The Phoenix Theatre by day is a picture reminiscent of an after school daycare program. Inside the main auditorium kids are skateboarding on the multitude of wooden ramps set up against the walls. The lobby is filled with youth hanging out, and searching their pockets for change to buy candy or soda from the concession stand. Next to the snacks is a room full of video games for some cheap entertainment.
If you walk up to the front and backstage, you’re likely to be greeted with a scene of junior high and high school aged children lounging on the couches and working on homework. Those with nothing to do are found hanging around manager Tom Gaffey, eagerly seeking out small tasks they can do to help him out. Scenes similar to this have earned it the nickname of the “Petaluma Youth Center”. These kids though – they prefer to call themselves the “Phoenix Family”.
By night, the sight seems merely an extension of the afternoon; perhaps much more concentrated and intense. Young mix with old on the corner outside the front entrance of the Phoenix. Kids hang out in small clusters, huddled together in the cold, talking.
Others are on their way to or from the 7-11 up the street, compiling makeshift dinners to replace the ones they skipped to come here. Young 20-somethings smoke cigarettes, excited that their friends who went away to college are back for the Thanksgiving weekend, and ready to dance to and sing-along with their favorite bands.
Seated against the side wall is a collective of older men in their late 30’s and early 40’s. These men, who in another setting might quickly be dismissed as bottom-feeders, are punk rock’s veterans. They were the kids who graced the Phoenix’s location during the 1970’s and 1980’s. While many of them are accompanied by stories of homelessness and drug addiction, they serve as living testimony of the music lifestyle, and the power it has over us.
The Phoenix Theatre – the name which is derived from the meaning of the word itself, “to rise from ashes” – is what most Sonoma County residents consider to be the heart of the music scene.
“I prefer to be on tour,” Micah Suard of the band Aitch said. “But I love the Phoenix.”
Most Sonoma County musicians echo this sentiment. Alexis Faulkner, of the now-defunct band Girls in Suede agreed.
“The Phoenix Theatre is a wonderful venue with a very dedicated staff and a long history of helping local bands,” Faulkner said. “[It] has steadily welcomed several different kinds of music to their venue. They are the most loyal and greatest supporter of local music in Sonoma County.”
However, other people have somewhat different reasoning behind their choice. Paul Hoffman, of the bands One Horse Town and The Listening Group, said that if there are enough people in attendance, he enjoys playing at the Phoenix the most.
“Primarily because of the closing of so many great venues [like] Magnolia’s, Hot Spots, Cafe This, Cotati Cabaret, Inn of the Beginning, The Old Vic, etc,” Hoffman said. “There are so many talented musicians and bands in this area, it’s a shame that there aren’t more places to play/see bands.”
Faulkner agreed. “Sonoma County doesn’t offer many places for local bands to play. It is exceedingly difficult to operate a venue specifically for teens, where they cannot serve alcohol and food. The lack of support for youth events and venues in our area has been a major contributor to the downfall of our scene. It is difficult to find venues/people willing to contribute money to putting on local shows. There is not much money to be made, and there is a lot of effort needed.”
Not only is the Phoenix Theatre so desirable because of its ambiance, but it’s one of the only remaining places left for people of all ages to entertain and be entertained.
Built in the late 1800’s, the Phoenix was first opened in 1904 as the Hill Opera house. Over the years, a series of natural disasters threatened its demise, including two fires and an earthquake. Each time, the building’s ownership has changed hands, along with its name and main purpose. In the mid 1900’s it was used as a movie theater, and then later, theatrical productions were put on within its walls.
Sonoma County native Chris Cercone recalled his junior high years when he would attend late-night showings of the cult hit “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the venue He said people would dress up and act along with the parts on-screen, much like at any other showing in the country.
What Cercone remembers the most though, is the attitude of those in the audience. Many of them were regulars who could be seen at the Theatre as many as three or four times a week. They would be talking, eating, laughing, dancing, and singing along. Indeed, for the disenfranchised youth of Sonoma County, the Phoenix was their home away from home.
In 1982, Tom Gaffey, who worked as an employee at the Phoenix in his teenage years, took over as the building’s new manager, which he remains to this day. A quiet and soft-spoken man, Gaffey seems to recognize and appreciate the human plea for sympathy, as well as one’s desire to connect with people and be understood. Youth speak of him as a man wise beyond his years. Maybe it comes from the environment – being around so many teenagers and young adults, he naturally comes across as more experienced and intelligent.
But for so many, it goes further beyond that. Something in his eyes demands respect and attention. This man has experienced it all; he lived the Phoenix during its zenith. Without the support, dedication, and attention to detail he has put into it, the Phoenix Theatre wouldn’t be what it is today.
