Haunted House: The History

By 1964 The Children’s Museum Guild had been providing volunteers to, and raising funds for, the museum for more than three decades. Its annual projects such as a glass and china show, a fashion show, and a formal dance regularly provided a few hundred dollars here, a couple of thousand there—not insignificant amounts given the times and the modest needs of the museum earlier in its history. But by the time the 1960s rolled around, those needs weren’t so modest anymore; the museum was growing substantially every year and as it did, it was looking for supplemental revenue streams.

Haunted House Proposal

Right to left: Haunted House founder Dessie Partneheimer speaks with Guild members Elaine Ross and Betty Givens circa 1965 in front of the Dreyer Building, the original home of the Haunted House.

Enter Despina (Dessie) Partenheimer, a transplant from San Mateo, California. Shortly after joining the Guild in 1962 she was asked for any fundraising ideas she might have. “How about a haunted house?,” she responded.

Partenheimer explained that a similar fundraising project in San Mateo had been very successful. What the Guild needed, she said, was an old building that could be temporarily turned into a Halloween attraction. Then all they had to do was sell tickets to the crowds that were sure to come.

Skeptics shot down the idea. The Guild already had two fall fundraisers: a September fashion show and a November dance. It couldn’t possibly handle an October event, too. And Grace Golden, who was the museum’s director at the time, gave the idea a thumbs-down.

But Partenheimer wasn’t easily deterred. In March 1964, with the support of a cadre of like-minded members, she managed to get the haunted house concept presented to the Guild’s general membership for a vote. The yeas took the day—and with perfect timing, since Golden had resigned and her successor Mildred Compton, a former Guild president (1955–56), was receptive to the idea. The second floor of the museum-owned Dreyer Building was selected as the site for the Guild’s first Haunted House.

Hard Work Pays Off

Ticket number 13 to the original Haunted House in 1964.

Between March and October, Guild members and their spouses spent thousands of hours making decorations and costumes, and converting what had been three second-floor apartments into a haunted habitat. Staffed by Guild volunteers in full-on scary mode and designed for preteens and teens (no child under the age of five was allowed in) the Children’s Museum Guild opened the doors to its first haunted house at 1 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1964.

Within a few hours, Guild members knew they had hit the jackpot—the line to enter stretched for blocks and at 50 cents per ticket the till was filling fast. At the end of its 10-day run, an astonishing 26,000 people had paid $13,200 to pass through the Haunted House, and the Guild turned the proceeds over to the museum. By comparison, that year’s fashion show had netted $2,300 and the dance $2,900.

A vindicated Dessie Partenheimer wrote in her chairman’s report about the project: “The Haunted House was a project I proposed to the Museum Guild because I felt it was the best possible way that we (the Guild) could spend our time to raise the most money for The Children’s Museum. It was a great thrill to realize that the H.H. project was all I thought it to be.”

She also credited Compton for her support. “. . . my ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ was our museum director,” wrote Mrs. Partenheimer. “I’m sure that if it had not been for Millie Compton, the H.H. would never have happened.”

But it did. And it continued to happen annually from that point on.

Mildred Compton’s Gratitude

No one was happier than Mildred Compton, who remarked a few years later that, if not for Haunted House funds, the museum would never have gotten one of its prized possessions—the Reuben Wells. One of the stipulations for its donation was that it had to be in a protected environment and Haunted House funds paid for the large shed the museum built to house the locomotive.

“None of the Haunted House proceeds go toward the cost of daily operations,” Compton told a reporter from the Indianapolis Star in 1971. “[They are] used only for special things; things we couldn’t have or do otherwise.”

She went on to enumerate five ways the proceeds were used: for additions to existing exhibits; purchases for the collection or special exhibits; materials for the cases loaned to schools; building requirements (such as the train shed); and special equipment (she mentioned a printing press the museum was able to buy so it no longer had to hire outside printers).

“Without the cushion that the Haunted House funds provide,” Compton said, “we’d lose out on lots of things. It’s helped make us one of the country’s leading museums.”

Themes

Appropriately the Guild’s Haunted House quickly became one of the best in the country, in part because it was never the same from one year to the next. Each Haunted House was based on a thematic concept—the Wild West, outer space, movie monsters, a Victorian mansion, scary stories, etc. Each year’s theme sets the tone for the Haunted House’s décor, contents, and characters, which has led many people to come back year after year.

A decade-by-decade rundown of the themes can be found here. 

