It was a warm fall morning in Santa Barbara, and, despite it being a Saturday, I had just arrived to the campus of the Music Academy of the West. There was a rental event later that day, so I wanted to check in on the group as they arrived in order to make sure they had everything they needed. I nodded politely at a few folks, exchanged greetings with the Academy facilities staffer working the event, and then headed toward my office in the Marilyn Horne Main House.
I tried the front door, a heavy wooden thing with a sturdy, old-fashioned handle. Locked. I pulled out my key, inserted it into the lock, and turned. The door swung inward, and I thought for a brief moment that I heard an unfamiliar sound. I paused, but upon hearing only silence, closed the door behind me and refastened the lock.
But no sooner had the heavy thunk of the deadbolt echoed through the foyer than I heard the sound again. Oooooooooooooooooo. I nearly dropped my keys. Ooooooooooooo….ahhhhhhhh. There was an odd sound echoing through the halls of the stately old home, and that sound sure seemed to be someone singing.
Music Academy of the West has its fair share of ghost stories, which certainly makes sense given that its campus is not just a music school, but also a historical estate. These days, the keeper of many of these tales is recently retired Buildings and Grounds Technician Fred Lehto, who worked at the Academy from 1977 to just a few weeks ago. Fred’s status as the resident paranormal expert seems fitting. After all, every good ghost story needs a wise and mysterious caretaker who has been around for ages, peering around corners and issuing vague warnings. (Now if you know Fred, I know what you’re thinking: his colorful outfits, friendly demeanor, and warm smile hardly lend themselves to a spooky atmosphere. But can we just suspend disbelief for a moment?)
When it was announced that I’d be interviewing Fred for a blog post celebrating his retirement, more than one person insisted that I collect some of his ghost stories. I was only too happy to oblige. Most, but not all, of the spectral tales that follow come courtesy of Fred. Some of them come from Fred’s own experiences, while others were relayed to him over the course of his four decades at the Music Academy. Whether you’re a believer in beings from the beyond or a skeptic of the supernatural, these ghost stories are sure to provide a chill.
Singing, Footsteps, and the Figure in the Window
Fred’s first sign that all may not be as it seemed at the Music Academy came during his very first week of work. It was early in the morning, and although Fred was the first member of staff to arrive, he found that he wasn’t alone on campus. As he walked toward the front door of the Main House, he noticed a group of kids standing with their backs to him. They formed a small crowd in front of the building, their necks craned upward, their eyes fixed intently on the second story windows. Each of them had one of those banana seat bicycles that were so popular at the time, and it was evident from their postures – one foot on the pedals, one foot steadying them against the ground, their hands tightly gripping the handlebars – that they were prepared to bolt at any moment.
“Hey, hey, what are you kids doing here?” Fred shouted good-naturedly as he approached. If their conspicuous readiness to flee was a posture adopted in preparation for the arrival of the Academy’s staff, they showed no signs of it. Not a one of the youths even so much as shifted an eyeball away from the house’s upper floor.
“I wanted to show my friends the ghost in the window up there.”
“The…what?” Fred asked. This was the first he was hearing of any ghost.
“Well, sometimes we come here early in the morning or in the evening just before sunset and there’s a shadowy figure in one of the windows up there.” The kid gestured upward. “It usually looks back down at us, then we, you know, run away.”
Fred paused and looked up at window. From next to him came the squelching sound of little hands tightening on rubber handlebar grips.
But nothing happened. No apparition appeared that day and eventually the kids rode off. Fred shrugged, laughed the incident off, and then went about his work.
As he continued working at the Academy, though, more strange stories were relayed to Fred. At first these occurrences were cursory. Someone would approach him in the hallway to ask who was singing in Lehmann Hall, except there was nobody in Lehmann Hall, or one of Fred’s coworkers would tell him they’d gone to the second floor to investigate the sound of footsteps, only to find that every single room was empty. Fred continued to write these stories off. They were nothing but a childhood urban legend, overactive imaginations, or the natural settling of an old house.
It is one thing to explain away the claims of others. It’s quite another to answer for the evidence of your own ears. Fred’s first personal experience with the unexplainable came in the form of the Academy’s most commonly reported spine-chilling occurrence: phantom singing.
Fred first heard the singing when he was working late – and alone – in the Main House. It sounded as if it was coming from Lehmann Hall, so he went to investigate. After all, no one except for him was supposed to be in the building. When he reached Lehmann Hall, however, there was no one there. He checked the adjoining library and other nearby rooms. Nothing. The building was entirely empty.
Numerous people over the years claimed to hear this singing. In every instance, the story remained the same. The vocalizing came at a time when no one should have been around, and any investigation of the sound would turn up no sign of the mystery singer. The singing shade seemed contained to Lehmann Hall, a suspicion borne out by the fact that a previous facilities director’s dog would not enter that room under any circumstances.
Fred’s tales extend far beyond creepy crooning, however. One afternoon, Fred and Alan Hughes, his former boss and longtime Academy caretaker, were walking past an old mirror when something caught Fred’s eye. He had seen Alan’s reflection pass by, but not his own. He gasped and turned toward the mirror. Sure enough, his reflection wasn’t there.
