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Scare Biz: How San Francisco’s ‘Spookeasy’ Could Launch Touring Haunted Theater Show

A look at how entertainment producers are capitalizing on Halloween, the second biggest revenue-generating holiday behind Christmas

When Barron Scott Levkoff saw the Great Star Theater, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he knew he had found the perfect venue to launch a potential new franchise with “Mr. Nobody’s Spookeasy.”

The abandoned movie theater, built in 1923, and played Kung Fu movies during the 1970s and ’80s, will serve as the home for four “Spookeasy” shows, a Halloween-themed event that’s a mash up of Vaudeville-like stage acts and the zaniness of Max Fleisher’s “Betty Boop” and “Popeye” cartoons — but with ghosts.

When the opportunity to use the Great Star came up, Levkoff and his team came up with a story “that practically wrote itself,” says “Spookeasy’s” creator and director, with a lot of help by playwright Sean Owens.

In the production, a cast is trying to keep the Vaudeville movie house alive in an age of radio and television bearing down on it. “It results in the tragic demise of everyone involved,” Levkoff says. “The audience has to help these ghosts escape their terrible limbo of reliving their death on stage for the past 82 years. Everybody gets to be involved in this journey into the after life.”

Levkoff, himself, is a character in his own productions (see photo below). The colorful event producer has put on shows in the San Francisco area for the past 25 years, through is “Mystic Midway,” and content for the “Edwardian Ball” and “Master Mondo’s Bizarre-O-Tronic,” as well as the Ghiradelli Square Holiday Festival, for example.

Throughout the years the professional character actor and puppeteer also has been hired by Disney, HBO, Showtime, Google, Sony, LucasArts, Xbox and Oracle, among others, to produce corporate events or show up in TV shows like the Discover Channel’s “Oddities.”

With “Spookeasy,” Levkoff is launching what he hopes to be an annual Halloween tradition.

“We’re making it fun to be scared,” Levkoff says, “but like a kid. We’re paying homage to the early ’30s jazz era of music and spooky movie themes, even employing William Castle style scare tactics. It’s scary but funny.”

Given that “Spookeasy” is taking place in Silicon Valley’s backyard, there’s naturally a high-tech element of the show.

Levkoff has partnered with Radiant to create what’s essentially a ghost-hunting app for “Spookeasy” through which guests can interact with the actors playing ghosts in the show. When a spirit is approached, a beacon triggers a backstory through the app explaining how they died.

Posters for “Spookeasy” also have been designed to come to life and offer up content when scanned with a phone.

“It’s in the realm of game-ification,” Levkoff says. “I’m really into integrating new technologies with old school theater and parties. I’m in the Bay area; I need to embrace the wave” of so many of his guests being tethered to their mobile devices these days and being close to the companies making the software they’re interacting with.

Levkoff has turned to technology before, developing solar-powered sets that inflate on site for a traveling bike carnival that uses projection, sound and attractions to reclaim social spaces.

He’s looking to find partners to broadcast his events live online to “bring the show to people whenever possible,” Levkoff says. “I have to innovate not only how we reach people but where.”

Levkoff is now considering taking “Spookeasy” and his other shows on the road, after his first shows have sold out.

“I’d love to come down and produce stuff like this in Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Los Angeles, like San Francisco and New York, certainly have their share of abandoned theaters looking for new shows to revive them.

Jason Blum took over downtown L.A.’s Variety Arts Center last year to produce “Fear the Night,” part haunted house and theatrical experience based on his latest horror franchise, “The Purge.” In 2012, his Blumhouse Prods used the same venue for “Blumhouse of Horrors,” which took over the theater to tell the story of a magician and a missing woman.

“I know we’re one of the top theater producing cities in the country, but a lot of the stuff we do here is very political oriented and concerned with political statements,” Levkoff said. “There’s a place for people getting on a soap box, but it’s just not my style. What I do is this immersive style of theater and production that’s based on a lot of stuff I’ve seen in European fairs and festivals.”

What’s also inspired Levkoff is San Francisco’s costume-driven cosplay culture and events like “Burning Man.”

“I love production value and commitment to craft, story and narrative and a guest experience,” Levkoff said. “My real passion is to create immersive worlds where everyone can come in costume and participate.”

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