Commentary - Romancing the "Empire" Theater

by Placerville Newswire / Mar 04, 2021 / comments

[Michael D. Jackson, 3/4/21, ]
 
When I return to Placerville I see only my parents and myself as a child. 

My contemporary self is a shadow as I walk down Main Street, looking at what is the same and what has changed.  

I'm outside of it now, knowing that sadly, no one will ever again spend a Saturday afternoon watching a double feature in the Empire Theater.  

I can't help but romanticize my past.

Michael D. Jackson


Image Uploaded By Michael D. Jackson:

The Empire Theater’s “new” building, which is still standing. There had been an Empire Theater in Placerville since the Gold Rush.

432 Main Street, Placerville, CA 95667

2 Screens, 580 Seats.


Showing 1 to 36 comments

 

paulnelson on March 5, 2015 at 9:10 pm

I saw that film too. Lots of fun. Must have been great on the big screen. Quite the satire on silly action pics.

 

Rootieboy on March 5, 2015 at 5:35 pm

The last movie I saw at the Empire Theater was “Last Action Hero” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger back in 1993. I was 11 years old.

 

Mikeyisirish on April 27, 2014 at 9:45 pm

An April 2014 photo can be seen here.

 

rainestorm on October 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Thanks, Joe! That’s good information and I’ll check out that Google Book.

Mike, I probably should have been more clear. Yes, of course it’s a different building. I assumed from the photo that the Empire Theatre, in one form or another, had always been with the town.

Thanks to you both!

 

Joe Vogel on October 24, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Historical Souvenir of El Dorado County California, published in 1883, (Google Books scan) says that Placerville’s first Empire Theatre was opened after the Placer Theatre, which opened in 1852, and both houses were destroyed by the Placerville fire of 1856. After the fire The Empire Theatre was replaced by the Placerville Theatre. I’ve been unable to trace the later history of the Placerville Theatre, though it was apparently still around in 1883 when the book was published.

The Empire building in the 1849 photo might have been the building that became the Empire Theatre. It was most likely a saloon or dance hall, and saloons and dance halls were sometimes converted into theaters during the gold rush period, as towns grew and became more prosperous and the miners and merchants began seeking more elaborate entertainment.

Michael D. Jackson

Michael D. Jackson on October 24, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Rainestorm, Yes of course, but that 1849 theater is not the building on Main Street today. There was another Empire Theater between the one pictured in the 1849 photo and the opening of the current building in 1930 as well—very fancy and equal to the fine San Francisco theaters of the day. It burned in one of the many town fires. When the Elite Theatre burned down in March of 1929, I suppose the folks involved thought they should return to the name “Empire” as a way of retaining some past history when a new theater was built.

 

rainestorm on October 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Hi, Michael. I was actually referring to the photo that I pasted the link for. Here’s one that’s dated 1849.

http://eldoradocountyhistoricalsociety.org/images/Placerville1849.jpg

So it has to be as old as Placerville itself.

 

Michael D. Jackson on October 20, 2012 at 9:20 am

Dear Rainestorm, The reason the picture seems older than 1929 is probably due to the costumed parade participants. I assume a “Wagon Train Days” parade is in progress. The structure under the marquee is a built up “set” as part of the theme of the festival celebration. In another picture taken a year or two later you can see the same marquee without the set beneath it and the cars of the period parked along the street. The Empire was built new in 1929 because of a fire of the Elite Theatre that was down the street closer to the Bell Tower, robbing the town of its entertainment venue. Actually the Empire opened in the fall of 1930 with the film GOOD NEWS.

 

rainestorm on October 20, 2012 at 1:11 am

I worked there during its conversion from a single screen to a twin screen. This was in the early summer of 1988. It was nothing short of butchery.

