Down and out at Sunrise Mall

Mall culture in Citrus Heights isn’t what it was two decades ago. Mall nostalgia, however …

illustration by Hayley Doshay

For more information on the Sunrise at Night Concert Series, visit

We’re not just thirsty, we’re obsessed—primed to hunt down an Orange Julius on a blistering Saturday afternoon. This quest for the iconic and icy frothed beverage has become something of a manic fixation ever since we decided to revisit my old teenage stomping grounds, Sunrise Mall. We finally arrive—after traveling down an endless stretch of boulevard packed with drive-thru taco joints, tire stores and artery-clogging chain restaurants—and pull the car into a half-empty, yawning parking lot.

It’s not quite what I expected. Then again, it’s been more than 15 years since I last set foot inside Sunrise Mall, and at least 20 years since it reigned as the royalty of Sacramento-area shopping malls.

Now we make a beeline to the food court, curious to answer some of life’s more burning questions:

“What’s in an Orange Julius exactly?”

“Do they really put eggs in them?”

“Does it even still exist?”

My husband is skeptical.

“I’m pretty sure they’re out of business,” he says, frowning.

But not only is Orange Julius, a beverage chain founded in Southern California in 1926, still alive and well, it’s arguably one of the few bright spots in this otherwise desolate suburban commercial wasteland.

What previously seemed like the epitome of a teenage daydream—all neon sweatshirts, leg warmers and, yes, Orange Julius—now languishes, the passed-over middle child, half-forgotten in the shadows of its bigger, glitzier sisters; a quiet place for mall walkers; cheap second-run movies; concerts staged by faded ’70s and ’80s pop acts; and abnormally citrus-hued beverages.

Once Sunrise Mall, which opened its doors in 1972, beckoned like a bona fide John Hughes movie set. This was the promised land of fashionable mannequin tableaus, cheap junk food and cute boys. In other words, the quintessential pre-tech primitive social network.

The only thing missing, it seemed, was Molly Ringwald lurking amid the prom-dress racks at Weinstock’s, or Ally Sheedy in the bathroom, Aqua Netting her bangs into a protective eye mask.

Of course, reality was markedly different.

On weekends, we were lucky enough to get a parent to chauffeur us out to Citrus Heights, a 20-minute drive from our central Sacramento neighborhood. We usually arrived too broke to shop for anything but the clearance all-sales-are-final racks at Jean Nicole, Express or Journeys.

illustration by Hayley Doshay

Still, it seemed bright and fresh with tangerine-colored geometric tiles and clusters of yellow potted flowers. There were, too, cute boys on skateboards, and we could spend hours in the food court, nursing Diet Cokes, watching them execute perfect (if illicit) heelflips and shove-its. A few steps away, Birdcage Walk Cinema summoned, showing $1 second-run movies all day and into the night. Heaven.

This was the 1980s-era gold standard for teenage kicks, and it’d be years before it faced much in the way of competition. Then, Downtown Plaza Shopping Center was still just an open-air strip of disparate shops, populated largely with state workers, bike cops and bored punks brazenly skipping school, while other suburban centers such as Florin Mall and Arden Fair mall, seemed shabby and outdated.

Arden Fair, for example, was anchored on one end with a Thrifty Drug Store and a Food Circus—the latter a carnivalesque Mad Men-era food court that seems charmingly kitschy now, but then just felt sad and old-fashioned. In 1989, however, it underwent its own teen-movie-worthy makeover, ditching Thrifty and the Food Circus in exchange for a second story that stretched high with bright and airy skylights. It was sleek and modern and stocked with the latest, trendiest stores. The Downtown Plaza followed suit in 1993 with its own renovation upon purchase by the Westfield Group, which turned the run-down strip into stylish open-air market that was still largely populated by state workers, bike cops and bored punks, but at least now boasted a food court and, eventually, a J.Crew and Hard Rock Cafe.

Sunrise Mall, in comparison, suddenly seemed drab and very far away. Still, we returned, at least for a few more years—loyal to a Friday-night ritual that involved the teasing of hair into rats’ nests and the blasting of Depeche Mode and INXS as we cruised the boulevard in our parents’ hand-me-down, beat-up Oldsmobiles and Chevy Impalas.

Oh, yes, cruise night, one friend recalls now, wistfully.

“You’d just stare at other teens in their cars, and sometimes guys would wave and tell you to pull into the parking lot of Bobby McGee’s or Birdcage Walk,” she says. “Then you would, and then you’d all stand around, and it would be awkward, and no one would know what to say.”

Eventually, however, we drifted away from the boulevard; we rented apartments downtown and traded malls for thrift shops, Depeche Mode for Nirvana and those rusted boats for secondhand economy cars.

As such, I haven’t thought about Sunrise Mall in years until someone mentions it’s home to Sunrise at Night, a new outdoor concert series headlined by the likes of Three Dog Night, Devo and Blondie—acts not exactly aimed at the Justin Bieber crowd. Now, as I quiz the Orange Julius cashier on the drink’s ingredients (“It’s always had egg,” she says, bored. “Powdered egg.”) it becomes clear that the Sunrise Mall of my youth has long disappeared.

Not only did a 1999 update strip the plaza of its cheery orange tiles, the economy—and a changing culture—has seemingly drained it of life. On this day, we count at least 10 empty storefronts, and the entire stretch seems much smaller than remembered.

There are still a handful of mall classics, of course: Cinnabon, Claire’s, Victoria’s Secret and even a Spencer’s—that classiest of novelty emporiums, stocked with half-off Twilight backpacks and T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Slut” and “My dick accepted everywhere.”

Of more interest, however, is its stark absence of modern mall staples: There is no Gap. No Abercrombie & Fitch. No Forever 21.

As such, it’s also noticeably devoid of teenage life, at least on this particular afternoon. Walking end to end, we count two adolescent couples in front of a budget theater that shows second-run films for $3.25 a pop. Elsewhere, the mall hums quietly with senior citizens and young families pushing strollers. A 20-something woman drapes herself across a water-fountain ledge, her hair tied up in a Russian-peasant-styled headscarf. She wrenches her face into a sexy pout as a friend snaps photos on a cheap point-and-shoot. Nearby, a sign promotes a “Friends-in-Fitness Mall Walking Club.”

Mall culture as I remember is dead, buried next to the rotted, glitter-bombed corpse of Contempo Casuals.

This isn’t the only down-and-out mall in the Sacramento region, of course. In the last decade or so, the Internet—as well as enforced mall security—has steadily chipped away at the notion of shopping plazas as social centers.

Arden Fair mall still thrives, but it’s got fierce competition—not just in the sparkling, upscale Westfield Galleria at Roseville, but in virtual commons, such as Facebook and Twitter, too. Elsewhere, Florin Mall was demolished in 2006 (with only its original Sears standing testament among a new legion of discount big-box stores) while a San Francisco-based investment firm is reportedly in talks to revamp the long-struggling Downtown Plaza into a high-end mixed-use plaza.

There’s more well-documented evidence that speak to this shift, but right now, we face the strongest, most explicit proof: shuttered stores, few teens in sight and the sickly sweet taste of Orange Julius that leaves us feeling queasily nostalgic.