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New North Bay venues arise in arts landscape beset by pandemic

Where once there was a parking lot, now there’s a beach where bands play every weekend. A random wine storage space is now an art gallery, with a rotating mural announcing the arrival of each new show. On the bottom floor of The Press Democrat building, where newspapers were once bundled for daily delivery, an experimental stage for musicians, magicians and actors is coming back to life.

These are art venues that opened either just before COVID-19 hit or later during the pandemic, each one taking a huge risk in an age of virus variants and proof-of-vaccination requirements, a testament to the resilience of art and community.

“We’ve kind of seen what life is like without live experiences like this, and I think a lot of us realize how important the arts are to our sense of community and our own individual lives,” said Josh Windmiller, director of The Lost Church Santa Rosa, an intimate 75-seat theater that opened on the bottom floor of The Press Democrat building in January 2020, only to shut down two months later.

Thanks to an understanding landlord, they’ve been able to hold on to the space rent-free for more than a year and a half, with plans now to reopen Sept. 8, with King Dream & Big Kid Fun (featuring Caitlin Gowdey from Rainbow Girls) and Joshua James Jackson in concert.

“We feel like art and theater are really key to a thriving, vibrant downtown,” said Pauline Block, director of marketing and development at Cornerstone, the property management company that owns the building at 427 Mendocino Ave. “A place like The Lost Church, they do everything from comedy to theater to music to magic shows, so they’re really unique in providing experiences for a wide range of people.”

Around the country, arts venues have always been a barometer for any city, Block said. The more you have, the more “community” you have. “For now, we are giving them the space for free,” she said. “In the future, that will change. But, for now, we want them to get on their feet and get going.”

The original Lost Church was founded a decade ago in San Francisco by musicians Brett and Elizabeth Cline, who turned an underground performance space into a nonprofit with the goal of creating neighborhood “performance parlors” throughout the Bay Area and beyond. The Lost Church Santa Rosa is the first spinoff. With a distinct cabaret vibe, it’s lit by electric chandeliers and footlights that illuminate the wooden stage like a campfire or a classic vaudeville show framed by floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains.

“We’re not trying to sell 300 tickets, so it really lets us take more chances on artists, and that’s a big part of who we are,” said Windmiller, who wears many hats as music director for Rivertown Revival, festival director of Railroad Square Music Festival and leader of the band the Crux, which is heading out on a U.K. tour in September.

“We’ve had performers who have never seen the space show up, and they’re backstage changing their setlist around because they realize this is a room where they can play a bunch of songs they wouldn’t be able to perform at a club or a roadhouse. It’s really an attentive zone,” Windmiller said.

Also willing to take a chance on art during troubled times, Sydney Pfaff didn’t know anyone in Healdsburg when she moved from San Francisco earlier this year. She “fell in love” with a small house by the river on Fitch Mountain. In the middle of a pandemic, her dream was to open an art gallery and name it Legion Projects, after the boutique clothing store and gallery she ran for more than seven years in San Francisco.

Leading up to her first show at Legion Projects in Healdsburg in March, “I was a mess,” Pfaff said. “I was so nervous. I didn’t know if people were going to like what I was doing or maybe they would hate the art or not like me because I moved from the city.”

Now, after hanging her fourth show earlier this month, in a former storage space for an online wine purveyor along Healdsburg Avenue, about a half-mile north of the town plaza, it feels like “it was the best move I’ve ever made for myself,” she said. It helps that she’s sold about 75 - 80% of the works exhibited. Some clients are out of state; others come from the city and others are new local arts patrons.

“I think people are open to learning about new art and just want to add some color to their walls,” she said. “A lot of people work from home now and I’m sure they enjoy having things they like to look at.”

When each artist launches a new show at Legion Projects, they create a mural on the side of the building facing Healdsburg Avenue. “There’s too much beige out there,” Pfaff said. “We need to add some color. I hope people see the mural and it brightens their day and they feel a little more energy. I can’t stress enough how much color has made my life better.”

An even more unlikely arts venue has taken shape in the former parking lot at River’s Edge Canoe and Kayak near Memorial Beach in Healdsburg. New owners David and Kim Lockhart — he’s an actor and musician and she works in marketing at Sony Pictures — trucked in more than nine tons of sand to create a beach along the Russian River. They built a stage out of wooden pallets and began hosting sunset weekend concerts with singer-songwriter Brian Francis Baudoin christening the venue in May.

After living in Los Angeles for the past 16 years, the Lockharts fled Southern California during last year’s surge of COVID-19 cases and found themselves in Healdsburg with “an intrinsic need to know that you’re living your life right now,” Kim said.

After making an offer on the River Theatre in Monte Rio, which they recently purchased, they stumbled on the Healdsburg boat rental company for sale. Kim and David had both worked at summer camps while growing up in Sacramento and Piedmont. Last summer, they worked alongside staff and finally purchased the company in November.

But boating was only part of the dream. They both love live music. Kim once managed a singer in New York and later organized employee get-togethers at Sony Pictures, where staff members would play music and entertain each other. And David ran a nonprofit called ArtistsPalooza that hosted open mic nights for up-and-coming artists in Los Angeles.

After booking the popular cover band Unauthorized Rolling Stones in July, they quickly realized they had to expand the stage with a riser for the drummer and upgrade the electrical panel. Earlier this month, David channeled the ghost of Jim Morrison for a set with his Doors tribute band Awake. Looking into September, they’re working on a possible variety show that would focus on a “Rain Dance” theme, inspired by the current drought.

“Six months ago, this was a parking lot,” Kim said. “There was nothing here and now we have a whole live music stage and a beach and a community that’s coming to see shows. I think people are so grateful to feel connected to something alive again.”

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