Hauntings reported at Rialto and Newton House Museum

Ghosts? Investigators from the Little Rock office of S.P.I.R.I.T (Seekers Paranormal Investigation, Research and Intervention Team) park their box truck on East Cedar Street as they check the Rialto Theater, which is next door to Sports Alley, for paranormal activity. The team conducted an investigation in March of 2008 and determined that the theater was rife with paranormal phenomena. (File photo)
Ghosts? Investigators from the Little Rock office of S.P.I.R.I.T (Seekers Paranormal Investigation, Research and Intervention Team) park their box truck on East Cedar Street as they check the Rialto Theater, which is next door to Sports Alley, for paranormal activity. The team conducted an investigation in March of 2008 and determined that the theater was rife with paranormal phenomena. (File photo)

What do the Rialto Theater and Newton House Museum have in common?

Both sites sit just outside the heart of the Union County Courthouse Square.

Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, individually and as part of historic districts -- the Rialto in the El Dorado Commercial Historic District and the Newton House Museum in the Murphy-Hill Residential Historic District.

Both are also said to be haunted.

The claims have been a source of fierce debate throughout the community over the years.

However, visitors and current and former employees have shared chilling, firsthand accounts of crossing paths with the supernatural at both locations.

The sites have also been hotspots for paranormal probes over the past 15 years, with psychics and investigation teams presenting what they believe to be evidence that the historic sites are indeed teeming with otherworldly energy and activity.

The Rialto

The Rialto Theater initially opened in 1921 and was later rebuilt at its East Cedar Street location during the peak of the city's oil boom days.

The theater re-opened in 1929 as a 1,400-seat entertainment venue for live performances and films on the silver screen.

For nearly 90 years, the art-deco style, Classic Revival building stood as one of the crown jewels of the city's award-winning, historic downtown.

The Rialto shut down in 1980 when other downtown businesses began to close and buildings were abandoned as customers flocked to the then-thriving Mellor Park Mall and Northwest Village shopping center, which was then home to the El Dorado Cinemas.

However, that trend would shift later in the decade after the Rialto changed hands to new owners who were in the midst of spearheading a major revitalization effort in downtown El Dorado.

Richard and Vertis Mason, downtown developers and business/property owners, purchased the Rialto in 1984.

The Rialto was added to the NRHP in 1986 and the Masons restored the theater, which re-opened in 1987 and was rented out as a three-screen movie house.

The lessee and movie theater manager shuttered the business in the fall of 2007.

By December of 2009, the Masons had come up with another marketable idea for the property -- a multi-use/live performance venue and lounge called Marilyn's at the Rialto.

Marilyn's opened to welcoming arms in the community in December of 2008 and operated at the site until late summer of 2013, having moved out to make way for the Murphy Arts District.

MAD, operating as El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc., purchased the property in the early 2010s to develop an arts and entertainment complex in downtown El Dorado.

Prior to the Rialto's iteration as Marilyn's, Richard Mason said he wanted to formally investigate potential paranormal activity that included reports of unexplained noises (footsteps, knocking), touches, the smell of cigar smoke and shadowy figures moving about.

In early March of 2008, Richard called in Carol Pate, one of the top psychics in the nation.

Pate, based in Little Rock, had appeared on national television shows, including "Unsolved Mysteries," and assisted law enforcement officers in solving homicide, missing persons and other cases.

Immediately upon entering the Rialto, Pate noted chilly indoor temperatures in the empty, inoperable theater -- which contrasted to the warm, breezy, spring-like weather outside.

"She said, 'It's very cold in here. That's a good sign for ghosts,'" Richard recounted.

Pate's tour of the facility was filled with detailed descriptions, indicating that the Rialto was active with a number of spirits.

One was a heavyset man who stood on the first landing of the main staircase and wore a vest and a pocket watch.

Pate said she sensed the man had either owned the Rialto at some point or was a caretaker of the property.

Another was a young woman near the main stage with close-cut, curly hair that was light honey-brown and adorned with a bow that cocked to the left.

The woman was dressed in colorful, 1920s attire that looked to be a " fancy practice outfit," as if the woman was preparing for a performance.

"Her name is Irma," Pate shared with Richard and others who had accompanied her on the tour.