Things Happen

Any event with the longevity of the Haunted House is bound to have its share of odd and funny occurrences. Among the many the Guild has recorded over the years is the time one member hurriedly changed out of her witch costume at the end of her Haunted House shift to meet her husband and friends for dinner only to discover she’d forgotten to remove the blackening agent on her teeth.

Another time a member’s husband volunteered to stand at the end of a hallway and direct visitors along their way; still dressed in his business suit, he was accosted by one young visitor who told him, “You’re the worst thing I've seen yet.”

And then there was the pregnant Guild member who was supposed to rise out of a coffin to frighten passersby. Instead she fell asleep.

But maybe one of the scariest—and most appropriate—things that happened was an October 27, 1971 electrical outage that knocked out streetlights, traffic signals, and power to the Haunted House. There were 1,000 people waiting to get into the house and others wandering through the pitch-dark interior. Everyone had to be escorted safely off the premises by flashlight-wielding volunteers. “The Haunted House must have been more scary than anyone thought it would be,” remarked one Guild member to a newspaper reporter.

Locations

This large-scale skull adorned what is believed to be the 1975 Haunted House, Skeletons in Our Closets, the first to be held in the Harrison Building.

For the first 10 years of its existence the Haunted House occupied the Dreyer Building every October, with Guild members’ spouses and friends helping repair and maintain the structure and keep it safe for annual use. But in 1972 Compton announced the museum was planning to build a new $7-million facility, and as part of that project the Dreyer Building eventually would be demolished. As it turned out, 1974 was the final year in that facility—and momentarily it appeared it might be the final year for the Haunted House.

But the museum had an alternative. A few years before it had purchased another structure called the Harrison Building, which housed six apartments on two floors. Located on the northwest side of the museum’s property, it was away from the construction area and in no immediate danger of being torn down. Starting in 1975 it was home to the Haunted House and it remained so for 13 years.

During the years in the Harrison Building, the Haunted House underwent changes ranging from the addition of a gift shop dubbed “The Bootique,” to the creation of a program called “Witches Are People, Too,” which showed preschoolers how Guild volunteers transformed themselves into witches using makeup, wigs, and costumes. Later the Guild introduced “Breakfast with the Witches,” another effort to make the Haunted House less frightening to very young children. These were precursors of sorts to the 1978 introduction of lights-on daytime visiting hours for preschoolers, which proved to be a popular extension of the Haunted House project.

In 1988 the museum was in the midst of another expansion project, and that year’s Haunted House was the last to be held in the Harrison Building. Fortunately the expansion included construction of new gallery spaces, including the Johnson-Weaver Pavilion, which has been the home of the Haunted House ever since.

In 1995 the Guild undertook the construction of a three-story façade designed to look like a crumbling Victorian mansion. Temporarily attached to the front of the museum, it served as a beacon for visitors and as a great promotional tool for the museum, the Guild, and the Haunted House project. In addition to the façade, the 1996 project included the construction inside of the pavilion of a series of rooms—a parlor, a library, a dining room, etc., as well as a cobweb-clogged maze—that were subsequently decorated according to each year’s particular theme.

With the completion of the museum’s 12,000-square-foot Festival Park in 1996, the Guild introduced the Haunted Carnival, an outdoor event that featured games, crafts, concessions, and costumed characters. It became an annual event, too, until 2007.

As part of the 2009 expansion, the museum opened a new Welcome Center that includes dedicated indoor access to the Haunted House in Johnson-Weaver Pavilion, so that visitors no longer need to queue outdoors.

Location to location, the Haunted House has continued to grow more complex in both planning and execution. Where once the entire project was overseen by two co-chairs who rounded up volunteers for various tasks, today the two co-chairs are assisted by several committees responsible for a myriad of duties ranging from ticket sales and sponsorships to the schedules of the many Guild members working in the Haunted House as witches, goblins, and other scary characters. Each year the Guild’s members donate more than 12,000 hours to planning, staging, and operating the Haunted House.

The project has also attracted national attention over the years. In 2010, for example, Rand McNally listed the Guild’s Haunted House as one of the Top 10 haunted houses in the country. Just as noteworthy is the fact that the Guild’s Haunted House is America’s longest continuously operating haunted house; it celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013.

Sponsors

From the beginning the Guild has been successful at attracting sponsors to the Haunted House. Initially, local businesses simply sponsored individual rooms within the Haunted House, paying for the props and decorations in exchange for the public relations value of having their names on all of the related promotional materials.