I’m surprised to hear that the theatre was built in the 1929. The following picture makes it seem as if it was there at least in the mid to late 19th century.

http://yesteryearsnews.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/old-placerville.jpg

DeFragg

DeFragg on October 5, 2012 at 10:42 pm

yep- Cinema 4 has a familiar ring to it… I remember since they both belonged to the same company, we were able to go to movies at both for free. If there was room… lol

Michael D. Jackson

Michael D. Jackson on October 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Dear DeFragg, I remember the split double screen era of the Empire. Horrid. The Empire was built new in 1929 and opened in 1930 on the site of a hotel. It was built after the Elite Theater burned down. The Elite was down the street a bit, closer to the Bell Tower. The El Dorado Theater was short lived in the 1930s and couldn’t compete with the Empire, which changed its first run program of films 3 times a week. The Placerville Cinema 4 had 4 screens and basically killed the Empire as a single screen theater. The Empire ran live shows during the 1980s before the twin movie idea happened. I tap danced on the Empire stage in a show called “Berta’s Here!” in 1986. See story about the opening of the Empire and burning of the Elite: http://mainstreetstories.blogspot.com/2012/09/when-elite-burned-down.html

 

DeFragg on October 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Perhaps the El Dorado Theater became the Theater El Dorado group that held the tradition of stage plays at the fairgrounds..?

 

DeFragg on October 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I worked at the Empire Theater in the 1990’s. It was split down the middle, making two smallish theaters and two screens. The old green room area behind the screens were used for inventory as well as storage of many old theater props from the pre-cinema era. The boiler in the basement suggested the place was built before the 1920’s, but it’s hard to tell for sure. It was cozy, it had the old-building smell, but you could not spend time in there without feeling connected to a rich and romantic history. Supposedly there was a ghost of a man in a tall hat, too, but I can’t say I saw him myself. It was owned or ran then by Redwood Theaters Inc. out of Jackson, CA, as was the old Placerville Theater at the top of the hill near a grocery store strip mall. P-ville had about 6 screens, and was more popular because of it… When the huge theater in Folsom was built, we all felt it in Placerville…

 

Michael D. Jackson on September 18, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Mystery solved. The address of the El Dorado Theatre is 469 Main Street. Current resident is Arian’s Supply Sergeant. I received this information from the El Dorado Historical Society:
In answer to your mystery question – Yes, there was an El Dorado Theater located in the Upper Fairchild Building (now the Supply Sergeant). It opened under Ruth Knacke’s management in April, 1936. The theater was located on the lower floor of the building, large enough to accommodate 500 seats. Ruth Knacke, who owned the Empire Theater bought the El Dorado in order to prevent further competition with her theater. If you would like any additional information feel free to contact us.

 

Michael D. Jackson on June 20, 2009 at 12:10 pm

I am going to be in Placerville in August. Maybe for fun I’ll hunt around for the final answer to this El Dorado Theatre location question.

 

Michael D. Jackson on June 20, 2009 at 12:07 pm

The Fairchild Building is across the street from the Empire Theatre building. Here is a link to a contemporary picture. The building, since the beginning, was prominently labeled “Fairchild” and still is.

View link

Having grown up in Placerville, I never knew of an “Upper Fairchild Building” though the Fairchilds might have owned another building that was referred to as that, but the Empire Theatre Building was always referred to as the Empire Building. There was, in the Empire Building, the Fairchild’s Pharmacy, which might be the confusion. The Fairchild’s Pharmacy was later occupied by Robbinson’s Drugs until they moved down the street a block.

The picture that Joe Vogel references of the Empire Theatre Building was built in 1931, so the caption information, which comes from a CSUS archive, is not correct. I am guessing that the use of “Upper Fairchild Building” might be a description, rather than a name that was ever used.

 

Joe Vogel on June 19, 2009 at 3:44 am

It’s good to know the El Dorado did exist, but the news of its location brings new confusion. Here’s a photo of the Fairchild Building with the antique emporium that occupies the Empire Theatre’s space. The caption says it’s a twin of the Upper Fairchild Building, which is the building the El Dorado was in according to the first of those articles.

But where is (or was) the Upper Fairchild Building? Is it just the other half of the Fairchild Building, meaning the theaters would have been practically next door to each other? Does anybody know?

