As I wrote in today’s Oklahoman, Oklahoma City restaurants Jamil’s Steakhouse and The Haunted House turn 50 this year. I’ve written extensively about both over the years, but few stories have been more fun to work on than the piece I did five years ago. Since I wrote this, we lost Vidaree King in 2012.Rather than link you to that story and face the wrath of the pay-wall, here below — thanks to burgeoning cut-and-paste technology.
Legend has been an everyday part of Marian Thibault’s life for 45 years.Unfortunately for her, it’s been the same legend, and it’s of the supernatural variety, which doesn’t fit Thibault’s superstition-free sensibility.
The Haunted House restaurant in Oklahoma City. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
On the other hand, that legend has maintained interest in her livelihood, so she patiently recounts the notorious story behind her Haunted House restaurant for the umpteenth time with patience, precision and a low, dense German accent that’s a touch chilling.
“This place isn’t haunted,” she says of the restaurant at 7101 Miramar Blvd. “It just has a haunted past.”
On June 1, 1963, retired auto dealer Martin Carriker was shot in the back of the head on his country estate near NE 63 and Eastern, which then was outside Oklahoma City. His body was found in a patch of weeds, 48 hours after he was reported missing by his stepdaughter, Margaret Pearson.
Pearson later was charged with murder, along with two field hands.
Carriker’s ex-wife Clara, with whom he still lived at the time of his death, died from natural causes in the house shortly before her daughter’s trial.
Eleven days before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a jury of 11 men and one woman found Pearson not guilty of murder. Apparently, one of the field hands told the police three different stories, costing him credibility on the witness stand and leaving Carriker’s death an unsolved crime to this day.
After the verdict, Pearson, 54, told reporters, “I don’t have any place to go or any friends.”
The home went into foreclosure. Just weeks before she was to vacate her home for the new owners, Pearson was found dead in its bathroom. A story in The Oklahoman published Jan. 27, 1964, indicated the circumstances were “mysterious,” but the investigation never led to any arrests.
The country estate built of native stone in 1935 stood empty. The Persian rugs, oil paintings, hand-painted china, Austrian dinner service, fine linens and large bow-front Victorian chest were sold at an estate sale north of the Paseo District less than five months after Pearson’s death.
Let the haunting begin
E.J. “Catfish” Davis picked up the property at a sheriff’s auction with plans to convert the mansion into a nightclub and restaurant. An oil man by trade, Davis turned to young Art Thibault with whom he shared a Minnesota heritage. Thibault made his restaurant bones as a manager at the original Jack Sussy’s Italian Food and Steak House on North Lincoln. Catfish knew a good investment when he saw it, maintaining ownership even after he and his wife, Kitty, moved to Stilwell to live closer to their apple orchard.
Art Thibault, who came to Oklahoma by way of the Air Force and Tinker Field, was drawn to the concept because of a restaurant on a country estate back in Minnesota. He recalled people drove from all across the state to enjoy the quiet elegance in the secluded restaurant. He recognized the opportunity to replicate the success, using the infamy surrounding the property to boost initial interest.
It didn’t hurt that the nearby Braniff Estate also had a ghostly reputation. Just a mile and a half away on NE 63 and Grand, rumor had it a fiendish albino popped up unexpectedly to frighten loitering teens at the time. Add that to the three deaths on their property, the labyrinthine drive lined by gangly trees, and the Thibaults had a built-in draw.
Despite the seclusion of the house, it was near the new Interstate 44. The Springlake Amusement Park was close by and the Lincoln Boulevard strip just minutes away.
All things pointed to success, as long as the food was good.
The same hands have been preparing that food all 45 of the Haunted House’s years. Those hands belong to Vidaree King.
The 80-year-old chef has cooked for Bob Hope, Liberace, Neil Young, Sarah Ferguson, Paul Harvey, Mickey Mantle and George W. Bush.
“Believe it or not, the menu was only one page with five entrees when we first opened,” Marian Thibault said. “Today we have two pages — one for the appetizers, and one for the entrees.”
If it ain’t broke
When Art Thibault died in 1994, Marian and King didn’t slow down. Romantic, candlelit dinners on white table cloths in any of the eight dining rooms of various sizes and shapes carry forth. The restaurant still specializes in steaks, seafood and ambiance.
Springlake is gone, and the Lincoln strip has dimmed, but the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Remington Park and Oklahoma City Zoo have replaced them.
The trees are taller, and the tales are a little longer, but the Haunted House has changed little over the years.
One thing Marian Thibault has achieved that her husband couldn’t was ownership. Shortly after Catfish Davis died in 2001, his heirs offered Thibault the option to buy the property, and she took it.
Asked whether Halloween is like Christmas for the Haunted House, Thibault said it usually gets a healthy crowd but that Valentine’s Day is its busiest date of the year.
What better foundation for legend than love and death?