Had you dialed the phone number for the Phoenix Theater in the late 1990s, you would have heard an outgoing answering machine message that went something like this: “Hello, and thank you for calling the amazing Phoenix Theater. We’re located at 201 Washington St. in beautiful Downtown Petaluma …”
From there, the gregarious voice of theater manager Tom Gaffey listed upcoming shows and explained how much it cost to gain entry to the always all-ages events. The internet and cell phones have rendered the voice message machine all but extinct today. Similarly, the Covid-19 shutdown now threatens many Bay Area performance venues themselves, including The Phoenix, with extinction.
Like every other live-music venue in the Bay Area, the Phoenix Theater hasn’t booked any live acts since March and has remained mostly closed due to the Covid-19 threat. While the loss of live music has compounded the mental burden of a societal lockdown, the Phoenix Theater’s temporary closure also bears down on North Bay youth, as the Theater has long been an ad hoc teen center where teens can hang out, skateboard, and play and listen to live music.
Theater manager Gaffey says, “With the size of our stage we are able to let up to five-piece bands rehearse here occasionally and maintain social distancing, so the Phoenix is still getting live music, albeit without audiences. Also, I can let four or five skaters in at a time to skate the ramps and maintain appropriate distances. So there is still some life in the building.”
Yes, you read that right. The Phoenix has also morphed into an indoor skate park with large wooden ramps set up on the theater’s spacious floor.
With 37 years at the helm, one would assume Gaffey has seen multiple closures and shows gone awry; however, that number is actually less than one might think.
“Over the years the Phoenix has been involved in a row or two that has resulted in us canceling two shows,” Gaffey says. “One show was going to be a money-losing trainwreck, so I was glad for the chance to reschedule it. The second show was a one-off that we never got back and I was sorry to lose it.”
But Gaffey says he’s never seen, let alone endured, anything like this.
“The pandemic is quite different and I agree with erring on the side of caution in this case,” he says. “Shutting down our live shows absolutely feels like the right thing to do. The thing about the pandemic is that it leaves us with the uncertainty of when we might reopen. We have been [mostly] closed since March and I have a feeling we might not be opening our doors for shows until next spring or summer or possibly longer.”
Indeed, the theater has endured past closings and more recent run-ins with overzealous local lawmakers. Following the devastating Oakland “Ghost Ship” fire in late 2016, many local fire departments cracked down on perceived safety violations in live music venues throughout the Bay Area. The Phoenix was a target, as was Petaluma nightclub The Big Easy. But the Phoenix survived that with the help of the community, who helped raise almost $40,000 for improvements—yet another tip of the hat to the Theater’s current name, which symbolizes rebirth from the ashes of destruction.
Alongside skateboarders, budding musicians, writers and poets, the Phoenix has long been a place where youth can discover their creativity. (Note: amongst said youth of the past are the writer of this article as well as editor Daedalus Howell, who could both be seen roaming theater grounds throughout their teens in the 1990s.) Seemingly so inspired, Jim Agius, who has been booking shows at the Theater since 2006, started a podcast called Onstage with Jim and Tom in 2016. The podcast features local musicians in conversation with Agius and Gaffey, with a few live performances scattered in. Yet what does one do when live music is deemed “unsafe?” In the case of Onstage, they pivoted to some truly excellent podcasts on Petaluma history and included guests such as longtime Argus-Courier writer Katie Watts and Petaluma historian John Sheehy who, along with local photographer Scott Hess, wrote a book about Petaluma history titled On a River Winding Home.
The recent podcasts do a deep-dive into local history starting in the days of local Native Americans who originally settled the region. These conversations were particularly eye-opening to Gaffey, who says some of his favorite episodes reacquainted him with the story of “the spiritual power and environmental significance of the Tolay Lake which played a large part in the lives and culture of Northern and Central California’s native population before Western Europeans came to town and some asshole drained it to grow potatoes.”
Other episodes feel similar to Stephen King’s Stand by Me as Gaffey and Sheehy, who grew up together in Petaluma in the 1960s, rehash old stories of famous Petalumans as well as booze runners, charlatans, artists and more.
Onstage with Jim and Tom provides an outlet for Agius and Gaffey; it also offers invaluable and intriguing information about Petaluma. Yet, they are free to listen to and don’t include advertising.
As such, Gaffey says, “Our war chest is kind of drying up right now due to a lack of shows and the income they were bringing in. If anyone wants to help out with a donation, we are a 501c3 and all donations are tax-deductible and you can help by going to our website and clicking on the donation prompt.”
For more information, visit thephoenixtheater.com.