The KC Strip is the sirloin of Kansas City media, a critical cut of surmisin' steak that each week weighs in on the issues of the day, dictating its column to Pitch writers.

Ghost Dance 

Here's a little ghost story for ya.

The Strip was at a dinner party a few weeks back when it heard a mighty juicy story that sounded perfect for Halloween tellin'. One of the guest's brothers had worked at Crown Center years ago and used to come home talking about how the Hyatt Regency Hotel was haunted. Now, even a sirloin as skeptical as this one was intrigued. After all, considering the magnitude of the skywalk disaster that killed 114 people back on July 17, 1981, it only made sense that some of those souls might not have quite checked out.

Besides, the Strip had heard all the old stories about supposedly spooked local spots, and even authorities as definitive as KMBC Channel 9 anchorman Larry Moore, who "reports" on local hauntings every year around this time, hadn't heard this doozy.

Naturally, the public-relations folks at the Hyatt knew nothing of any such rumors. "To be honest with you, I've never heard anything like that, and I've been here for nine years," said Mark Champa, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "And we haven't had any ghost spottings."

This quizzical cutlet began to suspect that the dinner party story had been fueled by too much pinot after it checked with local psychics Saphira Rain and David Schneider. "I deliberately went [to the hotel] after it had been reopened because I wanted to see the ghosts," Schneider says. But, he says, "it was the deadest feeling. It was like walking into a recording booth."

"It was kind of like being anywhere and picking up spirits," Rain adds. "They're always there, but I wasn't getting that screaming agony thing going on."

Rain and Schneider figure that Hyatt heads must have brought in a psychic to clandestinely cleanse the hotel, asking any lingerers to split. "They never once came out and said they were getting rid of spirits," Schneider says, "but it seems to me like I heard through the psychic community that they brought somebody from New York to do it."

Uh, whatever. Still, the Strip was eager to follow up on a single clue left behind by Kansas City's granddaddy of ghost hunters.

Maurice Schwalm spent 30 years stalking spooks before he crossed over on January 3, 2001, at age 72.

Schwalm was a graduate of Paseo High School and the University of Kansas City (now UMKC); in college, he majored in political science and history. But he was also a historian of supernatural happenings in Missouri and Kansas, and he chronicled his discoveries in the 1999 book Mo-Kan Ghosts: The Casebook of a Kansas City Psychic Investigator.

"He was very scholarly," says his wife, Ann Schwalm. "He did the historic sites that already had the traditions of hauntings. He just felt like he was documenting it and adding his own touch to it."

An insurance claims adjuster with St. Paul Insurance Co. by day, Schwalm came to prominence in the local paranormal scene in the late '70s and early '80s, when Kansas Citians were fascinated by the occult, ghost hunting, Edgar Cayce seminars and all things new age, says Juanita Teske, Schwalm's former psychic consultant and one of his closest friends. He founded an Occult Studies Special Interest Group that was loosely affiliated with the brainiacs at Mensa and hosted a radio show in which callers could seek his advice on psychic matters. Nearly every October, reporters from The Kansas City Star and local TV stations would call on Schwalm's expertise.

Schwalm delighted in being the go-to guy for the inexplicable. But for all of the publicity he enjoyed, Schwalm kept his trap shut about much of what he knew, Rain says. "He was hard to get along with. He had certain rules and that was it.... He really did not trust people outside of Mensa, and he didn't trust everybody in it."

In Mo-Kan Ghosts, Schwalm includes a cryptic account of trying to snap a picture of phantom couples dancing at the Hyatt. He doesn't say much about the ghosts themselves; rather, he seems tormented by his go-round with Polaroid's customer service department.

"It wasn't so much that there was something on the photo as what happened when I tried to take it [the picture]," he writes in the book.

Schwalm claimed "a ghost hand" inside his camera was playing tug of war with him.

"What you have there is a photo of the Hyatt Regency Hotel taken about a day after the walks there collapsed," Schwalm told the customer-service rep. "I am seriously involved in investigation of psychic phenomenon, and I write articles that are published in magazines in that field. Sometimes I get photographs, particularly on Polaroid films, that show some very strange things. But this is the first time that I have ever been in the situation where the camera seemed to be fighting me. Frankly, it was just like there was a hand inside of that camera that didn't want it out. It was a very odd sensation indeed."

The service rep wasn't buying Schwalm's story. "What I'll do is get this back to you with the film," the killjoy said, according to Schwalm's book. "I am also going to send you some more literature on how to avoid getting this type of effect."

The Strip can only imagine how the cranky Schwalm would have responded, given that he didn't include much other information about the photo in his book.

However, this meddling meat patty discovered more to Schwalm's Hyatt expedition than his book hints.

Before the skywalks collapsed, Schwalm was getting calls from neighbors of the Hyatt claiming they'd had visions of couples dancing outside their windows, Teske claims. So they investigated.

"We couldn't figure out what the problems were," Teske says.

After the skywalks fell, Schwalm concluded that the dreams had been premonitions of the accident, Teske says. Days after the disaster, Schwalm took his Polaroid to the hotel and started snapping. Legend has it that he left with a startling photo of several couples dancing.

"It made the hair stand up on my arms," Ann Schwalm says. "He attributed that to sudden death. The people not realizing they were gone, perhaps. They were still dancing, so to speak."

Schwalm never wrote about the photograph, and Ann Schwalm speculates that it wasn't in his book because of trouble reprinting his work. For now, his sighting exists only in the memories of his inner circle of friends.

But they say Schwalm always got more than a fleeting glimpse of ghosts. He had a knack for getting them to mug for his camera.

"It wasn't just like a blob of light or something like smoke or a cloud," says Rain, who hosts Psychic Break Saturday nights on KKFI 90.1. "It was full-figure manifestations of real ghosts. Unmistakable."

Nationally known psychic investigator Loyd Auerbach — aka Professor Paranormal, the author of a handful of ghost-hunting guides and parapsychology handbooks and the director of the San Francisco Bay Area-based Office of Paranormal Investigations — remembers speaking with Schwalm several times.

"When you look at the research of parapsychology, and if you look at people's actual experiences, there is sometimes an imprint that lingers," Auerbach says. He explains that tragic events leave behind an impression in the environment, which some people can pick up. "Photographing it requires something on the order of the photographer being psychic. I think we decided he probably was acting as the medium and affecting the film himself," the prof says.

The Hyatt photograph became part of Schwalm's slide show on psychic photography when he lectured on the topic around the city.

But it'll probably never be seen in public again. Ann Schwalm keeps her late husband's slides locked away in a safety deposit box, and she declined to retrieve them for the Strip. After a while, she quit returning this poltergeist-pursuin' porterhouse's phone calls altogether.

The answer to the mystery lies with the widow Schwalm.

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