THROUGH THE FIRE: Haunted Little Tokyo

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By BILL WATANABE

Did you know ghosts have been seen in the old buildings (and even some new buildings) in Little Tokyo? Little Tokyo is over 130 years old, and this beloved community may have some wandering souls who refuse to leave it!

For example, there is the story of the old man – long deceased – being seen in the Old Union Church as if his spirit seems to roam about the building.

When I was a kid back in the 1950s, my brother and I used to run around in Little Tokyo while my parents did their monthly shopping routine, including a haircut at the Saito Barber Shop on what is now Judge Aiso Street. We would go over to the Old Union Church (this was before there was a New Union Church) and run around the courtyard, up and down the narrow alley, and sometimes go into the church and look around.

Invariably, the live-in caretaker, an old bald man, would spot us and chase us out. We thought he was a mean old codger considering he worked for the church — in retrospect, we were being rambunctious and deserved to be chased out. As I grew older, whenever I went to the Union Church I would see that old man moving slower but always puttering around the church and watching over it.

Around 1976 the church left the premises (which was taken over by the City of L.A.) and moved to its current location at Third and San Pedro. I heard that the old man died at around this same time – and I always wondered if it was due to a broken heart because he could no longer care for the old church building as he done for so many years.

The Old Union Church building stood empty for many years (except for stray cats, pigeons, and fleas that proliferated inside) and the old brick building almost came tumbling down during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. In 1999, the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) completed a total renovation of the building and held a grand opening of what is now called the Union Center for the Arts, which included new tenants — the East West Players theater, Visual Communications media center, and L.A. Artcore gallery.

Since I was the executive director of LTSC at the time, I was extremely proud of the work the LTSC staff did to bring the old building “back to life.” It wasn’t long, however, before we started to hear stories from the tenants of ghostly encounters in the inner rooms of the Union Center – apparently more than the building came “back to life”!

One vivid encounter described by a member of EWP tells of a closed audition being held on the stage. After the audition, the young actress stated, “I thought this was a closed audition – so why was there an old man watching from the balcony?” The EWP staff checked the balcony. The door was locked and they found no one there! What did she see? Perhaps the old caretaker’s spirit – still occupying the building he loved – who can say?

There will be a “Ghosts of Little Tokyo” tour in October – something of a hot-ticket item at last year’s inaugural tour and it will be part of the “Haunted Little Tokyo” Halloween festivities sponsored by Go Little Tokyo. I will be leading a tour – come and check it out – if you have the courage! Bwa-ha-ha!

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Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at [email protected] The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]

 

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