“Alan, Alan!” he shouted. “You’ve gotta come see this!”
As Alan approached the mirror, however, Fred’s reflection suddenly appeared.
“My reflection was…missing! Here, come stand where I am.” And sure enough, as the two men swapped places, Alan’s likeness simply disappeared. Then, in a flash, reappeared as if nothing in the world had happened.
Alan and Fred spent the remainder of the afternoon explaining this incident away. It was a trick of the light, some wacky phenomenon that couldn’t be repeated if you tried. “But it just never felt right,” Fred recalled to me.
They don’t want us up there…
My favorite of Fred’s stories is far and away the most unsettling. Fred and a friend had stopped by the Music Academy after hours to drop something off in the room now known as Yzurdiaga Hall. No one else was in the building. The doors had been locked when Fred arrived, and he locked them behind him as he came into the building. As they were finishing up, however, they heard what sounded like a rather lively party.
“Is anyone else here?” his friend asked.
“There sure as heck shouldn’t be anybody here,” Fred replied. “Come on. I’m the responsible party on campus right now, and I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
The sound of multiple voices and the clink of glassware was louder as they stepped out of the room. It certainly seemed like someone was having some sort of illicit gathering, upstairs from the sound of it. The two of them headed in that direction, the din of revelry getting louder with every step. By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, it was clear the party was taking place on the second floor. But Fred and his companion never got to see the partygoers. Halfway up the staircase, they were met with an intense blast of ice-cold air that made every hair on their bodies stand up.
Fred didn’t dawdle. “Come on,” he said to his friend. “Whatever’s going on upstairs, they don’t want us up there.”
They left and didn’t turn back.
Locking up one last time
Alan Hughes was the Music Academy’s caretaker for three decades. One of his jobs was to walk the grounds in the evening and make sure everything was in order and, most importantly, that all the doors and windows were locked. While the thought of walking alone through a large, old estate may be unnerving to the average person, for Alan it was mostly routine. Mostly.
Alan’s checks of the premises usually happened after dark, so the need to turn on a few lights in the Main House was fairly typical. He would switch them on as he entered the front door, check that all the other entrances were secure, and then switch them off again on his way back out.
On one occasion, however, he returned to the front lobby to find that all the lights were off. He was sure he’d turned them on, and he had locked the door behind him on his way in. Odd. He shrugged, turned the lights back on, and went upstairs to check things on the second floor. But when he came back down, the lights were off again. This time, he knew he’d turned them on. Yet, someone – something – had clearly switched them off. Not keen to spend any more time in the building, he locked the front door and hurried away.
The next morning, Alan received a phone call. It was from the wife of the previous caretaker. She was calling to say that her husband, Alan’s predecessor, had passed away the night before. Right around the same time Alan had been making his rounds.
The strange incident with the lights never repeated itself. The singularity of the event made it stand out all the more to Alan, while its timing forever convinced him that it had been that caretaker checking in on the place one last time.
There are other stories, too, like the time someone taking a tour of the Academy refused to enter the Main House because they claimed they could sense spirits. But over the last few years, these stories have declined. In fact, to my knowledge they’ve ceased entirely. Fred Lehto has a theory about this. The Main House was extensively renovated in 2016, and while some of the rooms were left in their original state, other areas (including the second floor) look completely different. It’s Fred’s belief that any ghosts that may have haunted the property moved on following these alterations.
I had heard ghost stories before, been warned by long-time members of the Music Academy family that sometimes singing could be heard coming from empty rooms, but never once had I experienced something remotely supernatural for myself. As I inched slowly through the foyer and into the main hallway, I reflexively turned my head toward Lehmann Hall. After all, that was where I’d always been told the unexplained singing emanated from.
But the sound was coming from the other direction. My heart was pounding as I began to walk toward it. Now, I don’t want you to imagine for one second that I’m brave. Trust me, if it hadn’t been a bright and sunny day, I’d have been out of the building quicker than you could say Lotte Lehmann. I cleared my throat as walked down the hallway, hoping that whoever was singing might announce themselves. They didn’t, nor did they stop.
The singing was close now, practically next to me. I looked to my right to see if it was coming from Yzurdiaga Hall. No dice. So, I glanced to my left. The sound was very clearly coming from…the kitchen? Now, if you’ve never been in the Academy’s kitchen, this is no quaint little canteen. It’s a full commercial kitchen; hardly the kind of place where one might expect a haunting.
I pushed the door open and bravely faced down the source of the singing. It was an electric urn filled with hot coffee for the folks renting the property. Although the front door to the building was locked, the Academy’s facilities staffer, it seems, had already let them in through the kitchen door.
My own personal Music Academy “ghost” story turned out, then, to be nothing, but I can’t decide if that’s more of a relief or a disappointment. Maybe Fred is right and whatever spirits may have roamed the Academy’s halls have gone onto their final rest. As for me, though, the only thing I’m sure of is that I won’t be spending any late nights at the office.
– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West