Located on North Main Street in Decatur, Illinois, the Lincoln Theater is one of two grand theaters still standing in the city today. Opening in 1916 with a massive stage and a large number of seats, it featured high balconies, mezzanines, basements, and sub-cellars. Prior to the theater’s construction, it was the site of the Priest Hotel.
In 1860, W.S. Crissey opened the Priest Hotel, even despite it was owned and operated by Franklin Priest. Twenty years later, the building was taken over by Riley Deming, who renamed it “New Deming”. It was purchased by Augustine Wait in 1892, and she renamed the hotel “the Arcade Hotel”.
In 1900, he remodelled and expanded it, and again renamed it – this time calling it the Decatur & Arcade Hotel However, a horrible fire broke out in 1904 that destroyed the building. The hotel was rebuilt on the same spot only a short while later. On April 21st, yet another fire raged through the hotel, this time killing two people and damaging the adjacent buildings.
The fire is believed to have been caused by some oily rags left near the hotel’s boiler, as one of the watchmen found them smouldering, attempted to put them out, but was forced to stop when thick smoke made it impossible to see. The flames quickly spread throughout the rest of the hotel, and the fire department came within minutes.
The hotel was covered with smoke so thickly that firefighters could not enter, and they were forced to simply pump water on the building since they could not see the flames. By the time it was extinguished, nothing but ruins remained. The neighboring structures, the Bachman Bros. & Marine Co. furniture store, the YMCA, the First Presbyterian Church, and the Odd Fellows Building, were salvaged, but part of the hotel’s wall had collapsed onto the furniture store, though not much was lost.
The sole casualties were that of William E. Grahm, an engineer from the Decatur Bridge Co., and C.S. Guild, a traveling salesman from New York. They were the only bodies found in the wreckage, though it is assumed that there were other victims in the blaze, as the guests were never found.
The already-devastating fire could have been much worse, though, if it were not for the rain that helped extinguish it. The hotel was never rebuilt, and the Lincoln Theater was built in its place. However, the spirits of those who died in the fire still haunt the grounds even though the hotel is gone.
Since the initial disaster, Decatur has suffered from a large number of fires, and several buildings have been destroyed because of them. Designers of the theater made it “absolutely fireproof”, being aware of the danger fire held in the town. Built in 1916 by Clarence Wait, the Lincoln Theater’s plans were designed by Aschauer & Waggoner, an architectural firm. The firm also designed the adjacent buildings, such as the Odd Fellows Lodge and seven small stores on Main Street.
The grand opening for the theater was on October 27th, 1916, which attracted some of Decatur’s finer citizens. The first show present at the theater was George M. Cohan’s stage comedy called Hit the Trail Holliday, which starred Frank Otto. Speeches by Clarence Wait and Mayor Dan Dineen were given that night as well. Guests said that each of the 1,346 seats delivered a great view and incredible sound.
During the first years of the Lincoln Theater, it was used for stage shows, vaudeville, local productions, and Decatur High School graduations and plays. Several famed actors and actresses appeared at the theater as well, including Ethel Barrymore, Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, and Jeanette McDonald.
One of the ghosts that is said to haunt the theater is known as “Red”, who supposedly worked in the backstage of the theater. Although he seemed happy with his job, he actually wanted to be an actor himself. His life came to a tragic end when he fell off a catwalk during one of the shows and hit the stage, horrifying the audience. Now, visitors have claimed seeing and/or hearing Red. Sightings include odd shadows above the stage, whispering, or seeing his misty apparition.