Looking at 100
100 years old, 1 century of time, 36,500 days. It is always an important day when something reaches that milestone. In 1912 the Republic of China was also formed. New Mexico became the 47th state. The girl scouts formed. The RMS Titanic set sail in April of that year. Both Fenway Park in Boston and Tiger Stadium in Detroit opened for play. The 1912 Summer Olympics in Sweden took place. American actors Karl Malden, Danny Thomas, Gene Kelly along with Golfer Ben Hogan & Sam Snead, Singers Perry Como and Woody Guthrie and Chef Julia Child were all born in 1912. Amid all of that, on February 14th (Valentines Day) the Vallejo Empress Theatre put on its first production (construction was actually completed on the building in October of 1911). While all of those people named are no longer with us and the Titanic sits at the bottom of the ocean, the rest of those things are still with us. The Empress, through it all, has served as a theatre. Not always the most glamorous, but a theatre none the less. I thought with that upcoming notable date it would be a good time to reflect on the theatre and its recent rise from the proverbial ashes to once again enjoy all of its glory. Growing up in Vallejo, I remember going to the “dollar” movies there in the mid 80’s. While the theatre at that time had certainly seen better days, it was still a beauty. I remember staring up at their ceiling and looking at the fabulous filigree and scroll work that adorned it and thinking how much history it had seen and how much work went into making something that many of us do not give a second thought about. It was a true work of art. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it seemed this old grand dame was destined to finally close her doors for good. The quake had exposed its weakness, its seismic instability and the theatre would sit dark and gathering dust for almost 20 years.
Like the mythical Phoenix though, the Empress has reemerged from the proverbial ashes and dust to regain her former glory. The Empress has now enjoyed a full restoration that began in 2006, which included a full seismic retrofit. The renovation maintained all of the charm and history of the building while bringing it up to current building standards. This was not just cosmetic enhancement but a full renovation that dealt with a few structural challenges the building had. In addition to the seismic retrofit, the complete ventilation system was replaced and air conditioning was added. An under ground river that had long plagued the building was finally addressed by installing pumps that now run 24/7. The stage, which was only 12 feet in depth, was renovated so that it can now reach out to 36 feet and is capable of having a live orchestra play during performances. The theatre is now primed for both stage and screen production. The guest amenities are, to say the least, lush. They include rich, red velvet seating and that magnificent ceiling has been lovingly restored to its full glory – including its gold leaf accent. One feels as if they slipped into a theatre from the 1920s – though now you can enjoy a stage production or movie in the comfort of mechanically cooled air. Upon walking into the theatre for the first time you might expect to rub elbows with Jay Gatsby or Greta Garbo.
While the theatre has now been fully restored, all the challenges have not been fully overcome. When the renovation first started, it was envisioned that this theatre was to be the crown jewel in a full downtown renovation aimed at bringing new vitality to the aging area – vitality that had vanished due to poor city planning and the loss of the city’s main economic engine – Mare Island Naval Base. New buildings that would bring people and businesses would have dotted the landscape and brought a live, work, play environment that had not been seen since the 1950’s. Along with an adjacent waterfront redevelopment plan, the entire area was going to be a hub of activity both in commerce and entertainment. Alas, the housing bubble that had driven the development in the first place exploded and the development has been put on the shelf. While some money has been found to complete some streetscape work along Virginia Street, were the Empress sits, much of the plans for the area remained confined to paper.
Despite the national economic malaise, a mini restaurant revival has taken place over the last few years around the Empress. A wonderful Cuban restaurant has opened next door (Havana Sol) and great barbecue joint (Gracie’s) has also opened down the street and they are both doing a wonderful job to develop foot traffic in the area. Adding to those two establishments, three older restaurants along the nearby waterfront have been renovated as well (the Front Room, Zio Fraedo’s and the Sardine Can). Two coffee shops (Java Jacks and Panama Reds) and great breakfast/lunch establishment (the Good Day Cafe) were also added to the downtown. When combined with the established restaurants in the downtown (My Home Style Café, China Wok, El Nopal, House of Lechon, Kowngnan & China Cafe) and the two taverns in the area (the Town House and Dunphy’s Tavern) there are quite a few culinary and entertainment choices. Havana Sol, Gracie’s, the Town House, the Front Room, Zio Fraedo’s and the Sardine Can all feature live music on varying nights throughout the year.
