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January 2010
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Slarti [userpic]
‘Catacombs’ owner dies in accident

Haunted houses were his passion
By KEVIN HOFFMANN The Kansas City Star

Dennis Kingsolver died in a place he loved: a haunted house.

Kingsolver, whose family had founded and operated The Catacombs since he was a teenager, fell Monday night while working on an elevator. He was 38.

A repairman with SBC Communications and a father of five, Kingsolver was best known as one of Kansas City’s haunted house icons. His enthusiasm for Halloween showed even as a youngster, when at age 10 he transformed his mother’s basement into a haunted house to spook neighborhood children.

“He would hang blankets to separate the basement into different rooms with different things in each one,” said Morris Kingsolver, Dennis Kingsolver’s father. “He put cardboard over the stairs and you had to slide down.”

His mother, Shirley Kingsolver, said her son charged 25 to 50 cents and made hundreds of dollars scaring many in the early endeavor.

In 1981, at age 13, he spurred his family to open its first commercial haunted house, The Catacombs, at 1221 Main St. The Catacombs later moved to an old castle-like building in Independence before setting up in its current location in the West Bottoms at 1100 Santa Fe St.

According to a police report, Kingsolver and another man were trying to cut an elevator cable near the second floor of the seven-story building. As they worked, a cable snapped and hit Kingsolver, who was standing on top of the elevator car, and knocked him off balance. The other worker tried to grab him, but the cable hit Kingsolver again and knocked him off the elevator. Kingsolver fell about 10 feet. He apparently died when either the cable or counterweights from the elevator system struck him, police said. Both parents were there Monday when the accident happened.

“It’s very tough,” his sister Diana Leahy said, adding that the family had been buoyed by friends stopping by and recounting “all the good things” Kingsolver had done for them.

Kingsolver grew up in Kansas City, North, and graduated from Winnetonka High School, where he met his wife. He raised his own family north of the river.

He worked more than 15 years for the phone company but spent much of the year at his haunted houses. Even in the off-season, he constantly tinkered with them, creating new thrills and switching out props for a fresh look.

In 2003, he merged his two haunted houses, The Catacombs and Fear, into The Catacombs Extreme Scream.

He and some employees had been working there two nights a week since January.

“They would go down there from 5 to 9 (p.m.) and work on props, and clean it,” Morris Kingsolver said. “That’s what they were doing last night.”

Many patrons of Kingsolver’s haunts remember his trademark graveyards and the worker who chased them out an exit with a fake chain saw.

Lately, Kingsolver had spoken to another haunted house owner of a new attraction he likened to a small roller coaster that would drop patrons a story or more. It was unclear whether the work Monday was for that attraction and whether workers would finish the ride.

Workers and family members talked Tuesday about whether they would open the Catacombs on schedule the second weekend of September.

One of those workers, childhood friend Todd Sheets, praised his boss.

Growing up, he and Kingsolver played baseball together and ran around their Gracemor neighborhood. Sheets, an independent filmmaker, can still remember the hearse that Kingsolver used to keep in his front yard during the summer months when the haunted house was shut down.

Kingsolver was like an older brother, said Sheets, whom Kingsolver hired at the Catacombs and quickly promoted. When Sheets needed a place to edit his horror movies, Kingsolver let him set up shop in the West Bottoms building.

“I’ve never met anyone that good-hearted before in my life,” Sheets said.

Sheets was there when the accident happened, standing a few feet away.

Kingsolver had given Sheets a ride to the haunted house Monday night. Just a few hours before Kingsolver died, they had sat in the car, joking and laughing. Kingsolver already was brainstorming what the Catacombs would be like, not this fall, but the year after.

“I’m thankful,” Sheets said. “I’m very thankful for that time I got to be with him.”

Dwayne Throneberry, longtime owner of the Main Street Morgue, said he held a lot of respect for Kingsolver even though they were friendly competitors, and he hoped the business would remain open.

“He had that fire in him when he talked about haunted houses,” Throneberry said. “He was always excited about improving his place … he just loved Halloween.”

For many years, Kansas City’s haunted house industry thrived with about a dozen houses opening every season. But by last year, only three owners of major haunted houses remained, holding four locations.

“It will impact it just because it’s a very small community,” Throneberry said. “He was one-third of the owners and we lost him.”

Shirley Kingsolver said her son hired many underprivileged young workers to help with his haunted houses and took pride in giving them paychecks.

“He felt so good because many of them would use that money to buy a car or something like that,” she said.

Haunted houses were not Kingsolver’s only love, said his sister Leahy. He “was one of the biggest Chiefs fans” she said, and his favorite place was Hawaii. He traveled to the islands four or five times, she said.

The only passion that surpassed his love for haunted houses, however, was his family.

“He absolutely adored his wife and his children,” she said. “They meant everything to him.”

Kingsolver and his wife, Amy, had been married 18 years. Their five children range in age from 4 to 16. The family has established a fund to help support the children’s education. In lieu of flowers or memorial contributions, the family suggests donations to the Dennis Kingsolver Family Education Fund through the Bank of America, 2728 Vivion Road, Kansas City, MO 64119.

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I only met Dennis once, but he was kind enough to give us a tour of his haunted house during the off-season at Kreepfest last year. We're trying to organize a fundraiser at Kreepfest for his kids' college fund.

Comments
(Anonymous)

That would be a nice thing to do. He was my boss, and friend. His family would appreciate it. Pegeen Balding / Catacombs

Hi, Pegeen,
The Kreepfest was this past weekend and we did raise $120 for the fund. I'll be sending it to the bank later this week.