The Capitol Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young man named Richard “Dickey” Duffin who died tragically during a fire in 1949. Reportedly, he haunts the grounds and has been able to unplug extension cords, move lights, slam doors, and move the elevator up and down.
The theater was constructed in 1913 as part of the Orpheum Theatre Chain. In addition to the luxurious accommodations, the building boasted exquisite terra cotta figurines and moldings and brackets, which were unknown in the city with the exception of the Hotel Utah (which was built at the same time).
The theater was considered architecturally advanced during its time. Constructed of concrete, steel and brick, this fireproof construction was aided by a "Water Curtain" which was a series of sprays in front of an asbestos curtain which automatically activated when the temperature reached a designated height. According to one report, "Water [will] spout from the sides and descend from above, forming a complete screen of water through which fire or smoke could not penetrate."
An added safety feature was the exit system with 30 exits from all sides of the building, "the doors of which are fitted with patent contrivances that cause them to fly open on the least pressure from the inside.” In addition, a special structural system made the building "earthquake-proof" and the boiler was placed in a separate building to eliminate the dangers of possible explosions.
In the afternoon of July 4th, 1949, part of the basement of the Capitol Theatre caught fire while 600 holiday patrons watched a Rita Hayworth double feature.
Mr. Charles Whitney, Assistant Theater Manager, first smelled the smoke and immediately started evacuation of the theater. He dispatched 19 year-old Herbert Schoenhardt, Chief of Staff of Ushers, and 17 year-old usher Richard Duffin, to investigate the source of the fire.
The fire was located in the front basement which was separated from the main auditorium and theater guests by a concrete and stone firewall. The basement was not used by the theater but several adjacent businesses leased basement space for storage.
“The flames were so hot we couldn’t get near them and I emptied the extinguisher, but it did no good!”
The two ushers carried fire extinguishers and found that the fire had quickly spread to packing crates and cardboard boxes creating a blistering inferno. “The flames were so hot we couldn’t get near them and I emptied the extinguisher, but it did no good,” Mr. Schoenhardt later reported.
Mr. Schoenhardt ran upstairs to update the Assistant Theater Manager of the situation while Richard Duffin stayed behind to try and put out the fire. When Mr. Schoenhardt returned to the basement, Richard Duffin was surrounded by flames.
Meanwhile, the assistant manager, Mr. Whitney had ensured the complete evacuation of the theatre just before the flames reached some oxygen tanks in storage by the adjacent O.C. Tanner Jewelry Company (44 West 200 South) which exploded part of the theater’s basement.
Trapped in the basement, Richard Duffin tried to escape through one of the stairwells. Later he was found by the fireman collapsed in a stairwell, overcome by smoke and dead. Richard Duffin had been employed by the theater for about three weeks.
Fortunately, and likely the result of the modern firewall construction, the fireman were able to contain the blaze to the theater’s basement and had the entire fire under control by the early evening. Only a small amount of flames penetrated into the theater itself burning small holes on either side of the last row of seats though much of the building was heavily damaged from smoke and water. The only casualty of the blaze was 17 year-old Richard Duffin.
Eerily, on the same Independence Day holiday, on the same spot where the Capitol Theatre stands, another fire and explosion destroyed the Old Walker opera house theater in 1890.