The Phoenix Theater and it’s Rise From the Ashes

By: Taylor Lambert

With its history dating back to its construction in the 1890s, the Phoenix Theater has been a gathering place for those of all walks of life for over a century. Today, the Phoenix is not only a haven for youth, but a home as well. 

The Phoenix Theater opened its doors to the city of Petaluma in 1905 as the Hill Opera House. Sitting on the corner of Washington and Keller, the Hill was in business until the early 1920s when it was nearly destroyed by a fire. By 1925, the opera house had been completely restored and re-established as a movie theater, though in 1935 the building was purchased by California Movie Theater and renamed the California Theater. Unfortunately, on August 5, 1957, the theater was once again nearly gutted by a fire. Upon the restoration, the establishment was dubbed the Showcase Theater by the Tocchini family, and the first live show was put on by a Petaluma native, Jeff Dorenfield. 

After some time, the Tocchini family employed a young boy named Tom Gaffey. Tom worked around the theater and was rehired by Ken Frankel after he purchased the theater in 1982. In about 1983 Gaffey was named theater manager, a position that he still occupies to this day, and renamed the establishment the Phoenix Theater, coining the name off of the building’s ability to seemingly rise from the ashes. 

Throughout its many years, the Phoenix has seen the beginning and end of some of the world’s most beloved bands and artists. Some famous groups who performed at this historic venue include The Ramones, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Primus, Sublime, and Pennywise. On May 24, 1996, Bradley Nowell, the original lead singer of Sublime, played his last show at the Phoenix before being found dead in his San Francisco hotel room of an accidental heroin overdose. Neutral Milk Hotel also played their final show at the Phoenix in 2015. 

Beyond just being a beloved music venue, the Phoenix Theater also doubles as a sort of youth and community center. Complete with free music and singing lessons, tutoring, AA and NA meetings, art programs, and a teen health clinic which includes education and low-cost or even free help with various situations. 

Between the incredible music, convivial atmosphere, and plethora of helpful programs, there remains no question as to why The Phoenix Theater has grown to be such a beloved staple in the lives of many. There is no doubt that The Phoenix will pursue its flight from the ashes for years to come. 

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