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In the Limelight: Empire Theatre

11/22/2017 01:19PM

 It was good news for everyone when the Empire Theatre on Main Street opened on September 19, 1930. Having been without a movie theater since the conflagration that destroyed the Elite Theater 18 months prior, the citizens of Placerville packed the Empire on opening night. The feature film was one of the first all talking, singing and dancing releases from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer entitled Good News starring Bessie Love.

The Empire Theatre—housed in a luxuriously appointed, brand new building built by developer Jim Morton—featured 585 seats upholstered in leather, acoustically plastered walls, and a state-of-the-art sound system by Western Electric. 

The property still stands (although the building now houses Empire Antiques) and has been home to various places of entertainment since the days of the Gold Rush. 

One of the first establishments to lay claim to the space was the Empire House, a hotel with a bar, billiard room and bowling alley constructed by John O’Donnell in 1850. The framing for the building was shipped from New York and assembled on Placerville’s Main Street. Large block letters across the front of the building proclaimed it the EMPIRE.

In July of 1856, fire raged through Placerville laying waste to most of the buildings along Main Street, including the Empire. Undaunted, O’Donnell and his partner, Cornelius Russell, built an elaborate theater in its place that included a stage reputed at the time to be the largest in California. The theater, which accommodated about 150 people, had a parquet gallery, orchestra pit and opera boxes with upholstered seats. 

The cinema continued to be a venue for local and prominent performers of the time—including musicians, opera stars and repertory acting troupes—until 1877, when fire again swept down Main Street and destroyed it. 

Following this destruction, O’Donnell’s widow built a home on the property where she and her grown children lived until 1929 when they sold the house to a developer named Jim Morton.

Morton tore down the house and built a modern movie theater, which was dubbed the Empire Theatre after the original Empire House. The Empire opened in 1930 under the direction of Frank Atkins, who leased it from Morton. Grace Littlefield bought the building at an auction in 1935 and continued as owner until 1971. During that time, the movie theater was leased to several different individuals; however, in 1966, after 36 years of wear and tear, it closed. In 1971, the Toler family purchased the building from Littlefield, refurbished the old theater, and reopened it. 

The Tolers operated the theater until the mid-1980s when competition from video stores and newer movie theaters curtailed their business. Several other enterprises tried unsuccessfully to revive it during the ’80s and ’90s. 

Rumors abound of the ghosts who inhabit the theater. One story tells of a man who shot his rival with a real pistol while on stage; the unfortunate victim has been seen standing on stage with a hole in his chest. The boiler room is reportedly the haunt of an old caretaker who suffered a heart attack there; objects are moved, items are thrown and voices are heard…just like in the movies.  

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