A listing on eBay for a 32-room hotel in Windber brought Blair Murphy to the area from Los Angeles in 2001, shortly before 9/11.
“I was looking for a place to get away from the big city, along with a buddy of mine,” said Murphy, 48. “We wanted a big space to use for artistic projects. We bid on the hotel and a couple weeks later, we moved in. It was in the middle of nowhere before Flight 93.”
The Grand Midway Hotel needed many repairs, and Murphy and his friends lived there from day one.
“We never stayed anywhere else,” he said. “The first year was rough, but romantic. We’re all artists, and the building was like a canvas. I felt like we were working on a painting. ”
The first year, repairs were done on the roof, windows, pipes, insulation and electrical needs.
“And I got to learn all of it,” Murphy said.
It was so cold that first winter, the water pipes froze, and Murphy’s friends, who were from New Orleans, decided to go back south.
Murphy bought them out and considers the hotel his escape home where he can invite other artists in to work on their projects.
He is a novelist and filmmaker and has friends who are painters and poets.
While he considers the Grand Midway a private home with no relationship with the public, Murphy does open up what had been the bar area two nights a week for a coffeehouse.
The coffeehouses started out on Wednesday nights several years ago, then became so popular Blair added Thursdays from
6 p.m. to midnight as well.
“I have no goals to expand any further,” Murphy said. “It’s not about money.”
Murphy’s coffeehouses draw the more artsy sector of the public out of the woodwork for an exotic selection of coffees and teas and games of chess and Dungeons and Dragons, all while tarot card readings are given and various videos, usually of a science fiction variety, play in the background.
All for $3, with endless refills.
In addition, an onsite bookstore offers science fiction, fantasy and horror selections to purchase.
“Some come in costume,” Murphy said. “It’s all to create a mystical atmosphere into another world.”
Coffeehouse nights have attracted visitors from as far away as Ligonier, and actor Butch Patrick, best known for playing Eddie Munster on the television show “The Munsters,” dropped by from Pittsburgh.
The most striking feature of Murphy’s residence and an example of his hotel-as-canvas concept is a mural painted on the dining room ceiling.
The depiction of the Universe card, the highest ranking card in a tarot deck, which comes with positive vibes, was done by Terrance Kaufman, owner of a tattoo parlor up the street.
“He said he had never done anything this big,” Murphy said. “It took him six weeks.”
After moving in, Murphy heard the stories about the old hotel being haunted and said he felt a bit spooked and even heard footsteps.
“This is an old building worth championing,” Murphy said. “I felt comfortable with it since I was raised in a funeral home. The bonus is, I like Halloween and horror movies.”
Murphy also hosted several Draculacons for friends, held in the spring because his friends in the scare business are usually busy at the more traditional haunting time of year.
The Grand Midway got some attention when it was featured on a national television show, the SyFy Channel’s “Haunted Collector.”
Murphy has a bachelor of fine arts in cinema from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
He is originally from New Jersey and spent the 1990s on Venice Beach in California.
When he first arrived in Hollywood, he worked by day with the creator of the Spiderman films and by night as a photographer and videographer for the entertainer Prince.
He sold his first feature project, a vampire film called “Jugular Wine,” to Blockbuster and saw it be distributed all over the country.
Murphy still has his L.A. connections and has tried to get some films made in the area, but hasn’t had any luck yet.
A ghost story he wrote would have been produced by John Davison of “Robocop” fame and Roger Corman, but the deal fell through.
“That happens often,” Murphy said.
Murphy has been a judge for the Johns-town Film Festival and had his own film, “Writer’s Jail,” shown.
His most current film project, “Zombie Dream,” featuring Eric Roberts and Butch Patrick, will go on YouTube and will receive its first local screening at the Silver Drive-In in April, after the owner gets his new projector installed.
“It will be so cool because part of the film takes place at the drive-in,” he said.
Murphy said he wrote “The First Noelle” as a gift to the community.
In the novel set in the 1930s or 1940s written specifically for the area, a little girl discovers that Santa gets his coal in Windber and the steel for his sleigh from Johns-town.
“I wanted something from the area that had appeal and charm,” Murphy said. “This area has gotten some knocks, and I wanted to put a positive spin on it. The book almost got picked up for a film.”
Last Christmas season, Murphy put about 200 copies of the book in mailboxes, marked from The Pennsylvania Elves.
The book is available on Amazon.com and is on sale at Murphy’s coffeehouses for $7.
Murphy’s family includes a malamute named Lucien and a black cat named Egypt.
Ruth Rice covers Features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/RuthRiceTD.