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Casa de Bandini blues

Juan Bandini was famous for introducing the waltz to California

Alfred Scott McLaren rails against neglect of his family heritage, Casa de Bandini.
Alfred Scott McLaren rails against neglect of his family heritage, Casa de Bandini.

“Look! Look at this! Crumbling! And they’ve even taken the historical marker plaque off the wall.” This is my brother-in-law Fred, back in town, visiting the old family home. His family were Bandinis; their pride, back in the day, was the historical Casa de Bandini in Old Town plaza.

Now, he’s not happy. “This has gone to hell,” he says. We’re standing on the steps looking up at the Casa. It’s the handsome two-story building on the corner. For Fred, this is a kind of sanctuary. He is a great-great grandson of the family progenitor, Don Juan Bandini — early revolutionary, scourge of California’s wealthy missions, legendary dancer of the fandango and even the — shock! Horror! — church-banned waltz. Fred, who’s a retired nuclear attack sub captain and an Arctic scientist, has come back regularly to stay in the Casa de Bandini, to eat in the dining room where the Great Man ate and danced, to invite family to dine and retell well-honed stories. And also to visit with ghosts of his past. 

“Really. Ghosts,” he says. “I was here just a couple of years ago. In the Isadora Room. Everybody who’s stayed there has encountered the ghost of a cat, but I experienced the presence of Isadora Bandini herself. I was coming down for dinner, and as I entered the bathroom to wash my hands, this hand gently stroked my cheek. There was no doubt. It was a woman’s hand, firm. I’ve had women stroke my cheek in my time, and I know the feeling.”

Today though, the place is closed up, locked down, with chairs piled up behind musty windows. “Look at the neglect,” he says. “This has happened in the last couple of years. The dining room now is just as drab as hell. That used to be really colorful in there. Now it’s like an old people’s home.” Fred blames this drift towards drab in Old Town on the authorities who changed its look from that of a Spanish/Mexican era settlement to the much less exciting transitional period in the mid 1800s, when the Anglos were taking over. “No color! Except here. This was the Casa de Bandini restaurant, which was always filled,” he says, peering through the window. “You’d never know Juan Bandini held dances here. He was famous for introducing that wicked dance, the waltz, to California. Right here! But just look at the condition of the chairs. This is a historic site, and it’s going to hell.” 

A State Parks wagon cruises up. Ranger Brian Lane comes over. “It’s leased out to a company called the Old Town Hospitality Corporation,” he says. “Because of Covid, it has been closed altogether. They haven’t opened up the restaurant part, or any other parts of it right now.” But he says Fred shouldn’t worry unduly. “Any kind of disrepair that you’re seeing is just minor cosmetic stuff. They do have a plan to re-open it. New floor planks, and they’ll replace water-damaged boards.”

“Still,” says Fred. “How come the Casa de Estudillo is in much better shape, AND open for visitors!? Why was the Bandini house abandoned?”

“State Parks runs the Casa de Estudillo directly,” says Ranger Lane. “The Old Town Hospitality Corporation got the contract for the Bandini House. You’ll have to ask them.”

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Alfred Scott McLaren rails against neglect of his family heritage, Casa de Bandini.
Alfred Scott McLaren rails against neglect of his family heritage, Casa de Bandini.

“Look! Look at this! Crumbling! And they’ve even taken the historical marker plaque off the wall.” This is my brother-in-law Fred, back in town, visiting the old family home. His family were Bandinis; their pride, back in the day, was the historical Casa de Bandini in Old Town plaza.

Now, he’s not happy. “This has gone to hell,” he says. We’re standing on the steps looking up at the Casa. It’s the handsome two-story building on the corner. For Fred, this is a kind of sanctuary. He is a great-great grandson of the family progenitor, Don Juan Bandini — early revolutionary, scourge of California’s wealthy missions, legendary dancer of the fandango and even the — shock! Horror! — church-banned waltz. Fred, who’s a retired nuclear attack sub captain and an Arctic scientist, has come back regularly to stay in the Casa de Bandini, to eat in the dining room where the Great Man ate and danced, to invite family to dine and retell well-honed stories. And also to visit with ghosts of his past. 

“Really. Ghosts,” he says. “I was here just a couple of years ago. In the Isadora Room. Everybody who’s stayed there has encountered the ghost of a cat, but I experienced the presence of Isadora Bandini herself. I was coming down for dinner, and as I entered the bathroom to wash my hands, this hand gently stroked my cheek. There was no doubt. It was a woman’s hand, firm. I’ve had women stroke my cheek in my time, and I know the feeling.”

Today though, the place is closed up, locked down, with chairs piled up behind musty windows. “Look at the neglect,” he says. “This has happened in the last couple of years. The dining room now is just as drab as hell. That used to be really colorful in there. Now it’s like an old people’s home.” Fred blames this drift towards drab in Old Town on the authorities who changed its look from that of a Spanish/Mexican era settlement to the much less exciting transitional period in the mid 1800s, when the Anglos were taking over. “No color! Except here. This was the Casa de Bandini restaurant, which was always filled,” he says, peering through the window. “You’d never know Juan Bandini held dances here. He was famous for introducing that wicked dance, the waltz, to California. Right here! But just look at the condition of the chairs. This is a historic site, and it’s going to hell.” 

A State Parks wagon cruises up. Ranger Brian Lane comes over. “It’s leased out to a company called the Old Town Hospitality Corporation,” he says. “Because of Covid, it has been closed altogether. They haven’t opened up the restaurant part, or any other parts of it right now.” But he says Fred shouldn’t worry unduly. “Any kind of disrepair that you’re seeing is just minor cosmetic stuff. They do have a plan to re-open it. New floor planks, and they’ll replace water-damaged boards.”

“Still,” says Fred. “How come the Casa de Estudillo is in much better shape, AND open for visitors!? Why was the Bandini house abandoned?”

“State Parks runs the Casa de Estudillo directly,” says Ranger Lane. “The Old Town Hospitality Corporation got the contract for the Bandini House. You’ll have to ask them.”

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