be where the ghosts are. This was all based on his own experience,” Wayne Mitchell said.

In an attempt to de-spook the building, different members of the auditorium’s staff have brought different items or symbols to ward off evil spirits and energy.

“Different people who have different cultures bring different items of charm. There’s a Pennsylvania Dutch design hanging on the wall, Celtic knots carved into walls, a lady had a statue of the Virgin Mary filled with holy water that she set above the door. Although, right after the place was smudged, stuff started to happen for about 12 days. All it did was irritate them,” Shane Mitchell said.

Not all who spend time in the auditorium experience events unexplained, but the rumors are abundant and enough to give anyone the creeps when they enter the depths of the Williamson auditorium.

“I haven’t actually seen anything scary happen. But from hearing it is haunted so many times over the years, I definitely get creeped out if I’m there working an event by myself. But mostly because I’m a scaredy-cat,” Garren Volper, a UAA student activities employee and frequent participant in the annual Anchorage Folk Fest, said.

On the center wall of the main lobby of the auditorium sits a large bolt. What once bolstered the large portrait of Wendy Williamson, is now a dark dot, sitting as a reminder of the mysterious happenings of the auditorium.

When Shane Mitchell began his career at the auditorium, he found a painting of the Williamson himself, playing the piano. He pleaded with his manager at the time to hang it up, but was swiftly told no. When Mitchell became manager, him and his brother decided to hang the painting up to commemorate the late professor and building namesake. They proudly hung the painting up in the foyer of the lobby for all to see. The next morning the painting was on the ground. This scenario repeated itself multiple times, until one day while Wayne Mitchell was hanging up the portrait the wire on the back snapped, fell to the ground, tearing the carpet, and breaking the floor beneath it — the painting and frame unharmed. The Mitchell brothers put the mysterious painting back into storage, eventually to bring out just one more time to hang in the green room. The next morning, the painting was not on the wall, but on the ground. The Mitchell’s put it back into storage where it sits today.

“It’s not the most flattering portrait. Maybe Wendy hates it?” Shane Mitchell said.

While these experiences are mysterious, the painting itself is unusual in its own right. The painting has no date and no artist signage. It is unknown who painted the painting and when. It bears resemblance to the late Wendy Williamson, but without a title, date, or artist signature, who’s to say?

With numerous stories of his own, Shane Mitchell is the main guy for others to report their unusual happenings to. Audience members, pageant members, musicians, actors, employees and janitors to just name a few of the folks who go to Shane Mitchell with their ghost tales.

“Just about everybody who spends any length of time in the Williamson ends up experiencing some stuff. I think everyone has their thing they can’t explain. There are people who embrace it and people who don’t want to embrace that,” Shane Mitchell said.

The ghost of Wendy Williamson is said to have visited the auditorium himself. Playing jovial piano music in the lobby during classes or rehearsals.

“You’d be up on stage and you can hear someone playing a piano in the lobby. I would come down these stairs and around the corner and nobody would be sitting there at the piano,” Shane Mitchell said.

Although no one has died in the auditorium, many students or artists at UAA have passed away who have ties and traditions with the building. Whether haunted or not, the Wendy Williamson auditorium puts on quite the show.

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