Arts & Culture

Ghost stories from SLO County: The haunting of Cuesta College's Interact Theater

This story originally appeared in The Tribune on Oct. 31, 1998

Cuesta College long-timers can tell you the story (of the ghost in the theater).

Actually, it was two ghosts; a married couple. But don't worry. The ghosts were apparently exorcised in the early 1980s, and haven't been heard from since.

"Very obviously -- there was something in that theater. But it's been gone for years, and I don't know why they left, " said Nella Girolo, chair of the Performing Arts department at Cuesta College.

The ghosts hung out in the buildings in the back of the campus that now house the Interact Theater and made life interesting for the cast and crews of stage shows there in the 1970s and early 1980s.

"Things would happen," Girolo said. "Mirrors would fall over when there was no one near them. Lights would drop."

Girolo says she felt the ghosts herself, when she came to Cuesta College and started directing plays in the theater in 1973.

"I was there early one night, because we were holding auditions. I was the first one there, so I was there alone. I heard the front door open, and footsteps come in, and there was nobody there. This happened about three times, " Girolo said. The ghostly footsteps stopped when more people and the actual auditioners arrived, but that wasn't the end of the eeriness at the Interact Theater.

"One day, there was a girl in there alone building a set (for a play). And she put her hammer down right next to her, and when she looked up, it had moved 10 feet away. This happened several times; and she would go pick it up and come back and keep working. Then she felt a tap on her shoulder, and turned around, and there was no one there," Girolo said.

When not bugging set builders and maintenance men, the ghost apparently had a sense of humor. "We were putting on 'Damn Yankees' and when it was time for the guy who played the devil to come onstage, suddenly all the lights in the house went red. And that was impossible," Girolo said. "We didn't have any red lights on the (control) board, and there wasn't a red light in the house. It was not possible for the lights to do that."

The show went on, anyway.No one ever felt like they were in danger from the theater ghost, Girolo said. Theater casts and crews were mostly just annoyed.

"You never felt threatened," Girolo said. But, "things would happen ... mirrors would fall over when nobody was near them. That happened when we were doing 'Once Upon a Mattress.' One time the lights dropped onto the stage, but there was nobody there.

"During the musical "Godspell," the director came in early one day to a surprise: "The piano was playing and there was nobody there," said Girolo.

Finally, the theater staff got curious. They brought in a parapsychologist to check out the building. (You have to remember, it was the '70s.)

"There was a big article in the Telegram-Tribune when we did that," Girolo remembered.

The spiritualist said the theater pranks were actually the work of two ghosts, not one. They were the ghosts of a married couple who had once lived on a ranch where Cuesta College now sits -- before the land was used as a military camp, and before it was turned into the college.

The ghostly couple got that way when their marriage hit the rocks.

"She was apparently having an affair, and he killed her because of it," or at least that was the verdict from the parapsychologist, Girolo said.

And one more thing: The man had been a carpenter.

"We think that was why he was bothering the woman building the set -- he just couldn't stand to see a woman carpenter," Girolo chuckled.

Deciding they'd lost enough props to the phantoms of their little opera house, the theater's technical crew of the early 1980s adopted a 'what the heck, it couldn't hurt' attitude and held a do-it-yourself exorcism, Girolo remembered.

"They had candles, and everything."

It must have worked, because no one's gotten spooked in the Interact Theater since.

The mirrors stay in place, the lights stay up, and nobody moves the set builders' hammers. It could have been the exorcism. Or maybe it was the growth of the campus itself, Girolo thinks.

"Maybe it's because the theater got so active. We have people in there all the time now," she said.Even at the height of the hauntings, no one ever did actually see the ghosts. Except one night, about the time of the exorcism in the theater building.

"A janitor saw a woman sitting on a stone bridge near the current library building. It looked to him like she was crying, " Girolo said. "And then she just disappeared."