BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — There’s a pre-1952 Bakersfield and a post-1952 Bakersfield, and the delineating factor was the series of earthquakes and aftershocks that damaged and in some cases destroyed buildings throughout much of Kern County.
Read the full story from KGET’s Robert Price in a 17 News Special Report.
The initial Kern County earthquake, centered near Tehachapi, hit on July 21, 1952, but the shaker locals know today at the Bakersfield earthquake was a 5.8-magnitude aftershock, which hit on Aug. 22, 33 days later. The afternoon of that aftershock, Ken Brenneman, just two days from his 9th birthday, was at the California Theater on Chester Avenue with his older brother Tom and Cynthia, the girl who lived across the street.
The boys’ mother had dropped off the three of them to watch a re-release of the 1933 movie “King Kong” with Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong – a double feature with “The Leopard Man.” The theater had been showing cartoons and previews; there was a brief intermission while the projectionist loaded the newsreel. Young Ken decided this would be a good time to pee. The restrooms were up in the balcony.
“I put my foot on the first step to go upstairs and boom! The earthquake hit,” Brenneman said. “So I grabbed the handrail and just kinda stayed there while everything was shaking. My brother said he was still sitting in the auditorium, and he said the first thing he noticed was that the camera went up to the ceiling – the picture – then to the left, then to the right, then it quit working.”
Young Brenneman was almost knocked over by a movie-theater usher bolting down the stairs but he gathered himself and evacuated onto the sidewalk outside as instructed. A few minutes later, the boys’ panicked mother came running down the debris-strewn sidewalk in her bare feet. She’d been barefoot when the quake hit and jumped into her car with only one thought. Now, prevented by police from parking any closer, she sprinted through the wreckage with motherly determination.
Years later, Brenneman – who worked as a bartender at Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks for 55 years – was talking about the ‘52 earthquake with a regular customer – Phil the mailman, as he was known to all. Phil mentioned he’d worked as an usher at the California Theater that day – up in the balcony.
“So I grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him over a little bit. You remember that little kid at the bottom of the stairs you ran over? That was me. And we all started laughing. The whole bar thought that was funny,” Brenneman said.