Pate's senses also bespoke the racial climate of the era, noting a crowd of well-dressed Black people who were segregated in balcony seating.

Pate and her group came back across the man she had seen standing on the staircase landing.

Details she provided about him became more intricate and sparked some recognition for Richard.

Pate said she felt the man was the theater's projectionist and had possibly lived in the Rialto for a time.

He wore a coat, vest and pants. He was average height, had "a bit of a belly," thinning hair and a mustache.

"He's another one that smokes a cigar," she relayed.

"That is a perfect description of the former theater manager, Mr. Robb. And the smell of cigar smoke is one of the most common of the paranormal experiences noted in the theater," Mason would write years later.

S.P.I.R.I.T Seekers and Off the Chain

A few weeks after Pate's tour, the S.P.I.R.I.T (Seekers Paranormal Investigation, Research and Intervention Team) of Arkansas would have a go at trying to detect -- or debunk -- the presence of spirits in the Rialto Theater.

The group conducted an investigation during an overnight stay in the theater and captured human-shaped shadows, fast- and slow-moving "energy orbs of interest," a door opening and EVP (electronic voice phenomena) in photos and on video recordings.

One member of the team could be heard off-camera saying that she saw someone sitting in the center of the main theater.

The figure was not a team member and no one other than the Seekers were in the Rialto at the time.

The Rialto scored highly in a grading system that the Seekers used to determine if the theater was truly haunted.

The system included several categories.

For example, the group gave a score of 40/50 in scientific evidence, which included photos, videos, temperature readings and EVP.

With sensory evidence, the use of the five senses, the Rialto scored 20 out of 25.

A third paranormal investigation that was conducted in 2014 rendered similar experiences and results.

Off the Chain Paranormal, also based in Arkansas, recorded what they purported to be EVP captures, one that sounded like a male child's voice and another, an adult male, who, when asked for his name, responded, "Lloyd."

The video recording, which was faded to black during the nighttime investigation, ended with screams as one of the team members reported having been touched.

Richard's account of the haunted experiences at the Rialto, including his personal encounters, are laid out in his book, "Haunted."

'I don't know if it's haunted or not'

Pam Griffin, president and CEO of MAD, said she has not experienced such phenomena and does not know of any other MAD staff members who have since MAD purchased the property.

When asked about the matter, she prefaced her comments with, "I personally don't believe in ghosts."

"I've had people tell me, 'I don't believe in ghosts but I've had this experience or that experience in The Rialto,'" Griffin continued. "If a place was going to haunted, I guess it could be."

Griffin said that while she does not trade in the paranormal, she also does not tempt fate, noting that she refuses to venture into the empty building after dark and she does not explore any of its four levels.

"I don't know if it's haunted or not, you can find a lot of people who'll tell you it is. I don't want to poop anyone's parade but none of us have tried to spend the night in there, either," she said with a laugh.

In the meantime, she said MAD is updating architectural costs to renovate the Rialto as part of phase two of the development of the MAD entertainment complex.

Plans called for a renovation and expansion of the Rialto that would double the seating capacity of the theater to 700 seats, a lobby big enough to hold multiple ticket booths and additional restrooms that would also be used during other downtown festivals.

In 2012, the cost was estimated at $25 million.

MAD was looking to book more live shows at the Rialto.

In the 2010s, prior to its closure, the Rialto hosted live music performances; a gospel music competition and festival; step shows with teams from colleges and a high school in the region; a restored version of the 1918 film "Tarzan of the Apes"; and a performance of the Mozart opera "Cozi Fan Tutte."

To fit the spooky ambience of the theater, productions of the stage play "Lady in Black," starring El Dorado native William Ragsdale, and a showing of the horror classic "Nosferatu," with accompaniment from the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, also played at the Rialto during that time.

Griffin said the second stage of MAD's development is not likely to happen within the next few years, noting that the onset of COVID-19 slowed the momentum of the project.

She also cited construction costs and consideration of operating costs.

The McWilliams building, which sits on the corner of South Washington Avenue and East Locust, also figures into the massive renovation project for MAD.

The building was to have been repurposed for art galleries and artists' quarters.

