All these years later, Claremont continues to fascinate

by Mick Rhodes |

I was sold on Claremont as a place where things were happening when I was 16 and discovered Rhino Records (which has since decamped to Montclair). It wasn’t a difficult sale. The city’s art-centric vibe was palpable, especially to a young kid coming from the purposefully vanilla landscape of Glendora. Claremont felt like a place for weirdos. I was in.

A couple years later I had my first real experience with the locals when my band was “hired” (the payday, if any, was likely in adult beverages and fun) to play a party at Scripps College. A party is usually a great way to get introduced to anything or anyone, and in the case of Claremont, it was indeed fortuitous. To say it was eye-opening would be a vast underselling; though I’d had some experience working these types of jobs at Caltech and Occidental College, the fragrant early summer evening in Claremont spent in close proximity to oodles of brainy, like-aged kids near my hometown was a different kind of fun.

The town had me then and it has me now.

Though I didn’t live here until 2008, I spent countless hours in the City of Trees over the ensuing decades. Many of my closest friends lived here. My first wedding was at Claremont United Church of Christ. I played music at and patronized the late, lamented Press dozens of times from the 1990s forward. Claremont parties and events were always worth the drive from Pasadena or Venice, the two towns in which I dwelled the longest prior to my move east.

Claremont has certainly gone through changes, but it remains an oasis. We still boast the Laemmle arthouse theater. Our Friday Nights Live spring-summer music series continues to add some sizzle to kick off the weekend. The year-round monthly Art Walk brings lovers of art high, low, and in between to town. The annual craft beer walk, the Taste of Claremont, and various holiday events, including our tree lighting ceremony, continue to bring a unique small town charm.

Though Claremont’s late night scene isn’t what it once was, the Village has become a regional destination for weekend diners. Old favorites such as Walter’s, Pizza N’ Such, Espiau’s, and Viva Madrid, among others, are thankfully still part of the fabric, alongside popular newcomers such as La Popular and Bardot. The Village’s relatively small footprint will gain yet another up and coming chain restaurant this year when Finney’s Crafthouse opens at the former Press location on Harvard Avenue. And if you’re more of a morning person, Claremont is rife with a fine assortment of spectacular bakeries, as well as chain and local coffee spots.

Live theater took a hit when the Candlelight Pavilion closed in 2022, but thankfully Ophelia’s Jump, in nearby Upland, remains. The award-winning nonprofit theater production company’s programming runs from the traditional to the experimental, and in the past two years it has begun a music showcase series with intimate performances by local and regional acts. Other regional theater groups such as Inland Valley Reparatory remain vital, and the Claremont Colleges offer the occasional live theater production as well.

The pandemic knocked the Village’s former bastion of original live music, The Press, out of business. It was and remains a great loss. When things reopened it was pretty quiet in town. Now though, aside from the lamented loss of the Press, music has returned, with Friday Nights Live back in business from 6 to 9 p.m. through October, Walter’s booking music again, and of course the venerable Folk Music Center continuing to bring to town an eclectic variety of primarily acoustic bands and solo artists, as it has for more than 60 years. In addition, Union on Yale and the Back Abbey have acoustic acts performing in the evenings and during lunchtime on weekends. The aforementioned Ophelia’s Jump’s jump into the live music fray at its intimate Upland theater has added yet another option. Last Name Brewing, also in Upland, recently began booking live music again after a hiatus. Fans of jazz have the modest, free and long running Jazz at College Center shows every Sunday afternoon. And buskers still occasionally do their unofficial pop-up thing around town.

Of course the Claremont Colleges are always bringing live music to town— everything from the most delicate, hushed classical performances, to world music, pop, hip-hop, and jazz, to Pomona College’s Ussachevsky Memorial Festival of Electroacoustic Music, which celebrated its 34th year in February. Almost all of the events free and open to the public.

The Claremont Colleges are also an indispensable resource for all manner of interesting conversations about everything from world events to poetry, literature to hip-hop, always featuring renowned guests, esteemed professors, thinkers, and industry leaders. Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum and Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium, as well as an embarrassingly rich array of other venues are constantly offering something vital and interesting on one of the campuses in town, and most of the time it’s free and open to the public.

Claremont’s storied art scene is as hot as ever, with the recently expanded Claremont Lewis Museum of Art, the previously mentioned Saturday Art Walk events, various public and private galleries in town, and of course the Claremont Colleges’ full spectrum of opportunities to explore. Perhaps the most exciting recent addition to this vibrant tapestry is Pomona College’s gleaming, state-of-the-art, $44 million, 33,331-square-foot Benton Museum of Art, which opened in 2021. The breathtakingly modern building was years on the making, and it was well worth the wait. Again, the Benton is free and open to the public, and is a must for art lovers visiting the City of Trees.

This is of course just a glancing look into what Claremont has going for it these days. Much has changed since I first laid eyes upon the city way back when. But the only thing we can depend on in this life is change, and Claremont has for the most part embraced its evolution from sleepy college suburb to not-so-sleepy regional weekend destination college town. Through it all, my initial infatuation remains.


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