 

kencmcintyre on June 19, 2009 at 2:16 am

Regarding the El Dorado, these are from the local paper in 1936, 1937 and 1940, respectively:
http://tinyurl.com/nx9gsu
http://tinyurl.com/mf7sjf
http://tinyurl.com/nnjsa3

 

kencmcintyre on June 19, 2009 at 2:06 am

Here is a December 1996 ad:
http://tinyurl.com/kqqujh

 

Joe Vogel on April 29, 2009 at 1:40 am

I’ve never seen any mention of an El Dorado Theatre in Placerville anywhere other than that one Boxoffice item, myself. It’s possible the El Dorado was not in Placerville itself, but in one of the smaller, unincorporated towns in El Dorado County.

Boxoffice sometimes gave the name of the nearest big town when a theater was actually in an outlying area. This was especially likely when two theaters were under the same owner. In any case, if the place never reopened after 1938, there’d be very few people around to recall it. Also, if it had only 300 seats (which might even have been an exaggerated number) it might have been only a nickelodeon-type storefront theater, not easily spotted in photos.

If it existed anywhere in El Dorado County, though, there should be ads for it in issues of the local newspaper from that period. And if it lasted more than briefly, it ought to appear in one or another issue of Film Daily Yearbook, too.

 

Michael D. Jackson on April 28, 2009 at 8:45 pm

…and I spoke too soon about there not being an El Dorado Theater, I’m sure there may have been, but there isn’t any history on it that I ever came by except for the mention from Joe Vogel and Boxoffice Magazine above. Maybe it was a short lived operation.

 

Michael D. Jackson on April 28, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Another link to an old photo of the Empire:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaeldj/3484057103/

 

Michael D. Jackson on April 28, 2009 at 8:30 pm

A link to a pic of the Empire:
View link

 

Michael D. Jackson on April 28, 2009 at 12:37 pm

There was an El Dorado Drive-In on the edge of town, but I never knew of a regular sit down movie house called the El Dorado, nor has anyone I ever knew in Placerville ever mentioned it, nor does it appear in photographs of the town of which I have poured over in the past. As far as any history of Placerville known, I don’t believe there was ever another theater other than the Empire, which dates back to the beginning of the town and was first a canvas roof structure seen in very old photos of the town. Every time it burned down and was rebuilt or even moved to another address, it was always named The Empire.

 

Michael D. Jackson on April 28, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I’m not sure when the management renovated it as I knew it in the 1970s, but it had a late ‘60s/ early '70s decor of orange, red and gold curtains lining the walls and a gold curtain that opened and closed over the screen. The carpets were red with a pattern befitting a movie theater and I think the lobby actually had fake wood paneling on some of the walls.

Showing 26 - 36 of 36 comments

 

Joe Vogel on April 27, 2009 at 10:50 pm

The earliest mention of the Empire Theatre I’ve been able to find in Boxoffice Magazine is from the August 20, 1938, issue, in an item headed “Naify Brothers Acquire Duo From Mrs. Knacke.” It says:[quote]“Lee and Fred Naify, brothers of Mike Naify, manager of the T&D jr. Circuit, have acquired the two theatres in Placerville which Mrs. Ruth Knacke has been operating for some time. J.R. Saul, San Francisco theatre realty broker, handled the transaction.

“The houses are the 600-seat Empire, which may possibly be renovated, and the 300-seat El Dorado, which, dark for some time, is expected to continue closed under the Naify direction.”[/quote]I’ve found nothing later about the El Dorado, so perhaps it never reopened, but the Empire appears to have been operated by the Naify interests into the 1950s. Then by 1963 it was owned by an A.J. Longtin, who was planning a renovation of the house, according to Boxoffice Magazine of September 2 that year.

 

Michael D. Jackson on April 27, 2009 at 9:11 pm

I forgot another observation: Although there is an antique mall in the place, the basic interior structure is intact, although all the decor is stripped. They’ve done a rather cheap job, but for that matter, it would be rather easy to restore. There is simply a plug in the proscenium arch and you can see the outline of it. The floor, which used to slope downward towards the screen, has been built up to be level so that when you are by the proscenium arch you are sort of in the middle of what used to be the screen—maybe 10 feet above stage level. The stage and fly area his hiding behind the plug, probably used for storage. The wires from the surround speakers are hanging out of the walls and the projection booth windows are in full view. The lobby area is still separated from the auditorium, but the old crystal chandelier is gone and the entry area under the marquee has been partially built in as a storefront window area for showcasing goods. The box office is gone. The Marquee is still there.

