No high resolution image exists...
Talking to people who grew up in Sacramento in the 1930s-1950s exposed me to an aspect of Sacramento that I never expected. Despite its reputation as a place without much nightlife, Sacramento has a long history as a town that stayed open late, played as hard as it worked, and was seldom short of musical entertainment. At some point Sacramento got a reputation for being stodgy and unexciting, and most of us who grew up here assumed that was the case, but the historical evidence simply doesn’t back that up.
The best description of Sacramento night life in its early days comes from Mark Twain:
Territorial Enterprise, February 1866
LETTER FROM SACRAMENTO [dated February 25, 1866]
”I arrived in the City of Saloons this morning at 3 o'clock, in company with several other disreputable characters, on board the good steamer Antelope, Captain Poole, commander. I know I am departing from usage in calling Sacramento the City of Saloons instead of the City of the Plains, but I have my justification -- I have not found any plains, here, yet, but I have been in most of the saloons, and there are a good many of them. You can shut your eyes and march into the first door you come to and call for a drink, and the chances are that you will get it. And in a good many instances, after you have assuaged your thirst, you can lay down a twenty and remark that you "copper the ace," and you will find that facilities for coppering the ace are right there in the back room. In addition to the saloons, there are quite a number of mercantile houses and private dwellings. They have already got one capitol here, and will have another when they get it done. They will have fine dedicatory ceremonies when they get it done, but you will have time to prepare for that -- you needn't rush down here right away by express. You can come as slow freight and arrive in time to get a good seat”. –Mark Twain
While working on my Southside Park book, I spoke with Billie Kanelos of Old Ironsides. She described one of her favorite pastimes as a teenager, walking downtown to the Dairy Maid, an ice cream parlor, for banana splits. But this wasn't an activity that she did right after school, then home in time for dinner at 6 or 7 PM, but rather at about 11:00 PM after seeing a movie on K Street. The Dairy Maid, like a lot of other Sacramento eateries, was open until midnight or later, and occupied by people of all ages.
It wasn't the only place, either; K Street and J Street had dance halls, theaters, nightclubs and restaurants that were open well into the evening, some all night. Some of the most popular were the Trianon Ballroom above the Fox Senator Theater on K Street (one of about a dozen downtown movie theaters), and nightclubs like the Mo-Mo, Congo and Zanzibar Club along M Street. Many restaurants were open late or all night, with fare ranging from Italian dinners to Chinese food to waffles.
Sacramento had many breweries, the biggest of which was the Buffalo Brewery on 21st and P, and several wineries, including the California Winery just across R Street from Buffalo Brewery. Hop fields were plentiful around Sacramento, to meet the breweries’ demand. While much of the beer was exported (Los Angeles was a huge consumer of Buffalo Brewery’s beer) a plentiful amount was for local consumption. One of downtown Sacramento’s best known Victorian era buildings, the Ruhstaller Building on 9th and J, was the taproom for Captain Frank Ruhstaller’s brewery on 12th and H, the Capital City Brewery. Buffalo Brewery’s taproom, the Buffalo Club, stood on 19th and S Street until being demolished a few years ago.
Prohibition, the nationwide ban on alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933, slowed down the official production of alcohol, and closed many breweries and wineries, but even then, Sacramento was notorious as a “wet” town, with many speakeasies downtown and in the outlying farm communities. At one point, officers of nearby military bases forbade their soldiers entry into Sacramento, due to Sacramento’s reputation as an easy place to get a drink. When Prohibition ended in 1933, legendary tavern Old Ironsides received Sacramento’s first official liquor license after Prohibition. It should be noted, though, that by the time Old Ironsides opened its doors, there were already other bars operating that had not yet bothered with the formality of obtaining a liquor license.
Others I met during my research for the book talked about the K Street cruise, Sacramento’s original cruise. Although in the 1950s and 1960s downtown Sacramento was changing, largely due to the explosive expansion into the suburbs and redevelopment pressures, there was still plenty to do downtown.
Redevelopment had a profound effect on downtown Sacramento, including both its nightlife and its population. The Capitol Mall project destroyed most of the residential neighborhood along M Street, including the aforementioned Mo-Mo, Congo and Zanzibar clubs, while Interstate 5 destroyed whole downtown blocks. One objective of downtown redevelopment was to reduce the population of the central city from its 1950s level of about 32 residential units per acre to a more suburb-like 8 residential units per acre. To accomplish this, 75% of downtown’s population had to be removed. Many of the remaining 25% could not afford the limited number of garden apartments that replaced earlier multi-story apartment buildings, rooming houses, and other residential buildings, resulting in an almost complete shift in the neighborhood’s population.
By the end of the redevelopment era, Sacramento’s downtown was almost depopulated, except for the several thousand residents of the old waterfront residential hotels. These hotels were closed, and either demolished or converted into non-residential structures as part of Old Sacramento. Because redevelopment-era case workers did not consider single individuals to be residents, working only with families, they were ineligible for relocation assistance or alternate housing. So they moved from their old homes into other hotels along K Street, some of which are still used as residential hotels.
One unintended effect of this depopulation was the elimination of most of the customers that came downtown, either on foot or by streetcar, to eat, drink and be entertained. Remaining businesses suffered because their customers now lived much farther away. Sacramento’s middle class had moved to the suburbs, and car-centric places like shopping centers, suburban movie theaters and drive-ins, and new indoor malls were more convenient than driving downtown to shop on K Street. Parking was limited, the streetcars were gone, and walking was no longer practical. Before long, downtown Sacramento had changed dramatically. Without customers with money to spend, the handful of remaining businesses had little reason to stay open late, or to stay open at all. New businesses focused their attention on the remaining market, mostly office workers who left at night. It was this era that gave Sacramento its reputation as a place that rolled up its sidewalks at 5:00 PM.