A Glimpse Into the Past: The Opera House, a Bank, a Hotel and a Bar!
The Spirit of Tehachapi
The Opera House, an early Tehachapi building, was located on F Street in the place where the present College Community Service building now stands (113 E. F St.), next to the little yogurt shop. It was a focal point for dances, local entertainment, meetings and silent movie films. A 1915 newspaper announced a Charlie Chaplain movie, The Little Tramp, being shown at the local Opera House.
Margaret Erbel, a young Tehachapi resident still in her teens, was known to play the piano for the silent films for without inspiring climactic accompaniment, the sad, glad and bad moods of the film were lessened. Imagine a villain absconding with a fair maiden in stark silence. No way. The same, Margaret Erbel would play for the Saturday night dances at the Opera House and then arise early the next day to play the old pump organ at St. Malachy Catholic Church. The Opera House burned down, and I have no idea what started the blaze. Time seems to erase a lot of facts that everyone knew at the time, but no one bothered to write down. The blaze was not even printed in any surviving papers of that era but Margaret Erbel’s daughter, the late Mary Farrell, remembered her mother talking about the blaze. Fortunately, Mary mentioned it to me one day.
When the present Hitching Post Theatre was built, they had a contest offering a prize for the best name of the establishment. I sent in The Opera House for my entry with an explanation of the historical issue, but the present name was chosen. It’s good and has an Old West flavor, but I wonder if they knew there was a Hitching Post Bar for some years on the west side next to Kelcys’ Café’s present site on Main Street (Tehachapi Blvd.)? I used to walk past it on my way to the telephone office where I worked as an operator in 1947 and 1948 for .65 cents an hour. If I had the all-night shift I would pass by at 10:30 in the evening to the sounds of music and singing wafting out to greet me. They usually left the front door open for some reason and I could sometimes see people sitting at the bar or dancing. Occasionally I would see a spot outside on the sidewalk where someone had vomited and also have been known to step over large wet spots on the sidewalk in front of the establishment which I hoped was spilled beer. What bothers me most is, I can’t remember what their phone number was! The local populace seldom called by number but depended on the operators to know them all. We did, mostly; there were only a few hundred numbers! oH How could I have forgotten?
The Bank of Tehachapi was a quaint, attractive old light brown brick structure that was built in 1906. Green Street was lined with Honey Locust trees that added to the charm of the scene. Tec Computer Repair now occupies that site. It was one of the few banks in this country that did not need to close during the throes of the depression of the 1930s. I was employed there as a teller/ secretary having left the telephone operator job behind. Perhaps a little more prestige, but I still only made 65 cents an hour.
As a result of my employment, I was a participant in the move from the old bank to the new one on F Street. The New bank was built in 1948 on the old Opera House location (today, the College Community Service site). The day we moved in did not merely involve walking a half block to the new location; we also had to move the money! No Brinks truck was called, just the local law man (singular). He drove over in his vehicle, and we five bank employees all rode with him, and the money, the half block to the new bank and the new bank vault that actually had a timed lock. The vault in the old bank was somewhat less secure but it did have a combination lock.
We were never robbed but one day, my boss – Mr. C.V. Spencer – spent some anxious moments as he watched a local man, standing in front of the bank under a locust tree, chain smoking and nervously looking up and down Green Street, obviously waiting for someone. The man was known to have robbed a bank in the Midwest and had actually done time for the deed. Finally the nervous chain smoker was picked up by someone in an old Chevy sedan, and off they went! Actually, the ex-bank robber was a very nice man and became a well-respected citizen who lived here for many years until he died. He’d have gotten a good laugh had he known what my boss was fearful of on that long ago day. The “elder” bank building was destroyed in the 1952 earthquake.
The French Hotel. Going back to the corner of Green and F Streets, before the Hitching Post Theatre, before Gong’s Drug Store, before J.B’s Drug store, before the 1952 quake, there was another building; a tall, two story wooden frame building standing there. We called it the French Hotel though there was another hotel, across the tracks, by the same name. Sometimes it was called the Basque Hotel, but the sign on the building clearly read Tehachapi Hotel. It didn’t matter, people knew what they meant! One could hear laughter and music when walking by. The upstairs had rooms for rent; mostly people who stayed permanently, and the downstairs had a bar, restaurant and a place to dance. They played French/Basque music as well as the popular songs of the day.
In 1945, when I was a Junior in High School, the French Hotel became The Tehachapi Inn changing the cuisine to Italian fare. The upstairs rooms were not rented as the owner, John Rizzardo, had his family living there. Johnny Rizzardo, as the name tells us, was an Italian and was an excellent cook; I’d say chef. He had a good business and each Saturday night people came there to dance at the “new Italian” place!
By that time, I was old enough – at least seventeen – to enter the establishment to dance. There was live music and we high school kids liked to come on Saturday evenings. John Rizzardo’s daughter, Helen, became my best friend and stayed my friend until her death a few years back.
One day, when we were upstairs in her room on the second floor, I asked Helen why there was a flag holder on the wall. She told me it had once been a school. It was then I found that the tall, framed wooden building had once been Summit School and had been moved from across the tracks after a newer school had been constructed. Many of our city’s buildings “traveled” with their owners in years past. Those early pioneers knew how to do what almost seems, with the means they had, impossible. “Just pick up a house and move it on log rollers with a team of horses!” Nothin’ to it!
Time marches on and memories soon fade. A little glimpse into the past never hurts anyone, though.