As the Haunted House grew in stature and visibility, room sponsorships became coveted opportunities. But growth and popularity also meant the Haunted House became a more elaborate production, requiring more funding. Enter the event sponsors, which over the years have included Sears, Marsh Supermarkets, Target, Pizza Hut, Bank One, and American United Life (AUL). In 2009 the museum and Guild announced that The PNC Financial Services Group Inc. would be the presenting sponsor of the Haunted House for the coming 10 years.

“The sponsorship is a perfect association for our bank because the museum’s mission parallels PNC’s corporate-wide commitment to early-childhood education,” said Stephen Stitle, then the company’s regional president.

Haunted House Parties

A family of superheroes at the inaugural Black Hat Bash in 2012.

From the beginning the Guild held galas intended to give members, their families, and invited guests a preview of each year’s Haunted House. The first such event in 1964, an opening night dinner inside the museum’s assembly and craft rooms, was an informal affair featuring a catered dinner of fried chicken, green beans, scalloped potatoes, tossed salad, and a brownie, with coffee and apple cider in lieu of alcoholic beverages. Dinner was served on card tables and craft tables. The Guild sold enough $4 tickets to net $337.76.

Over the years the parties became a little fancier, and in 2012 the Guild introduced a new annual party called the Black Hat Bash. Billed as the “newest, biggest, and best family-friendly Halloween party,” it featured food from several “fa-boo-lous” restaurants, live entertainment, a costume parade, games, and lights-on tours of the Haunted House. Proceeds from the tickets benefited the Haunted House and the museum.

Continued Value

Attendance at the Haunted House has continued to grow throughout is history—and so have the proceeds (along with ticket prices—long gone are the days of 50-cent admissions). In 2012, attendance topped 58,000 and proceeds exceeded $518,000. Since 1964, the Haunted House project has attracted in excess of 2.7 million visitors and raised more than $8.5 million for the museum.

Haunted House Chairs

After the first Haunted House, founder and chairwoman Dessie Partenheimer recommended that going forward there should be two co-chairs; there was too much for one person to do and oversee alone, she said in her report on the event. The Guild took her advice and has always had co-chairs every year since.  The complete list follows.

1964 Dessie Partenheimer

1965 Rosie Gatewood, Betty Givens

1966 Gloria Blake, Jean Meyer

1967 Bev Coppinger, Joan Laycock

1968 Frances French, Avis Skinner

1969 Julia Lacy, Shirley Cline

1970 Ann Bond, Katie McKinney

1971 Anne James, Gloria Riggs

1972 Jamia Case, Kitty Bartlett

1973 Lynn Boatman, Jane Wheeler

1974 Diana Davis, Rosie Semler

1975 Barbara Curtis, Phyllis Geeslin

1976 Nancy Anderson, Karen Shaw

1977 Sharon Cockrell, Sue Ellen Walker

1978 Sue Ann Kalleres, Jane Pollak

1979 Mary Bolles, Betsy Murphy

1980 Michelle Crume, Susie Hazelett

1981 Nancy Allen, Sharon Moore

1982 Kathy Durkott, Sandy Wetzel

1983 Susie Maxwell, Nancy Pugh

1984 Kaye Diener, Bonnie Rettig

1985 Marilyn Edge, Penny Stone

1986 Dorothea Genetos, Cathy Huntley

1987 Maddie Linder, Janice Montross

1988 Patti Brown, Joy Leppert

1989 Debi Loehrer, Nila Steck

1990 Charlene Barnette, Sally Lanham

1991 Amy Flynn, Joan Miller

1992 Dori Dodson, Deb Thornburgh

1993 Sallie Jo Mitzell, Cathy VanWestrum

1994 Kris McCready, Shari Gooley

1995 Lucy Gonso, Laura Villanyi

1996 Martha Plager, Lisa Stewart

1997 Julie Husselman, Susan Sharp

1998 Lisa Sprunger, Susie Stinebaugh

1999 Julie Lemke, Sarah Carter

2000 Kathleen Eckrich, Kelley Merritt

2001 Colleen Kelley, Terri Shrader

2002 Madeleine McKinney-Torres, Jerri Ramsey

2003 Pam Curtis, Laura Sogard

2004 Bridget Kennedy, Sheila Wolfe

2005 Betsy Biederstedt, Amy Cooke

2006 Mary Brennan, Sarah Thompson

2007 Ellen Bowers, Brooke Smith

2008 Jill Lacy, Theresa Patterson

2009 Sarah Adams, Myra Mariani

2010 Melanie Fitzgerald, Christy Becker

2011 Alli Stitle, Amy Clark

2012 Allison Steck, Kate Orme

2013 Vicki Burdick, Carol Clark

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