When asked his thoughts on the type of person his boss is, Stephen Smith, a former employee of more than four years, had nothing but good to offer. “As a boss… Tom is very understanding and fair, but just like any boss he doesn’t really take too much crap from – well – anyone really,“ Smith said. “He’s good at very calmly alleviating possibly devastating and/or dangerous situations.“
When asked to differentiate between Tom the boss and Tom the human being, Smith continued. “Tom is a very caring and loving individual. He’s a very intellectual and quick witted man, a good father figure to some, a best friend to everyone, and just an amazing person. He gives all he can.”
Then there is Matt Sangervasi, who has worked at the Phoenix for nearly five years. He said Tom is “one of the best bosses I have had. He has his stuff down, he knows how his building needs to be run, and he knows how to treat everyone well. He is more like a friend than a boss ‘cause you can talk to him just like you do a friend and he won’t get offended”.
The musicians who have played there offer a similar perspective. “Tom Gaffey is always willing to put on a show if you are interested,” said the bassist of Girls in Suede. “He makes it easy to communicate and never flakes out on you.”
In addition to being a local favorite, the Phoenix Theatre’s fame as both a landmark and a venue is widespread. Famous bands whose beginnings trace back to the Phoenix Theatre include Metallica, Primus, and Mr. Bungle.
East Bay Hardcore’s darlings, A.F.I. (which stands for A Fire Inside) got their start at the very location on 201 Washington St. in Petaluma. Frontman Davey Havok was born and raised in Ukiah, Calif., and before his band played at the Phoenix, he was known to attend punk rock shows there on the weekends. The venue has made an important impact on both his life and musical career. Such things are evident in the group’s song “Days of the Phoenix” a bittersweet dedication to the building and its legend.
Then there are the bands in the independent scene. In addition to being fantastic contributors to the musicality that the Phoenix provides, they were born, raised, and still live in Sonoma County. Not only are they personable, but they’re easily accessible. This fact makes them specific targets as role models. The only thing more desirable than to meet your role model is to live in the same town as your role model, know they experienced the same things you’re experiencing, run into them downtown, and at times, even share an occasional taco at Taqueria Mazatlan with them.
A particular favorite group in town is The Velvet Teen, a group currently signed to Slowdance Records. TVT started as two friends in two entirely separate bands writing songs together in secret, under the penname The Secret Band. Eventually they broke the news to their former bands, and joined together, to become The Velvet Teen.
The current lineup of Judah Nagler on vocals and guitar, Josh Staples on bass and vocals, and Casey Dietz on drums and vocals, originally boasted drummer Logan Whitehurst up until early 2004.
Logan, the brother of Emily Whitehurst (singer of punk rock band Tsunami Bomb), is immediately likeable. His antics onstage, both in The Velvet Teen and in his solo project, Logan Whitehurst and the Junior Science Club, quickly made him a favorite of locals. However, in a smaller setting, he is, surprisingly, just as personable and charming, if not a bit shy.
I sat down with him one evening in December of 2003 at a Lyon’s on J Street in Sacramento and we talked over a midnight snack. “Do you ever have any qualms about eating waffles?” I questioned, referring not only to the food on his plate, but more open-endedly to the song “Waffle of Death”, which he’d used to open the evening’s set. He glanced up from the consuming task of strategically pouring syrup on his meal, made eye contact with me, and with a slight smirk, answered softly and casually, “not really”.
Logan left The Velvet Teen due to a strange illness that plagued him the first half of 2004, which eventually culminated in a cancerous brain tumor. He underwent numerous surgeries and treatments, and after a long and courageous fight, passed away on December 3, 2006.
Former girlfriend Alison Davis described him and her eyes lit up. “I don’t know how he keeps smiling” she said during the cancer ordeal. “Though things have changed a lot in our worlds, I know some things won’t change, and I know he will still let me hold his hand when the lights go down.”
Clearly, it is the wonderful and committed people like Logan who have kept Sonoma County’s music scene thriving.
As for life in The Velvet Teen, the band more than gets by with the addition of Dietz. Singer Nagler once was voted as one of the hottest musicians by the teen magazine, ElleGirl, a title which he awkwardly denies. “I think I’m stupid,” he said in response to the situation.
Dietz, who also regularly rocks out in the Chico based band The Americas, adjusted quickly to the mega-stardom of being in a band that not only tours the United States with frequency, but has already toured Japan more than once, and has a large following there.