 

Michael D. Jackson on April 26, 2009 at 6:40 am

Hello Empiretheater09, I don’t know how much help I can be except I can email you a couple of jpegs of the theater from the 1920s and 1931 when the building currently on site opened. In 1985-1986 when the venue was trying to function as a live performing arts venue I performed in two shows—a production of the musical CARNIVAL and a variety show called BERTA’S HERE when I was in a tap dancing act. Prior to that the theater showed a new double feature each week and I was there A LOT. The place was hopping until a 4 screen cinema opened on the other side of town about 1983. You can email me at michaeldj68@gmail.com and I’ll email you back the pix if you want to see them or ask any further questions surrounding the Empire.

 

EMPIRETHEATER09 on April 25, 2009 at 12:22 pm

I am doing a research essay on a building that has been closed down or forgotten that has affected the community in some way and I chose Empire Theater because it brought locals and travelers downtown and helped local businesses get noticed.

If anyone has further information, pictures, OR INPUT about this please write a comment!

Thanks!

Michael D. Jackson

Michael D. Jackson on April 24, 2009 at 12:23 pm

I grew up in Placerville during the 1970s and 1980s and attended the Empire Theater constantly. I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching Disney films and late engagements of block busters like STAR WARS, SUPERMAN and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC. This theater always showed a double feature and there was a new program every week. A lot of times you’d get the new Disney release along with an old matinee classic like SINBAD or LASSIE. I remember seeing a full afternoon of Disney short subject cartoons the very first time I went. After the Placerville Cinema Four opened, the Empire was split in two and it was horrible—you could hear the sound from the next door movie during your movie. Too bad the place couldn’t be restored—Main Street could use a nice arts venue.

 

kencmcintyre on April 11, 2009 at 11:04 am

Here is a 1982 photo:
http://tinyurl.com/c6p78v

 

kencmcintyre on April 11, 2009 at 11:01 am

Here is part of an April 1997 article from the Placerville Mountain Democrat:

It’s a wrap for Placerville’s Empire Theater as the Main Street movie house prepares for its final screenings tomorrow night. The Empire – which served as Placerville’s only movie theater for 50 years until 1984-will shutter in the wake of declining business and the pending opening of a six-screen movie theater on Placerville Drive, according to theater manager Julie Vogan.

“It’s been very slow … We’ve had about 20 people a week for the past several months,” Vogan said. Signature Theaters, which operates the Empire and Cinema 4 on Ray Lawyer Drive and is spearheading the new theater efforts, originally planned to close Empire when the new complex opens â€"scheduled for August. However, the theater’s patronage lessened dramatically when a multi-screen theater opened in Folsom almost a year ago. Business declined so much at the 375-seat Empire that the decision was made to close it early, Vogan said.

Empire isn’t the only local theater hurt by the Folsom cinema. The number of Placerville Cinema 4 theatergoers has gone down by about half since the Folsom theater opened, Vogan said. She said she hopes the new, 1,200-seat theater in Placerville will draw locals who are going to Folsom to see first-run movies. The 21,600-square foot theater broke ground about three weeks ago near the intersection of Pierroz Road and Placerville Drive.

The Empire, meanwhile, was built in 1931 after the original theater burned down in the mid-1920s. The early movie bill had a standard format: a short reel followed by a newsreel, a comedy and a feature. Adults paid 30 cents and children 15 cents, according to Mountain Democrat files. During the mid-1980s,the Sierra Cultural Arts Center Association and Theatre El Dorado studied using the theater as an arts center. However, no plans ever reached fruition.

The Empire struggled over the next 13 years to stay afloat as more theaters came to and near Placerville. In May 1984 the Empire â€" then owned by the Toler family – closed when Cinema 4 opened its doors and the home video business flourished. At the time, manager Jim Toler called it “an example of big business squeezing out the independent business man …” The theater reopened later that year as the Schisnewski family took over. Ultimately, Signature Theaters took over.

