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Lifestyles

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Brent Parsons
07/24/2014 12:04 PM
Cedric Clute and his wife, Jan, recently moved from their rural home of 34 years to an 1885 Victorian in Jackson. Photo courtesy of Brent Parsons

History enriches and historians enrich. A visit to the studied location stimulates the process. We are fortunate in Amador to need not travel far. Our towns, founded with the discovery of gold, developed with taste and survived relatively intact when the reason for their birth died. Proud citizens and determined business owners preserved their structures through the economic challenges of the last 150 years. And the chances for survival have improved as we collectively realize the treasure we have and adopt protective ordinances to step in when the property owner will not. In our county, the past is a constant presence — on the surface and below it.

In my time here, I have met, read and listened to local historians. I’ve heard Cedric Clute’s “Tales of the Mother Lode” sporadically for 25 years, but never officially met him. I called and we arranged to talk at his home, across from the Jackson cemetery, a feature his son thought him insane to choose as a neighbor. I forgot the house number, but remembered he had the greenest lawn in the neighborhood. The previous owner had planted drought-tolerant Astroturf. His cozy house was full of books, prints and mementos which could generate a full column by themselves. He and Jan squeezed into this 1,000-square-foot 1885 vintage house 18 months ago. Their home above Volcano was twice the size. Cedric estimated that 6,000 books had to find another shelf.

Cedric was born in 1931 in the southern part of Marin County. Universal curiosity made a singular direction difficult. He recalled taking the Greyhound into San Francisco as a young teen, walking down Market Street and being amazed by it all. “Downtown wasn’t sleazy then,” Cedric remembered. There was a “Freak Show” on 7th near Market where “unusual” people could make a living and be safe. Cedric made friends with some of them and became fascinated with magic and magicians. He was collecting “weird and crazy things” at an early age and took a particular interest in recorded music, especially pre-1950 records which would be termed “unpopular” since they weren’t what Cedric’s peers were listening to. He liked Vaudeville and vitaphone music, a sound system developed by Warner Brothers, produced on a disc to play simultaneously with a silent film.

He moved to San Francisco as an adult and worked for various businesses, including car dealers and a steamship company. He married and divorced. His musical interest eventually paid dividends via his younger brother, Peter. When Peter was 12, Cedric gave him a jazz recording that triggered such a passionate reaction that young Peter wrote a letter to the pianist, Wally Rose, of the Turk Murphy Band, asking for lessons. Wally said, “Yes,” but only if the boy agreed to 10 years of classical training before the jazz. Peter became a student and, a decade later, when he was attending Stanford studying economics, Turk took his band on the road. Wally, the pianist, didn’t want to go and Peter left school as his mentor’s replacement. After touring, Turk and Peter decided to partner in a club. Earthquake McGoon’s opened in 1960, at the foot of Broadway, and two years later, moved to Clay Street, near the site of the Transamerica Pyramid. Turk and Peter leased the entire old William Tell Hotel, with a flophouse upstairs and the club below. Cedric came on to manage the business. He lived in one of the 50 rooms for $21 a month. Cedric was at ground zero in a city that was the center of the 60’s Cultural Revolution. He was part of it for 16 years and he turned out just fine. As proof, he moved to and thrived in one of the most conservative counties in the state.

In 1964, Cedric joined with Pete and Turk on a venture to make some money by importing a few classic British cars and reselling them in the city. Things didn’t pan out as expected and some months later Cedric received a call from the owner of the old garage where the cars were stored to move them. As they were taking them off the blocks, one slipped and went through a wall. They surveyed the damage and noticed a trunk had fallen through the opening. It was stuffed with posters advertising a magician that Cedric, along with any fan of magic, would recognize — “Carter the Great.” (Not to be confused with Jimmy, who was elected 12 years later). The hidden room was packed with the props and tools of Carter’s career. Cedric asked the property owner, who was selling the building to a developer with plans to demolish and rebuild, about the cache. The story was that on Carter’s death in Bombay in 1936, his wife shipped all his possessions home to San Francisco and had them stored. There were no longer any heirs, interested ones, anyway. For $300, Cedric purchased 30 tons of treasure. The immediate issue was where the dream of a childhood could be relocated. For lack of any better options, the destination chosen was the basement below Earthquake McGoon’s. It wasn’t just like magic, because a lot of labor was involved, but soon a new club below another club was born, “Magic Cellar”. It had a good run. Cedric showed me a fun-filled photo album of his time as the cellar’s captain. “It was probably as illegal as could be. We operated off of McGoon’s licenses and were unsprinklered, with the only exit being a narrow stairway between the two clubs. City leaders, including members of fire and police, were regular customers. It became a magnet for not only magic aficionados, but artists and writers, too, especially fans of suspense and mystery. “It was a hub of creative energy,” Cedric reminisced. Photos proved his point. There were Sherlock Holmes lookalikes, and authors I should have known, along with the magicians. “Can you believe this?” he asked, as he showed the Flying Karamazov Brothers on stage juggling torches. “The ceiling was only eight feet high and the room was crowded and made of wood.” Possibly that edge added to the excitement of the place. After all, we lived and died without seatbelts in that perilous time. He and Jan met there. In the pictures, they both had big, frizzy hair. The cellar inspired stories and was the setting for “Alabama’s Ghost,” a movie promoted by Elvira, with Cedric in a bit part as a mad doctor. Cedric had to rush to L.A. and bring back an elephant-foot umbrella stand to use in a head-stomping scene. The director was afraid the real elephant might not act. Cedric said the film is still a cult classic. I’ll have to take his word for it.

