Hallowed Stage

Petaluma's Mystic Theatre celebrates 25 years of music

It’s taken on several names and many purposes in the 106 years it has stood on Petaluma Boulevard, right where the road turns to follow the river’s bend in downtown Petaluma.

Standing as a cultural signpost, the Mystic Theatre is one of the North Bay’s most recognizable sights, with a famous neon marquee that’s been featured in the film American Graffiti and an art deco interior bursting with a history of entertainment that dates back to the vaudeville era.

This year, the Mystic marks 25 years as a live music venue, a run that began in 1992 with partners Jeff and Nancy Harriman and Kenneth O’Donnell, and continues today under the direction of Bay Area company Ineffable Music Group, which took over management and booking of the Mystic two years ago.

Ineffable founder and talent buyer Thomas Cussins first got a taste of the Mystic when artists he managed began playing there.

“The vibe felt so special that I started to come to the venue to see shows and started hanging out more and more,” says Cussins, who lives in Oakland.

“For me, the default activity is going to a concert,” Cussins says. “That’s what it’s all about for me, the live experience. And the Mystic has one of the best live experiences I’ve ever experienced.”

Given its relatively small size—550-person capacity—the venue’s intimate atmosphere and up-close stage offer an unparalleled live connection to the artists.

“You’re very much in the moment with them,” Cussins says. “You’re right up there in the mix.”

The Mystic’s main floor can accommodate standing room or fully seated shows, and the venue’s balcony, accessible by two staircases that curve along the sides, inhabits a perfectly vintage vibe that embodies the venue’s colorful past.

When Petaluma pioneer John McNear constructed the theater as part of the McNear Building in 1911, it indeed hosted live entertainment for a time, before being converted into a series of movie houses, at one time even running as a porn theater called the State in the 1970s.

In the early ’90s, when the Harrimans and O’Donnell, who were operating McNear’s restaurant next door, acquired the theater, they set it on its current track as a music venue under the name McNear’s Mystic Theatre.

“One thing that makes the Mystic special is the history,” says music management and booking veteran Sheila Groves-Tracey, who held shows there for over 15 years. “The fact that it is still a live performance hall 106 years later is pretty amazing! The room just feels really good, it feels welcoming, has great sight lines from everywhere in the house, has a good and professional staff, and musicians love playing there.”

Two years ago, when Cussins and Ineffable took over management and booking duties, they renamed the venue the Mystic Theatre & Music Hall, with a commitment to continuing the venue’s legacy of hosting top-tier music in Petaluma.

“There was pressure to live up to the quality of music that has been through the venue,” says Cussins, whose focus is to increase the volume of shows by bringing in more national touring acts while also developing local bands with the space.

“The North Bay scene is flourishing,” Cussins adds. “There’s all these great local musicians looking for an outlet to play their music and develop their sound. I think this is going to be the next hotbed for talent in California.” This month, North Bay bands the Highway Poets (see Music, p21), the Grain and the Soul Section will take the stage.

“The Mystic feels to me like the center of Petaluma and what all roads lead to,” says San Francisco songwriter Sam Chase, whose Americana outfit the Sam Chase & the Untraditional perform there on Sept. 30 with North Bay acts Trebuchet and Timothy O’Neil making their Mystic debut. “Its history is burning in every light bulb on the marquee,” he continues. “You feel the need to dress up to cross the threshold of those hallowed grounds. As a musician, you find yourself standing a little taller once you’ve played there.”

The Mystic’s upcoming concert lineup is also one of the most varied in the North Bay, with folk sisters Rising Appalachia, rock fusion band TAUK, reggae star Mike Love and others scheduled to appear this fall.

“I want there to be something for everybody,” Cussins says.

Now, for the 25th anniversary of live music at the Mystic, Cussins is looking to honor the past. “We always knew some of the history of the theater, the big show that everyone always points to is that Van Morrison show, which in December would have been 25 years ago,” Cussins says.

With that in mind, Cussins is dedicating the month of December to celebrate the venue with free shows and giveaways.

Cussins’ other goal is to give back to the community, and Ineffable donates $1 from every ticket sold at the Mystic to Petaluma charities, choosing a new one each month. Cussins estimates over $25,000 will be donated to various charities by the end of the year.

“It’s been a great joy,” says Cussins. “We love Petaluma, we love the venue, and we love having shows there.”