The oak trees were naked, but the air was still and it wasn’t particularly cold. Long before this day the brown leaves had fallen, though there was always one here and there that refused to let go. Little did those stubborn leaves know that new buds would one day push them right off their branches, but for now they clung on––dead, but wanting to live just a little while longer. Outside of a stray leaf and a few scattered pine needles, there wasn’t a lot to sweep off the patio. As far as chores go for a young boy, sweeping the patio was pretty easy, but I hated it all the same. Still, January sweeping was fast and I appreciated January for that.
Up stairs my parents had big plans to spend the afternoon watching the Super Bowl. For some reason, this Super Bowl Sunday was not to be about having a group of people over for a party, nor did my parents have any plans of dragging us off to some other house for such a gathering. This was to be a quiet, simple, run of the mill Sunday that happened to include the TV running all afternoon with nothing but football. On other Sundays my brother and I would usually hunt down an old movie––we liked those. There was a UHF channel out of Sacramento, down the hill about forty-five minutes, that showed an awful lot of old movies. This was the closest thing to Turner Classic Movies in those days. During this time they showed all the Abbott and Costello movies at a regular afternoon time on the weekends and we loved every single one of them. I particularly liked the classic film comedians, but also the musicals. I never got enough of the monster movies––King Kong, Ray Harryhausen and the Universal Horror family. Those seemed to only come on late at night when I was supposed to be asleep, but I caught those “Creature Features” on the occasional sleep-over at a friend’s house.
If we weren’t watching old movies on TV on the weekend we might be down on Main Street at our little old single screen Empire Theater catching a matinee of the latest Disney release (or re-release as the case may be). The Empire being the only form of regular entertainment in our small town, it changed films weekly and there was always a double feature. The first film was usually a first run release and the other was something second run, odd, or classic. If the film was a really big hit, such as Superman the Movie, then it was shown alone. Although, we didn’t always get the hot new films right away and I remember it was a year before we finally had Star Wars. Any time I was walking down Main Street I had to stop and stare at the posters of coming attractions. I would have loved to have gone inside for every film every week, but not everything was for kids as my mother reminded me.
I had a few dollars in my pocket and so did my brother, so stuck with the prospect of nonstop football on a gray day, with no neighborhood kids around who could be pulled away from their own Super Bowl obligations, we decided to hop on the bikes and ride downtown just for the heck of it. We’d buy a few ropes of licorice, wander around Main Street and ride back home. We lived at the top of a hill, so the three mile trip to Main Street was down hill all the way and a lot of fun. No one cared about helmets in those days and it is a wonder we survived the hill all those years.
Arriving down on Main Street that day it was a bit erie. Not only was it overcast, but it was virtually a ghost town. There were no cars moving up and down the streets, though there were some parked along the curb. There were eight bars along Main and the Super Bowl could be heard from the doors of all of them, with occasional cheers whooping up from the small crowds within. All of the shops were closed this day except the most important one––the Placerville News Stand. This was a wonderful store full of useful and entertaining things. There was a camera counter where I would buy Super 8 movie film and splicing tape. There was an art section with a healthy supply of papers, pens and paints. There was a small book section and craft supply area. There were odd gifts and stuffed animals. There was a well stocked magazine section. All corners were stuffed with one little thing or another and all on top of warm and wonderful squeaky wooden floors. Here we purchased our candy treat, looked the place over for anything new and then headed out for a little more exploring of the empty town.
Placerville’s Main Street in the 1970s resembled a lot of American Main Streets, which were all having troubles. Many of the age old businesses of the street were seeing their last days and a few had been there since the 19th Century. There had, in fact, been an Empire Theater of some sort since the Gold Rush when Placerville was known as Hangtown. Even though the ladies of the town felt it would be better for commerce if the name “Hangtown” was dropped, the residents never really gave up on it, naming various streets and businesses “Hangtown” this or that. There was also a stuffed dummy hanging from a noose off the side of a building marking the spot of the famous tree where the hangings took place and containing the Hangtown Saloon. Placerville liked its Gold Rush history, but was barely taking advantage of it in reality. Still, the street was filled with useful stores that served the needs of a small town as a Main Street was meant to do. Placerville also liked its parades, which always jolted the street with life and with no suburb to steal away the business, Placerville’s Main Street could hang on. Down in Sacramento’s downtown the old movie houses were being boarded up or demolished. They were turned into parking lots, supermarkets and fast food restaurants. The whole downtown was empty by five o’clock as workers fled to their suburban havens.
