The Phoenix Theater in Petaluma is in such a severe financial crisis that Tom Gaffey has been laid off. You might not have noticed, because he’s still working there every day, but it’s true—he’s been taken off the payroll.
“I need to be back on in about a month,” Gaffey told me yesterday, “or I’m gonna be in trouble. “
On the phone last week, Tom tried to downplay the situation, saying that he’s been through thin times before, back when the Phoenix was a smaller operation. “If I could cover the rent, the PG&E and the insurance, then we were golden,” he says. “But now we’ve got some other things going, and the fact of the matter is that stuff is so cool. The music school, the clinic, the art programs, all the extra stuff we do is just so important and so valid. When you see the clinic on Thursdays, it’s absolutely full, a good long line of people waiting to get in. You can’t deny this is a great program.”
To that end, the only paid employee at the Phoenix right now is music program director Gio Benedetti, and even he’s been cut down to half-pay. Executive director Amber Faur, like Gaffey, has also been officially laid off. Bruce Hagen, board president, explains that both are still working at the Phoenix in a volunteer position, and “they’re working as hard as they ever did, God bless ‘em.”
It just doesn’t make sense. Say the name “Tom Gaffey” anywhere in Sonoma County and an air of beloved reverence is instantly conjured. This is a guy who’s given decades of encouragement to teens who didn’t get support from their schools, their families, their social circles. Who’s said yes to starting a band, painting a mural or realizing some other potential when every other adult has said no. Who’s given years of sincere advice in place of nagging, and provided wide-ranging opportunities to kids who’ve only known closed doors.
So how could something like this happen?
For years, the Phoenix used to be run by Gaffey alone, who in addition to booking shows also oversaw a bunch of kids who hung out after school, played guitar, made art, put on plays, edited films, skated and helped each other with homework. When the theater was saved from being turned into an office building in 1999 by a group of dot-com benefactors, it slowly eased into the Phoenix Theater of today—a nonprofit model where all those extracurricular activities are now official programs eligible for grant funding.
Hagen says the theater had banked on getting some significant foundation grants and major donor grants, “but the word we’re getting is ‘You guys look like a great program, you have a pretty solid organization, but we’re not taking anybody on right now.”
The shows haven’t been doing too well, either. Up to half of the theater’s income once came from door receipts, but the Phoenix was forced last year to be overly cautious about booking rap shows, “and as troublesome as those sometimes were,” says Hagen, “they were very profitable for the Phoenix.” (The long-running series of Super Hyphy shows usually brought in at least $2,000 per month.)
All told, the Phoenix needs about $20,000 a month to stay afloat. In addition to funding, the theater is in need of energetic board members, reliable volunteers and “people with skills in administering a nonprofit,” Hagen says. “Ten years ago, we had a situation where the Phoenix couldn’t exist on the model that it had. And now, we’re in a similar situation where in this economy, we can’t get by unless we have a greater level of support from the community.”
Those interested in volunteering time or skills can get in touch with Hagen directly by emailing him here. As for Gaffey? “I’m fine for a little while longer,” he told me, “but I may have to go out and find a job here real quick.”
For those who’ve been inspired or supported in any way by Tom Gaffey and the Phoenix Theater, helping out is as easy as clicking here and making either a one-time or monthly donation. They’re a 501(c)(3) now, so it’s tax-deductible. Now is the time to help out. Countless people have seen firsthand the benefits to having Tom Gaffey at the Phoenix Theater. If enough of us pitch in, we can rescue one of the worthiest causes in Sonoma County. Every bit helps.