If you give a building enough time, it will develop character, and its significance will grow beyond the wood and bricks that hold it together. Take, for example, the Benicia Divino Espirito Santo Hall—or BDES Hall, as it’s known. It has been a part of Benicia since 1915 when it opened as the permanent home for Benicia’s Holy Ghost Society, but has served many other functions since then. It was an ice skating rink at one point, a place for American soldiers to hold dance functions during wartime at another, and for some, it was even a place to find love. As a matter of fact, Dyanne Vojvoda of the Benicia Old Town Theater Group met her husband there and, more than 30 years later, she still regularly comes back to the building to do what she can to help preserve it.
“A friend suggested I join the theater group when I moved to Benicia in 1981, so I went to the hall,” Vojvoda said. “And when they were performing, I noticed this gentleman—he played this Italian character and it attracted my attention, and that was it. We started dating.” Thirty-four years later the two are still together.
The nonprofit group that Vojvoda belongs to is called the Benicia Old Town Theater Group, having rented this space since 1964. This has been their space for 52 years here and counting, slightly more than half of the Hall’s history, Vojvoda said. The theater group rents the Hall from the Benicia Holy Ghost Society, which is the same group that had the Hall built a century ago.
“The Hall is actually in pretty good shape for a building its age,” said Ken Gonsalves of the BDES—or Benicia Holy Ghost—society. “We’re quite happy to have it.”
The Holy Ghost Society is a group that celebrates Portuguese heritage, with their primary focus being the Feast of the Holy Spirit, an annual celebration of the sainthood of Queen Isabel of Portugal. The Holy Ghost society was founded in 1907, and found a permanent home in 1915, when the hall was constructed.
“This area has a rich Portuguese tradition; we’ve been here for quite some time,” said Gonsalves. “To have a permanent home meant everything to the society.”
When it’s not being used for the feast, the Hall is usually being used for some sort of celebration or another. During its 52-year history, the Benicia Old Town Theater group has been throwing two performances annually, and creating a lot of fun times for locals who have been turning out to the hall for all that time. They also help out with the parade and put on talent shows for kids, and put on ghost walks, cemetery tours, and more!
“We do some stuff other than the performances, but we always like it to be artsy. We really mix it up and try to reach the community educationally and also to have some fun,” Vojvoda said. “It’s a big job, and everybody’s invited. Benicia’s a great art community, so it fits in nicely.”
Aside from the Holy Ghost ceremony and the theater group, there have been countless events at the Hall, including trivia nights, dinner, and more. Most folks in town, if they’ve lived here long enough, have darkened the doors of the hall at one point or another.
“It’s always been a happy place, so it stands to reason that it’s very appropriate for the theater group to perform there,” Vojvoda said.
Back in 2007, the Holy Ghost Society celebrated its 100th birthday, and this year, the building is turning 100, so it would appear that another party is in order. This August, the BDES committee plans to celebrate the hall’s 100th birthday, and in honor of the occasion, the BDES society and the theater group are going to team up and do what each group does best. The BDES society will host a dinner for everyone who attends, and then the theater group is planning to put on a vaudeville show. This event will be held at the BDES hall on Saturday, August 15, with a 6:30 p.m. opening, costing $40 per person, and is intended as a celebration of the Hall’s history, Vojvoda said. She added, “We just thought that for the 100-year anniversary, people might enjoy seeing what might have gone on 100 years ago inside the building.”
As mentioned, the theater group sometimes puts on ghost tours, but what about the Hall itself? It has been here 100 years, is that enough time for a spirit to maybe find its way in? The answer depends on who you talk to. “I will go to my death knowing I’ve seen a ghost inside the theater,” Vojvoda said.
It was 15 years ago, Vojvoda said, when she was a manager and she happened to be alone at the theater. Most of the lights were off and the doors were locked. Vojvoda was planning to leave after she finished cleaning a couple things off, when she said she felt some kind of presence.
“I thought, ‘I’m not alone here,’ and just collected myself and looked around,” she said. “I grabbed my purse, grabbed my keys, and decided to exit as fast as I could.”
A few moments later, she built up the courage to leave and started to head out the door.
“As I was heading out, I happened to look towards the stage, and there is an ‘Exit’ sign that always stays lit, and it illuminated just a small portion of the stage,” Vojvoda said. “There was a strong image of a man with a top hat and a cape of sorts, very lifelike. I stared at it for quite a while, maybe a minute. And I somehow didn’t feel afraid.”
While Vojvoda continued to stare at the image, she says it evaporated in front of her eyes, “like smoke.” At that point, she made her way out.
“That was absolutely real,” she said, adding that others have reported hearing singing from behind the stage when no one was there. “But hey, if there is someone who inhabits it, it’s a happy place!”
But others, like Ken Gonsalves, say they’ve never seen anything out of the ordinary at their time in the hall.
“I’m not going to doubt Dyanne, I believe her that she saw what she saw,” Gonsalves said. “But I’ve never seen anything like that, personally.”g
The BDES Hall is located at 140 West J Street in Benicia. For more information, call 707-747-1865 or 707-746-1269. For more information on the hall and the Holy Ghost society, visit: www.beniciaholyghost.org.
If you want to go to the vaudeville show and dinner (hey, maybe you’ll find love there like Vojvoda and her husband), you can buy tickets by calling 707-745-1393. For more information, visit: www.beniciaholyghost.org/bdes-fund-raiser.html.
Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.