Empire Theatre

432 Main Street,
Placerville, CA 95667

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Joe Vogel
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
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
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 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!


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 11:01 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:

Denis Vaughn
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 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.