Is the historic downtown West Bend theater haunted? Known today as The Bend, the theater has long been rumored to be home to the spirit of the manager who died in the lobby decades ago. Employees have reported hearing the jingling of his keys, doors opening and closing on their own, dusty footprints passing through doors long ago rusted closed, and a shadow that walks right through the movie screen and vanishes.
NOTE: Interior photos of the theater used here were taken in 2018 and 2019 while renovations were taking place.
A crowd was gathered in the street outside the historic downtown West Bend theater to witness the lighting of the newly refurbished sign with the city’s name in blinking lights. Known as the Blade, the landmark sign had adorned the stoic façade of the theater since it opened just after the stock market crash of 1929, when the glory of the Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt.
The sign illuminated the downtown area and bore witness to decades of West Bend life. It even served as a backdrop for photos of John F. Kennedy when he visited during his presidential campaign in 1960.
In recent years, the Blade had fallen into disrepair, and though a fund was in place to keep it lit in the years after the theater closed, weathered paint and burned out bulbs made the sign iconic in more of an ominous way than nostalgic. Its restoration was a key component in drawing local support for revamping the theater and returning it to its original elegance.
That’s why on this cool, clear September evening in 2019, members of the community young and old turned out to witness the luminous Blade shine once again like it had some 90 years ago.
The ceremony included a brief speech from the mayor about the theater’s importance to the community, as well as pitches from the theater’s board about supporting the restoration project, and a mention of some of the elderly folk in the crowd who had worked at the theater in their youth, selling tickets and popcorn, running the projectors, or performing other odd jobs.
Then, with an enthusiastic applause from the audience, they handed the microphone over to a man named Lester Hahn, who shared tales of his exploits at the theater when he was hired as an usher in the early 1970s. Lester was 16 at the time, and it was his first job. He joked about how he relished in the power to kick people out for talking during a movie. But he didn’t always make it to work on time and the manager, Rolland “Rollie” Meade, did not tolerate that. One day, Lester arrived 8-10 minutes past the start of his shift, and Meade fired him. That was the first time. Lester’s parents pleaded with Meade to give him another chance, and eventually Lester returned to the theater. It wasn’t long before Meade fired him again, but Lester’s dedication made it hard to let him go. Over time, he and Meade became good friends.
Lester learned the ropes and took on a variety of duties around the theater under Meade’s watch. Later in life, throughout his career as an airline pilot, Lester would still come home after a flight to fix a projector or handle some other maintenance issue. He spent over 25 years working for the theater until the doors closed for good in 2009.
Lester was as much a fixture of the theater as its long time manager. But when the theater shut down, Lester moved on.
Meade, who died on the job, seems to have remained dedicated to his work.
West Bend theater manager dies in the lobby
“Mr. Meade actually died in the theater,” Lester told the crowd. “He was coming down the stairs and had a heart attack. He was a great guy, we’ll miss him.”
“However,” Lester added with a dramatic pause, “he may still be here.”
The crowd laughed. Lester’s stories of paranormal encounters in the theater were already legendary.
The theater was old, creaky and creepy by the 1980s and 90s, and anyone who worked there in high school, or knew someone who did, was familiar with the legends. Stories about the original vaudeville dressing rooms with mirrors and lights still lurking in the unlit basement, hidden doors in the floor to secret spaces, a life size Alien costume used to promote the release of the 1979 film, and of course, the ghostly activity of a previous manager who had died in the theater and never left.
One version of the story says that Meade was upstairs in the projector booth when he was stricken by a heart attack and collapsed dead on the spot. They say Meade was a large man, and his body remained there in the projector room for several days while paramedics worked out how to extract him from the booth and down the tight, narrow turns of the staircase.
It makes for an exquisitely macabre recitation of Mr. Meade’s departure from this mortal coil – one fit for the silver screen, to be sure. But this account doesn’t seem to be entirely accurate.
According to Lester, Meade had been walking down the steps from the projector room when the heart attack began, and he took his final breaths on the lobby floor.
That was November 20th,1985, and soon after is when strange things began to happen.
“I’m one of these practical people,” Lester told the crowd, “until you prove it to me, I’m not going to believe you.”
In this case, the things Lester experienced after Meade’s untimely death were all the proof he needed.
Rollie’s ghost returns to work
One of Lester’s first encounters with the spirit of Rollie Meade happened when he was sitting by himself in the balcony of the theater, near the projection room. He heard the distinct sound of the door to the projection room opening and closing, as if someone had just walked out of the booth. He turned and looked over his shoulder toward the door, but couldn’t see anyone in the corridor, so he got up to investigate.
“There was no one there,” he said.
“You have to physically open that door and step on a piece of metal to make that combination noise,” Lester explained. “I’m telling you it was there and there was no person there. That’s just the fact, that’s just the way it is.”
Another time, Lester and a manager at the time named Greg were talking in the office with the door closed when they heard the distinct sound of keys jingling from the other side.
“Mr. Meade had these keys,” Lester said. “Whenever he came to the door you could hear those keys come out and he would open the door with those set of keys. I thought ‘wow, that sounds a lot like…’”
But he blew the thought off. Rollie was gone, so it had to be someone else approaching the door.
“They were fiddling with the lock to open it and it didn’t open,” Lester said.
So Greg reached over to the door and swung it open.
“…And nobody is there,” Lester said.
West Bend Haunted History
The haunted theater is arguably the most interesting stop on local author and researcher J. Nathan Couch’s Downtown West Bend Ghost Walk. Over the years, patrons have shared their own personal accounts of mysterious and unexplained occurrences that offer even more compelling evidence that Rollie is still hanging around.
Before his passing, Rollie had lived near the downtown area in a second floor apartment. The owners below were accustomed to the signature jingle of Rollie’s keys as he walked around upstairs.
After Rollie’s death, they still heard the sound of his keys ringing down through the floorboards from overhead.
In another incident shared with Couch, a West Bend police officer passing by the theater saw a man inside after hours. After a thorough search, he found the building to be empty. When he described the man he saw to the owners, they said it sounded like Rollie.
In his book Washington County Paranormal (get it on Amazon right here) Couch details additional stories he’s gathered about the theater, including the legend of a distraught performer who hanged himself from the balcony after his final performance, a shadowy figure that vanishes into the movie screen, and dusty footprints which appear to pass straight through old film vault doors that had long ago rusted shut.
The restoration was completed and the theater reopened as The Bend in 2020. Many of the original Art Deco features remain, including the large decorative plaster urns that adorn the walls, and the eerie, grinning face that leers out at the audience from the center of the ornate proscenium over the stage.
In addition to showing older movies such as The Goonies and Lord of the Rings marathons, the theater’s historic stage also once again hosts performances by musicians and comedians.
So far, they all seem to be alive.
After being closed for a decade, or the “longest intermission ever,” as the current current caretakers of the West Bend theater put it, is Rollie still hanging around, jingling his keys and running the show from beyond the grave?