 

kencmcintyre on March 13, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Here is a March 1977 ad from the Placerville Mountain Democrat:
http://tinyurl.com/cqqr4j

 

Denis Vaughn on December 23, 2008 at 4:48 pm

At this point in time it seems doubtful that the Empire could ever be restored. It is thoughly restructured and only the marquee remains. The area could definitely use an arts center, but if it ever happens it won’t be downtown. Had local officials been sufficiently thoughtful and foresighted, they might have imposed a requirement on the owners of the new casino in Shingle Springs that they either restore the Empire or build a suitable facility elsewhere. If the casino people could spend $20 million for a freeway interchange, they could have come up with a few hundred thousand for a world-class arts center as well.

 

kencmcintyre on November 30, 2007 at 5:34 pm

Here is a photo:
http://tinyurl.com/yvrcrj

 

kencmcintyre on December 12, 2006 at 4:22 pm

Here is a 1987 article from the Placerville Mountain Democrat about efforts to find a buyer for the theater:

Empire Theater Up for Sale Again

The 56-year-old New Empire Theater, which served as Placerville’s only movie theater for 50 years, is up for sale once again after Placerville developers Jim Liles and Jim Newmeyer gave up on a dream to turn it into a performing arts center. Liles and Newmeyer bought the theater in 1985, rented upstairs office space to arts groups and began scheduling live performances of musical acts like Jesse Colin Young, Dan Hicks and Maria Muldaur. But the two developers recently grant deeded the 375-seat theater back to Aria Toler, who has been trying to sell it since 1984.

The goal was “to keep it as an entertainment facility,” Newmeyer said. “We did as much as we could. We gave it a run. We ‘tried stuff. There just wasn’t enough support … The burden of the building and the maintenance made it too hard to do the kind of program we wanted.” That burden amounts to about $70,000 to $100,000 in maintenance costs to bring the aging building into compliance with city building and fire codes, estimated Don McConnell, real estate agent handling the sale for Toler.

The theater is plagued with a costly, antiquated heating system, old wiring and plumbing, inadequate insulation and a faulty fire wall, several sources said. The city sent Toler a letter in June which requires the necessary improvements before the theater can be used again, said Conrad Montgomery, Placerville’s community development director. Toler’s selling price is $300,000, McConnell said. Toler originally bought the theater in 1970 and continued operating it as a movie house. But she said she closed the doors in 1984 after the video craze and the new Placerville Cinema 4 began siphoning off customers and the city sent the bill for a $4,600 a year parking assessment.

The theater, built during the Great Depression in the 1930s, has a colorful background, involving old movies, stage shows and rumors of ghosts. One of the theater’s ads in the Mountain Democrat in 1933 featured James Cagney in “The Mayor of Hell,” John Barrymore in “Reunion in Vienna,” and Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in “Hold Your Man.” The theater presented stage shows in the early years. “Two Sensational Psychics” appeared there in August 1933: “Helena â€"the girl who baffled Edison” and “Mahra.” The audience was encouraged to “prepare your questions” ahead of time
.
The theater is haunted by ghosts, according to numerous employees and visitors over the years. “Good spirits reportedly inhabit the upper part of the theater, while the unsettled spirit of a drunk who died about 1940 in the boiler room supposedly leaves a negative aura in the inner sanctum of the structure,” the Mountain Democrat observed in 1984.

Toler blamed the monopolistic practices of the big movie companies for the downfall of small independent theaters like hers. “They make the film, they distribute it and then they run it in their own theaters,” she said. The city has considered purchasing the theater in the past but was stopped by lack of funds. Both the Sierra Cultural Arts Center Association and Theater El Dorado have considered using it as a cultural arts center. But the theater requires numerous renovations to function in that capacity, representatives have claimed.

“We were a little early for what we wanted to do,” Newmeyer said. “The town is rejuvenating” and the support will be there in the future, he said. “There is no central place for the arts,” said Newmeyer. He said the theater is a prime location for that arts center. “It still could be done,” Newmeyer claims, but it will take a “full-time person” who has the resources, he said. Toler agreed. “If somebody came in here and had the know how, I’m sure they could make it go,” she said.