Historic photos show Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater through the years

Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater has been entertaining Sonoma County residents for over 116 years. Hosting everyone from the likes of Harry Houdini to Green Day, the fabled teen center and music venue has a varied and interesting history.

The entertainment center opened in 1904 as the Hill Opera House. The structure was designed by San Francisco architect Charles Havens, who also designed Petaluma’s Carlson-Currier Silk Mill in 1892. The Beaux Arts-style theater hosted operas, theatrical performances, high school graduations and music for over 15 years until the early 1920s when it was gutted by fire.

In 1925, the venue reopened as the California Theatre playing silent films accompanied by music. A Jan. 24, 1925, Press Democrat article proclaimed the showplace the “largest playhouse in Petaluma and one of the finest theaters of Northern California.” A packed house attended the opening night performance which include a double feature picture show and live entertainment.

The theater switched to movies with sound in later years and lost major sections of its roof to a second fire in 1957. Petaluma’s Tocchini family bought the foundering venue in 1967 switching to a program of live music and entertainment.

In 1983, the theater was renamed the Phoenix - reflecting its ability to be reborn from the ashes. Tom Gaffey, a young man who had grown up in Petaluma and worked at both the California and the Showcase theaters, was hired as manager, a position he holds to this day.

Today the venue serves as a graffiti-covered teen center and venue for rock, punk, reggae and more. In 1996, it hosted the last show of the Long Beach ska band Sublime as well as rock and punk legends the Ramones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, X, Metallica and Primus.

Janet Balicki Weber

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