Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter.
Dick Mueller decided to open his new dinner theater in the Old Market in 1972 after considering a site at the Westroads Mall. He named it the Firehouse Dinner Theater, inspired by the building’s history as an early Omaha fire station.
“We put in restrooms and a back kitchen where they stabled the horses,” says Mueller. Horses powered fire engines in the early 1900s. “Harnesses were hung from the ceiling so they could drop them down onto the horses.”
The dim basement was turned into a warm and charming wine cellar. “An old fireman told me that the zoo used to house their alligators in the cellar during the winter,“ Mueller says.
He doesn’t know if the alligator story is true, but the basement did have a murky ambiance in 1971 when he bought the building at 12th and Jackson streets from an automotive parts company. His theater opened in 1972.
The building has changed over its 112-year history. A fire on April 9, 1917, destroyed the gabled top floor, which held the hayloft for the horses. The firemen almost didn’t make it to their own two-alarm fire.
As the story goes, the firemen were sitting outside enjoying a sunny day when somebody ran by and said, “Hey, do you know your hayloft is on fire?”
“There was no concrete technology when it was built,“ says Brian Magee of Upstream Brewing Co., which now inhabits the historical building. “Everything was wood. Those days, they couldn’t prevent a fire from spreading.”
The building was renovated after the 1917 fire and functioned as a fire station until 1944 when lack of manpower during World War II forced it to close.
The 1917 fire wasn’t the only one to scorch the building. In 1975, an arsonist set the theater’s stage on fire. “Everything in the theater melted. We were closed for two or three months,” Mueller remembers.
Spaghetti Works purchased the building that also included Harrigan’s, a comedy club/restaurant on the lower level.
The Firehouse Dinner Theater closed for good in 1991. Upstream Brewing Co. bought the building in 1995 from Spaghetti Works and opened its microbrewery/restaurant the following year after renovation.
On the south wall, cinder blocks had replaced the doors through which firemen and their horses once dashed off to fires. The opaque blocks were replaced with large, light-filled windows. Another piece of history—the original 1903 firehouse cornerstone sits above the brewery inside the Upstream.
And then there’s the ghost. When the Upstream first opened, Magee felt he was not alone late at night as he closed the restaurant. “I haven’t seen the ghost but a number of people have.”
Some local ghostbusters once spent a night there and reported they sensed the ghost’s presence. “In our bar upstairs one night, martini glasses all of a sudden flew off and landed on the other side of the bar,” says Magee.
Legend has it that the ghost appears as a young boy holding a red ball and wearing an early 20th century suit and cap. And apparently, he really, really doesn’t like martinis.