The tower de eiffel of Placerville is the Bell Tower, a symbol marking the town center and appearing on postcards––it is steadfast. Down the street, the Cary House was renamed the Raffle’s Hotel, but it was being used as apartments and not a hotel. The most interesting resident was a little man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache who walked a little white dog. He was a town character, familiar to all and then he was gone. The Raffles Hotel had once been the grand palace of the town––the finest place to stay in the Gold Country. The building held a mystique for me and I longed to ride the old iron elevator and wander the halls––perhaps stay the night and find out if it had any ghosts. Years later after all the residents had let go and blown away, the Raffles Hotel went back to being the Cary House and checking in guests again––it was steadfast too.
We peddled our bikes up an alley that lead to the mysterious “Reservoir Street” that wound around behind the length of the key portion of Main Street. This street ran higher than Main and one mused about the strange second story back doors. Some of them seemed to be apartments and I always wondered who might be living in those ramshackle places. I never saw anyone come and go from those doors. The most interesting of the doors was the back of the Empire. These were large mettle doors suitable for Vaudeville companies of yesteryear to move their scenery into the theater. It had been the 1930s when those doors were last used for that purpose, but I wondered about it and wished to have seen them opened and a traveling troupe to have moved in their painted drops and costumes. There was a dumpster always sitting by those doors, flies buzzing around dead boxes of popcorn, and on this occasion I found a strip of 35 mm movie film. This portion of film, spliced off of some unknown feature, pictured the warning that the film had been rated “PG.” I pocketed the foot long film sample as a memento, which gave me some sort of vicarious delight that I was momentarily connected to Hollywood and real movies.
There persisted a story that the Empire had a ghost. He was a drunken ghost and wandered up and down the steps from the boiler room to the stage. The management claimed to have encountered him on several occasions. Throughout my childhood I never once saw the ghost or talked to anyone who did––not even when, for a brief time, the theater went back to providing live stage entertainment and I was involved with a few productions. No ghost was spotted on those stairs, but maybe he was spooked by all the new unusual human activity bursting forth upon the old stage, or maybe he finally let go of his branch.
Above Reservoir Street were other small houses, all looking rather worse for wear, with electrical wires strung from one to the next. This seemed like a neighborhood out of touch with that moment in time. Once it must have been thriving, new, pleasant. How nice must it have been to stroll around to Main Street to eat at the Blue Bell Cafe, to shop at the grocery store down the block, to know everyone in every shop. Some of this was still possible. The grocery store was not quite dead and the Blue Bell would manage to serve the old-timers for a little bit longer, but there was the smell of an era, just before my life began, that was slipping away quietly, but wanting to live just a little bit longer. No more could the people of Reservoir Street sit on their porch and sneak a peek of the vaudevillians loading their scenery into the Empire Theater––like the circus coming to town. The Circus didn’t even bother to come to town anymore, nor did the trains, though the tracks did get some use from the lumber company until a few years later.
Up Main Street we stopped at the rather new Round Table Pizza to play a game of Pin Ball. Having exhausted our few quarters and dreading the walk back up the hill, I called my father to ask if he might pick us up. Nope. We were to come home in time for dinner on our own steam and so we started the journey back, which wasn’t fun at all compared to the brisk thrill of coasting into downtown Placerville. About forty-five minutes later we were home––the football still going strong. I stared at my film footage: “PG.” I began planning a movie of my own in my mind that I might shoot with my father’s Super 8 camera. What should it be? A remake of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid? A stop motion animated remake of A Star is Born? I’d have to save up the allowance money to buy the film, though maybe I’d spend it next Saturday at the Empire Theater.
Today Main Street has been repurposed as a gallery and antique mall catering to tourists on the way to visit Apple Hill or Lake Tahoe. Although a few of the very old stores, such as Combellack’s clothing store, Placerville Hardware and the good old Placerville News Stand are still there. The canker that gnaws is that the Empire has been gutted and turned into an antique store, though the marquee remains to memorialize the building from 1930 as having once been a theater––hanging on like the last brown leaf. Glancing up and down the street it looks very much the same, though the character has somewhat changed. The train tracks have been transformed into a walking and bike trail, the eight bars are gone, the Cary House functions as a proper hotel and there are better restaurants, though the Blue Bell is a distant memory. Plenty of people are strolling up and down the sidewalks, stopping to read bronze plaques pointing out that in this or that spot something happened or something once existed. The centerpiece, the Bell Tower, has never moved and although it disappeared for a while, the hanging dummy came back and still marks the spot of the fabled tree of capital punishment.
As the Super Bowl celebratory cheers went on and on––just a little bit longer––I looked out the window to the forest of oak trees and noticed the few brown hangers on refusing to blow away.