Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater has a century of colorful and varied history. From opera house to movie theater to rock and roll venue and teen center, the Phoenix has repeatedly emerged from the ashes, recreating itself as a valuable community resource.
Ancient Times—Opera, Fire, and Silent Film
The Phoenix began as a rare old bird—a small town opera house. Opened in 1905 as the Hill Opera House, its stage was graced by the likes of Harry Houdini, Enrico Caruso, and Lily Langtree.
In the roaring 20’s it was gutted by fire, to rise again as a movie theater two years before The Jazz Singer brought sound to popular film. It became the California Theater in 1935 and for decades continued to bring movies to Petaluma audiences.
The Middle Ages – More Fire, Tom Gaffey, and Rock & Roll
Fire struck again in 1957, destroying the ceiling, and once again our Phoenix returned to life, this time as the Showcase Theater. The owner hired a teenager named Tom Gaffey, who was fond of hanging around the building with friends. Tom left Petaluma to travel, but when he returned in 1982, the new owner hired him to manage the theater. It then became The Phoenix Theater, for its ability to rise from the ashes.
During the early 1980’s the Phoenix began to augment film screenings with late night shows from nationally known bands, including the Ramones, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and X. Local bands like then-unknown Metallica and Primus polished their acts during these late night gigs.
Over the years, the Phoenix grew in popularity with the local youth. It wasn’t just the music; Tom opened the doors in the afternoon to kids who might otherwise be out on the streets, or at an empty home. The Phoenix became a haven for kids who found a safe place to spend unstructured time with their peers, around a responsible adult who understood, respected, and supported them—and who grew up in the same environment.
The Phoenix occasionally pulled duty for other events, too. It was a popular venue for midnite screenings of the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 2000, it was the home to the World’s Wristwrestling Championship.
The Modern Era—Telecom to the Rescue & The Petaluma Phoenix Center Nonprofit
What fire could not accomplish was almost achieved in the late 1990s. The landlord announced plans to sell the Phoenix for demolition and reconstruction as an office building. The community rallied to save it, but there was little they could do, and for a while it seemed the venerable Phoenix was doomed.
The sale was in escrow when four employees of Cerent Corporation (all of them musicians, two of them former Phoenix patrons), stepped forward and took over the escrow. (The four men recently had been enriched from a dot com buyout by Cisco Systems.) With other prominent local citizens, they formed the non-profit Petaluma Phoenix Center, Inc, to own The Phoenix Theater and maintain and grow the services the Phoenix provides to the community.
Phoenix Performers Over the Years
Against Me! · Bad Religion · Blink 182 · Blue Oyster Cult · Bone Thugs-n-Harmony – Buddy Guy · Cherry Poppin’ Daddies · Count Basie · Cowboy Junkies · Deftones · Devo · Digital Underground · DRI · Enrico Caruso · Faith No More · Fishbone · Gatemouth Brown · George Thorogood · Goldfinger · Green Day · Hanson · Harry Houdini · Hillary Duff · Huey Lewis · Ice T · Incubus · It’s a Beautiful Day · Jimmy Cliff · Jimmy Ray Vaughn · Ladysmith Black Mombazo · Lawrence Ferlinghetti · Less Than Jake · Lily Langtree · Little Tin Frog · Los Lobos · Mac Dre · Mac Mall · Metallica · Misfits · Mr. Bungle · MxPx · Neville Brothers · No Doubt · NOFX · Offspring · Penny Wise · Primus · Prong · Ramones · Rancid · Ray Charles · Reel Big Fish · Red Hot Chili Peppers · Run-DMC · Santana · Social Distortion · Sublime · Suicidal Tendencies · The Specials · The Velvet Teen · The Wailers, without Bob Marley · Tiger Army · Tsunami Bomb · Van Morrison · Violent Femmes · X
AND MANY MORE