The area is struggling with a misconception that “there is not much to do in the Vallejo Downtown.” This is simply not true. While not the shopping mecca it was in the 1940’s to 1960’s, the area is now a true dining destination for the city. The Empress simply needs more people to rediscover this hidden jewel. The theatre was not established with an endowment and just as it was reentering the world from its long hiatus, the city of Vallejo, the State of California and the Nation as a whole has slipped into its own economic challenges. The city was unable to financially support the arts on any level and the theatre was left to fend for itself. A few grants helped it in the early years but not enough for the theatre to fully realize its true potential. The theatre, while in constant search for grants, operates solely on incomes from events, rentals and donations. The cost to operate the theatre is not cheap, at a base line of $8,000 a month just to keep the lights on, it has been a struggle.
The Empress Theatre itself is operated under the stewardship of Vallejo Community Arts Foundation (VCAF). It is these dedicated volunteers that have worked to keep the theatre open and remain an important component of Vallejo’s contribution to the performing arts for the community. Two of the board members, Susan and Tim MacDonald have also been the largest contributors to the theatre. Currently they are going above and beyond the call of duty by offering a “2 for 1” matching donation to the community in their “Raise the Curtain” campaign. They are pledging $2 for every $1 dollar donated to the cause of making the Empress a true economic engine for the city and the region. Even in these tough economic times, this current campaign has raised almost $5,000 and, when coupled with their 2 for 1 offer, it brings the total to almost $15,000!!! These funds will enable the Theatre to get through the summer and into the Fall Program, which is generating a tremendous amount of excitement. Their longer term goal is to raise at least $100,000 from the community to help the Empress on a longer term plan. For a complete schedule of their upcoming events go to their website: www.empresstheatre.org.
VCAF also just ran the highly successful 2011 Summer Arts Camp for the kids, which sold out, and was supported through generous donations from The Executive Lions Club, Greater Vallejo Recreation District and several wonderful private donors which enable underprivileged kids to attend. In the words of the VCAF board;
“We need to have the entire community embrace the performing arts in Vallejo. This is not an effort for a few but must be supported by us all. The Empress Theatre needs to be open all the time for everyone. But we need your support to do this! If our community is to have a thriving and living theatre, it is only going to happen when the community cares. We should all be grateful and thankful that we have a theatre that hundreds if not thousands of communities would be proud to have. But it is up to each of us to do something about it. It’s always the right time to do the right thing. They are asking for the community to get involved and to help make the vision for a vibrant art community a reality sooner. They are also asking the community to contribute funds in any amount. They also know that is a challenge with the economics of the area and the nation but for those that can’t give financially they also need volunteers. If you can assist them with productions – from stage hands to ticket takers, they need your help!
Those who would like to contribute are encouraged to mail your tax deductible (they are a 501c3) contributions to: Empress Theatre, P.O. Box 1767, Vallejo, CA 94591.
To volunteer or to inquire about shows you may also call the Empress at: (707) 552-2400. You may also visit their website: www.EmpressTheatre.org
When we started Local Happenings Magazine in 2009, venues like the Empress were one of the precise reasons that we did. There are so many things that happen in our communities, right under our very noses. Our goal was not only to help you learn about all of these great things, but to help these great events to be advertised. Without active participation from the community at large, these events will not survive and without these events, we do not culturally survive. Help your community to grow and thrive by attending and helping to put on these events. Many of you would be surprised by the sheer number of these events that happen every day – I know I was – so it is easy to get involved. If you do not live in Vallejo there is probably a community theatre not to far from your home, and if you have not been there you should go and experience it. In some cases, the quality may be uneven but the only way it will improve is by people attending the performances. Larger crowds draw better talent, which in turn draws even bigger crowds. After all, long before Hollywood was what it is today, it was farm land – the people made it what it is today. We too, as individuals, make our community what it is. Get out and enjoy your community and join in the process help to make it better – enjoy!!! Happy 100 years Empress – we all look forward to 100 more!