North Bay musicians rally to save Petaluma’s Phoenix Theatre
The Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma has the kind of authentic historical cred money can’t buy. The Ramones played there. Ditto for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other Bay Area locals on their way up such as Metallica, Green Day, Primus and even the king of the Bay Area hyphy movement, Mac Dre.
More than being the stomping ground of legends, the theater - which also has housed a movie house and an opera - has found its identity over the past 30 years as a creative incubator for the local youth community, giving new talent here as much of a voice as it does the big-ticket acts. Opening as an opera house just after the turn of the 20th century, it survived the 1906 earthquake and two fires. Named the California Theater in 1935, it returned as the Showcase Theater after the second fire, finally becoming the Phoenix Theater in the ’80s - named for its ability to rise from the ashes. Through all its transformations, the nearly 115-year-old venue has held its ground on 201 Washington Street, but now it’s in need of some preservation and care.
After receiving a notice from the City of Petaluma to comply with the fire sprinkler ordinance by April 2019, the historical venue faces fines and potential closure if it can’t make the needed improvements.
Rallying to keep the theater’s doors open, local acts have come forward to help raise the $250,000 needed for sprinklers and a new roof via a series of benefit concerts. Swingin’ Utters, Western Addiction, The New Trust, Cash Pony, Pagan Holiday, Sabertooth Zombie, Brown Bags, Glitter Wizard and Thus The Buzz are among the bands performing over the course of two weekends this February, with a fifth anniversary “Onstage with Jim and Tom LIVE” storytelling event as the final fundraiser in March.
Though Josh Staples has toured the world with The Velvet Teen, The New Trust and a number of other notable bands, he says that to him the venue is still as special as when he was 13 attending his first concert. “It was pretty wild playing then and I still have that same feeling now,” Staples said.
He considers the Phoenix an essential part of not just the North Bay, but the entire Bay Area music scene. “It’s so close to San Francisco but it’s so very different, it relies on people from a small town … it doesn’t focus on competing with large venues because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the community,” Staples said.
For Brown Bags guitarist Robert McLean, stepping into the Phoenix on a Thursday night during his sophomore year of high school sparked a love for the local music scene. “I didn’t understand the significance and impact that the local community could have on someone like me,” McLean said.
From that moment on, it became his goal to play at the Phoenix and though it seemed unachievable at first, a quick talk with general manager Tom Gaffey proved otherwise. “My love for the Phoenix was completely cemented by the fact that Tom gave a couple of no-named kids who he had no relationship with and never heard their band, an opportunity to basically fulfill their dreams,” McLean said.
Watching young bands is still Gaffey’s favorite part of the job. “That’s when real magic can happen,” Gaffey said.
These days, Gaffey is so busy ensuring the Phoenix is making the best use of its space, he doesn’t get a night off. “This place is being used in a cultural way, it’s being used in a soulful way but it’s not being used in a strong economic way,” Gaffey said.
Though Gaffey knows adding alcohol sales could bring in more money, his focus is keeping the venue all-ages. “Every once in a while, someone will say we could do so much more with the building but no, we really couldn’t. It’s in use every day. If you’re talking about making money, yeah, there’d be a way to make more money but that’s not what we’re about,” Gaffey said.
So far, the Phoenix has around $200,000 pledged toward its repair goals but it still has a long way to go in the next two months. Over the years it’s become a host for a weekly teen health clinic, a number of musical classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but most importantly, the venue holds an open-door policy for the youth.
“I’ve spent so much time with Tom, I could put on the Tom mask and give all his answers but his biggest fear is that someone will need the building and it won’t be available to them. That’s of the utmost importance to him,” Phoenix Theater talent booker, Jim Agius said. (He did have a custom “Tom” costume made for Halloween.)
Often times, kids can be found skating or working on art among other projects. “There’s lots of informal stuff that isn’t curated by us,” Agius said.
And it’s been this way for several generations. “You have people who used the building in the ’80s, people who used it in the ’90s, the 2000s, people using it now … it’s a grab bag of different experiences” Agius said.
While Swingin’ Utters singer Johnny Bonnel grew up in Santa Cruz, he understood the value the Phoenix holds for the local community since the band’s early days, when his band played one of its first big shows at the Phoenix with AFI.
The building reminds Bonnel of Club Culture, an all-ages venue he frequented in Santa Cruz during his teens before its closure. And the shows the Phoenix fosters are reminiscent of the type Bonnel attended in his youth. “Creating relationships with people in the community was really important for me back at that age. When you’ve been in a band for this long, these are the shows I appreciate the most,” Bonnel said.
Though the journey of the Phoenix is a long and colorful one, McLean, the Brown Bags guitarist, is grateful to be alive at the same time that the theater is open.
“I hope it’s around for my kids, and my grandkids and their kids,” he said.