In 1978, Jan and Cedric decided it was time for a change. Years without regular paychecks and the exciting instability and the bustle of the city stimulated a search for another life. “We bought a few acres above Fiddletown off the grid that we couldn’t afford and planned to build a house ourselves that we had no clue how to do. Fortunately, Jan’s brother drove down with a couple of friends from Washington and parked his trailer. He not only knew how to build but how to teach. Jan and Cedric were committed students. The tall vertical posts supporting the house were trees chosen from their property. “After six long months, including a cold winter, we had a home. Two trusting businesses made the project possible. The St. George gave us a tab and Spinetti’s Hardware, after asking why I always bought a pound of nails instead of a box, gave me a $3,000 line of credit. That was huge at the time.” I asked why they chose Amador. “My brother, Peter, and friends rock-hunted in Nevada. I believe it was 1954 when they detoured into Volcano on the trip home and, like any responsible traveler, hit the bar at the St. George. My brother amazed the patrons with his name. Peter Clute was also the name of a town founder. That coincidence started a relationship and, for years, Earthquake McGoon’s took over the St. George for film festivals. We liked it here.” Cedric commuted to work at the club three days a week for a year to scrounge up enough money to pay Spinetti’s back. The Clutes were off the grid for 15 years. “A generator was too noisy and expensive and the house wasn’t wired, anyway. We used kerosene for light and wood for heat.”

Cedric landed a local job in 1982 with CETA. For 21 months, Cedric traveled the county with a tape recorder, interviewing the old timers under the umbrella of the Amador County Historical Society. He had seen the advertisement and responded. “I didn’t even have clothes for the interview. My relevant qualification was that I was the curator of a museum which wasn’t much of a stretch. The Magic Cellar fit my definition” — evidently, the federal program’s too. He lugged the 25-pound Sony machine to 100 interviews and then banged them out on his typewriter. In the process, he became a historian. The county library took note and hired him part-time. The position became full-time when another librarian retired.

Amador’s historical museum was in one of its periodic states of turmoil in 1984, and Cedric, with his wealth of curating experience, talked Trevor Mottishaw, the county department head with museum oversight, into letting him give it a shot. Cedric ran the show for a decade and loved it. “I was my own boss and had a reasonable budget and the freedom to do what I thought best.”

Georgia Fox took over when Cedric retired in 1994. He held a wealth of Gold Country knowledge and by that time had perfected a vehicle for sharing it — “Tales of the Mother Lode.”

Cedric began the radio excerpts in 1983, in response to Stockton radio station KUOP’s desire to increase its connection with the foothills. Two local men showed up at the Jackson Library for the KUOP interview — Larry Cenotto and Cedric. After the discussion, Larry bowed out, but Cedric decided it was worth a try. His first tale was the story of the Japanese bombing Volcano.

The experiment was fun for Cedric and well-received by the listeners. He estimates that through the station changes over the last 30 years, KUOP, KNGT, Hometown Radio and, currently, KVGC, he has done 500 tales. They continue to be broadcast at 1340 on your AM dial Monday, Wednesday and Friday, following the 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. news broadcasts. I asked if he saw an end. “Not really, but I have a goal. I would like to do a 100-year anniversary program on the Argonaut Mine disaster.” His previous multi-part series on that event is a classic. The centennial will be in 2022. He looks and sounds good, and the victims buried across the street are rooting him on.

Copyright © 2014 Amador Ledger Dispatch
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