Newton House Museum

When asked if the Newton House Museum is haunted, Darrin Riley -- curator of the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, which owns, operates and maintains the museum on North Jackson -- answered in no uncertain terms.

Riley pointed to the then-upcoming Night of the Living Newtons candlelight tour, which was held Friday night.

"Last year, we had people running from the house (during the tour)," he said evenly.

His matter-of-fact delivery stems from personal experience Riley himself has had with the paranormal in the house.

The Newton House was built circa 1848 or 1849. The house is the only pre-Civil War-era structure that is still standing in El Dorado.

John Newton moved from Alabama to Arkansas in the early 1840s and "homesteaded" a cotton plantation totaling 2,500 acres in the Champagnolle area, just northeast of El Dorado.

Newton eventually purchased property from the Matthew Rainey family -- Rainey is the founder of El Dorado -- and built the two-story, Greek Revival-style house at 200 E. Peach St., the current site of Murphy USA headquarters.

Six decades and several owners later, the house was moved a half-block north to 510 N. Jackson, where it stands today.

The house was listed on the NRHP in 1974 as the Matthew Rainey House and included in the Murphy-Hill NRHP designation in 2007.

As the house began to deteriorate in the 1970s, local historic preservationists started a movement to save and restore the wood-frame structure.

The SAHPS, then the South Arkansas Historical Foundation, purchased the house in 1978 for $15,000 and volunteers spent the next two decades restoring the house in all its antebellum splendor, complete with era-appropriate decor.

In 2009, the house was dedicated as the Newton House Museum in honor John and his wife Penelope Newton.

'It was somebody from way back in the day'

Riley was a child growing up in the 1970s during a time when the house was unoccupied.

A 10-year-old Riley was playing with friends in the house one afternoon in 1976 when they heard footsteps ascending the staircase.

"I looked up and someone walked across the landing and about midway down ... the more they came down, the more they just faded out," he recalled.

"It was a man and he was wearing old, brownie trousers, so it was somebody from way back in the day," Riley continued.

Riley said he fled the house and did not return until 30 years later when he took a job with the SAHPS.

"Through research, it was probably John or some other older folks from back then because of the fashion. The cut of trousers was definitely old school," Riley said.

Steve Biernacki, executive director of the SAHPS, said teams of paranormal investigators and others who have stayed inside the house over the years and have determined that the Newton House Museum is "very active" with spiritual energy.

One husband-and-wife team, the GhostaHolics, based in Arkansas, spent the night in the museum on July of 2022.

Using equipment that included EVP recorders, motion-sensor lights and night-vision cameras, the couple captured several orbs, some of which they felt were entities in the house.

A motion sensor light that was set up downstairs went off several times while neither member of the team was in the area.

At one point, an orb passed in front of a camera that was set up in a bedroom and seconds later, the camera moved.

The activity occurred after the couple had left the room.

During another paranormal investigation that was conducted by members of the local Dunn family, the team picked up an identification for "Joplin."

"And the lights started going off like crazy," said Riley.

He explained that Scott Joplin, the legendary pianist and composer who was nicknamed "The King of Ragtime," was born in Texarkana.

As an up-and-coming artist, Joplin often performed in El Dorado at the former opera house that was reputable in the region at the time.

"Because of who the Newtons were, they surely would have hosted late-night salons for friends and have musicians come to their home," Riley explained. "It was normal at the time for the patronage of the arts, of musicians."

To note, none of the paranormal investigators for the Rialto or the Newton house reported any negative energy in their findings.

photo Psychic : Little Rock psychic Carol Pate, center, bottom left, draws a similar conclusion during a walk-through of the Rialto. Pate detected several spirits during her visit, including the spirit of a little boy that lingered around the lobby and a young woman near the stage in the main theater. Accompanying Pate were her associates Carol King, left, Joanie Hulsey and Richard Mason, former owner of the historic theater. Mason and his wife invited Pate and the S.P.I.R.I.T Seekers to the Rialto in 2008. (File photo)
photo The Rialto theater is seen in this October 13, 2023 photo. (Caitlan Butler/Live Union County)
photo The Rialto theater is seen in this October 13, 2023 photo. (Caitlan Butler/Live Union County)
photo The Newton House is seen in this October 13, 2023 photo. (Caitlan Butler/Live Union County)

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