This is the first in a series about music in the foothills.
Local entertainment was an important social outlet in rural communities like Placerville during the early and mid-20th century.
Younger readers may not recall the dark ages before cell phones, tweets, texts and Facebook. Staying in touch with your main squeeze wasn’t so easy. Finding one was even harder and actually squeezing them was nearly impossible, but we found a way.
The young and the restless relied on the land line back then — we called the family phone.
Lacking Starbucks or Zia’s, more intimate face time was often initiated at large dances hosted by the institutions of the day, churches, schools, the city or fraternal organizations, whose fellows didn’t seem quite so odd at the time.
In El Dorado County, bands with quaint-sounding names like “Smitty and his Rhythmeers” and “The Happy Hayseeds” provided the requisite boy-meets-girl social lubricant in fairgrounds, Odd Fellows halls, grange halls, community centers and the local Lion’s Club in the mid-20th century.
Mary Ann Harper met a guy named Harry back in 1959 at one such dance in one such venue, the Shingle Springs Community Center. The 2011 El Dorado Rose married that same guy under that same roof the following year. She recalls Smitty and others of his ilk providing the soundtrack for her generation.
The soundtrack evolved with the rise of honky-tonk music and later, rock and roll, which brought a younger crowd to a new generation of lively entertainment venues which could still get rough at times, but were often an improvement over the sodden affairs they replaced, venues deemed inappropriate for young ladies in most families.
But the dances, street parties and outdoor concerts were fair game, important social outlets that attracted young and old alike to the Bell Tower or the old downtown parking lot, where the parking garage now graces downtown Placerville as a testament to function over form.
Pony Express Days and the El Dorado County Fair were eagerly anticipated.
The highlight of the summer for many local teens and 20 somethings was the Wagon Train. Cowboys and cowgirls at heart traversed Echo Summit by wagon to commemorate the struggle of the emigrants, circling the wagons at wide spots in the old Roaring Road, aka Highway 50, nightly for hoedowns that are the stuff of legend.
The grand finale is still held in Placerville every summer and is still a good time.
The Wagon Train lives on, but the procession is dwindling. To see how you can help keep the tradition alive, visit the Highway 50 Association Website at hwy50wagontrain.com or the Placerville Downtown Association Website at placerville-downtown.org.
Unlike the bars of the day, the dances were deemed respectable, as long as the young girl in question got home with most of her clothing in place and didn’t smell too much like liquor.
Not that there wasn’t plenty around. Alcohol-fueled testosterone flare-ups were common, but serious injuries were rare.
Ray Park once described the agenda at the Oak Grove Dance Pavilion in Linden: “The dance starts at 9 and the fights start at 9:30.”
Outnumbered deputies were known to handcuff combatants’ arms around the trees and let them cool until morning.
Bar owners in the late 1950s found that a little rock and roll sold a lot of beer, creating a whole new class of raucous road houses, often owned by local businessmen who were burning the candle at both ends. Many flamed out quickly.
Those who recall those establishments speak reverentially about the experience.
A teenager named Babe Laam brought rock and roll to Placerville at a road house named Merryman’s at the east end of Broadway in 1956. The shows got even crazier in 1960 when he got back from the Army. The building still hosts wildlife as the Sierra Wildlife Rescue.
Larry Park played in several prominent local bands in the 1970s, including the Slab Creek Boys, the Country Edition and most notably the Lenzmen, a power country rock band that paved the way for bigger things in Park’s music career.
Those bands and dozens of others played in a vibrant Placerville music scene made up of blue collar joints like the Red Rose, which followed Merryman’s on the Broadway site.
Other lost venues include the Blue Bell, which is now The Bookery, a used book store. Lindy’s became Robinson’s pharmacy. The Brunello family’s bowling alley is now Mother Lode Rehabilitation Enterprises Inc.
Babe Laam and his band enjoyed huge turnouts at the Westerner on Placerville Drive in the early 1960s. It later became Arnavais, then Tinker’s Cove, which featured a Plexiglas fish tank built into the dance floor. Durangos Mexican Restaurant opened on the site in 1979.
The Carriage Room, which later became Jed’s on the upper end of lower Broadway, became a favorite watering hole and music venue. The Depot in Shingle Springs, located by the site of, what else, the depot, was a hot spot which got a little too hot and burned down.
The landmark tourist magnet Sam’s Town hosted live music amidst the peanut shells, right in front, before Sam installed the projection TV, the first big screen TV many of us ever experienced. He later opened a dank and sticky nightclub venue in back.
Larry Park said he played the Smith Flat House “too many times to remember,” but recalled playing there with Zella Lear in the early 1980s.
John Conforti has since turned the historic building into a holistic healing center and restaurant, which is appropriate, given all the good vibes that once emanated from the tavern downstairs. After being locked up for many years, the subterranean venue has reopened as The Cellar, serving California cuisine and brick oven pizza. If only John would reopen the mine shaft which ran all the way to Union Ridge.
Carl Borelli’s Vesuvio Pizza was a favorite local haunt, as was its successor, La Casa Grande, Placerville’s friendliest, and perhaps first Mexican restaurant. The site’s latest incarnation, Torinos Italian restaurant, will hopefully continue the legacy.
Next door, the Liar’s Bench remains frozen in time, except that the denizens of the dark must now emerge to light up. The Bench still books local acts.
Out in Coloma, the Sierra Nevada House has a long history of live music, including the first public performance by Georgetown’s Keith Little, who played beside the sons of “Vern and Ray,” a teenaged Larry Park and Del Williams in the early 1970s. It’s still a great spot to hear live music on summer weekends.
Little went on to a successful career in Nashville and remains a sought-after sideman for big names in Americana music, including David Grisman, with whom he headlines the Saturday lineup of the American River Music Festival in the Coloma Valley Sept. 13, 14 and 15.
The Sierra Nevada House is a particularly hot spot during the festival.
Coloma’s other historic music venue, the Vineyard House, once hosted live entertainment in its dank cellar, which had an Edgar Allen Poe quality, perhaps because it is allegedly haunted, according to about 100 Websites.
A supernatural presence might explain the other-worldly chicken and dumplings served upstairs. The Vineyard House has been a private residence for many years.
Members of the Park and Laam families played all those venues and many more at one point or another. Their stories are coming up in upcoming explorations of Hangtown’s musical roots.
Anyone who heard Ray Park’s blazing fiddle in Coloma, caught Babe Laam channeling Elvis on lower Broadway or witnessed Larry Park’s screaming guitar solos with the Lenzmen at the Blue Bell should enjoy the ride.
Hold on tight.