In spite of all this fame, the band still makes it a point to kick off and end every tour at the Phoenix Theatre. This gesture is not only one of familiarity and comfort, but a tribute of sorts to the place that helped to kick-start their career.
Then there is Josh Staples, who not only plays bass in The Velvet Teen, but is now the frontman of his own band, The New Trust, also on Slowdance Records. In addition to being in the band with Matthew Izen of the band Polar Bears, local Julia Lancer brings her percussion prowess to stage alongside Sara Sanger, Josh’s wife.
The two, who have been married since 2000, are seemingly a match made from heaven. Staples’ soft and serious blue eyes shine brightly when he gets excited about something, and the 33-year-old (who often playfully claims to be a mere 21 years) possesses a demeanor that leaves one feeling a mixture of something in between thrilled and humbled.
Sanger, who turned 25 for the fifth time this past year, is quiet, and much more reserved. She seems to consider her choice of words with great eight. Her long dark black hair, often styled in dreadlocks, covers up part of her face so that her dark eyes peek out in a demonstration of candid beauty. Together, they serve as much more than the poster couple of Santa Rosa Rock; for they are two of the most determined, creative, and inspiring people in the scene.
Staples in particular knows a lot about performing at the Phoenix. He has shared the stage with his former bands, dating back to 1990, including but not limited to The Morticians, The Conspiracy, Edaline, and The Wunder Years. His boyish good looks and eager approach to music often send conflicting signals – while his musicality is entirely sophisticated, watching him offstage one gets the impression that he is hardly the veteran his reputation claims.
Sanger, who is a photographer first and a musician second, but an artist overall, is sometimes featured in the Modesto based independent music publication, Devil in the Woods and has a photography resume which boasts various national acts. With a knack for using film to capture the beauty in nearly anything, combined with a fresh and somewhat pessimistic outlook on the world, Sanger makes what she does look easy. When she grabs hold of her guitar and rocks out on stage with Staples, the two look like they could move mountains with their talent and ardor.
It’s easy to see why so many more young people in the 707 are scrambling to begin a relationship with music. The Phoenix has made it a priority to cater to fantastic musicians; in turn they inspire the younger generation to take hold of music on their own.
It’s no wonder why I speak so highly of the place; in part, the Phoenix helped raise me. Having moved to Sonoma County at age fourteen, I was desperately seeking to relate. In the Phoenix I found a place to spend time where I was accepted, new friends and companionship, a venue for my own musical endeavors to perform, and an introduction to a world of music I never knew existed. The scene consists of the same people it did when I first moved here. More have joined as they’ve come of age, but the ones that grew older with me helped to reinforce the sense of community that we all feel.
Will Butler, a high school student who goes to the Phoenix once every couple of weeks, spoke of what it is about the building that keeps him coming back. “I like the Phoenix ‘cause it kind of represents stability in the music scene, as well as all things ‘younger-generation’ related,” Butler said. ”I mean it’s been there through a lot. I can talk to my 28-year-old cousin about his days going to the Phoenix, you know? I mean, it’s been through a lot and it’s pretty weather-beaten, but it’s remained there through a hell of a lot”.
Rachel Carr, a Santa Rosa-born transplant to Spokane, Washington has a somewhat different take. “I really like the Phoenix because I think it provides a good environment for teenagers to hang out and explore music,” Carr said. “Like finding out what you like and what you don’t, knowing more about music in general. Going to the local scene is important because that’s where it all starts.”
Michael Bean, former member of the bands Life in Braille and We Attack At Dawn suggested that in general “everyone is really into the music and art scene around here. People are conscious – they have passions. We get along well because we all are in this together“.
Faulkner echoes that sentiment. “The Sonoma County music scene often has shows where the same bands play together over and over. I think most musicians around here are friendly to each other and have a similar goal: to play shows, gain fans, and make it big.” She pauses to think for a moment, and then continues. “Or not, maybe not everyone wants to be famous. We all just want to put on a good show.”
However, testimony can’t say enough. Perhaps Havok put it best when he penned the lyrics for the aforementioned song, “Days of the Phoenix”. He depicted the details of being caught up in the moment of playing and performing and participating; the feelings that anyone who has been to the Phoenix can easily share. He captured the moment where the history and purpose of the historical building collided with the anthem of our teenage years.
“The girl on the wall always waited for me. And she was always smiling. The teenage death boys. The teenage death girls. And everyone was dancing. Nothing could touch us then. No one could change us then. Everyone was dancing. Nothing could hurt us then. No one could see us then. Everyone was dancing. No one could see me. I fell into yesterday. Our dreams seemed not far away. I want to, I want to, I want to stay. I fell into fantasy.”