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As the internet increasingly dictates the scope of our social encounters, we mourn the physical intimacy of communal spaces. We mourn the hugs, the sweat, the breath. We mourn the mosh pit.
One beloved host to these lost human echoes is The Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma. Its name is decidedly deserved. Over the last century, the building has been an opera house, a movie theater, and a music venue. Like the mythological bird, The Phoenix Theatre has continued to reinvent itself.
Its resilience as an institution might be attributed to its radical accessibility.
Tom Gaffey, manager of the theater since 1983, promises that the venue is made available to everyone. There are no age restrictions. It’s a unique utility for young artists, who are rarely offered social venues to develop their respective crafts.
Jim Agius, a longtime talent booker at the theater, praises Gaffey as a “facilitator of creativity.”
“His philosophy is that the Phoenix is everybody’s building,” Agius said. “It belongs to everyone. He believes his only job is to get there in the morning, open the doors, and let it be used. It’s remarkable.”
Agius is a living testament to this philosophy. He was recruited by Gaffey in his early 20s, with no prior booking experience.
“As Tom and I word it, I was too stupid to know that I couldn’t do it,” Agius said. “We say that about any young dreamer who is trying to get into a new enterprise. Cynics will say, ‘There’s no way you can do that. You have to do X, Y, and Z before you can even think about doing that.’ But there’s something about the energy and inertia of youth that help you power through those doubts and do things because you didn’t know that you couldn’t. Time and time again, The Phoenix has been the place where people get to do that.”
When Agius began working as a talent booker in November 2006, he extended the same philosophy, booking his friends’ bands on national show tickets to encourage exposure. It was a continual celebration of the can-do novice. “My first show was a Nintendo cover band called The Advantage, and then we did Hella, Helio Sequence, and Against Me!,” he said.
Later, Agius shifted his focus to booking bigger bands. The Phoenix had already been graced by a number of noteworthy names at that point.
“It’s easy to forget that The Phoenix was instrumental in those early ’90s punk days,” Agius tells me. “Green Day played some early shows there before they would go on to become superstars. AFI played some formative shows there. One of their hit songs, ‘The Days of the Phoenix’ is about The Phoenix Theatre. It’s been a facilitator of creative dreams, specifically music dreams, for at least 30 years.”
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has significantly disrupted this dream-weaving. Shows have been canceled.
Phoenix Pro Wrestling is on indefinite hiatus. The mosh pit has dispersed. However, the stage has not been entirely cleared. One vestige of The Phoenix that continues to entertain is the resident podcast, “Onstage with Jim and Tom,” hosted by Agius and Gaffey.
The podcast is indeed hosted onstage at The Phoenix, featuring performances and interviews with various musicians.
“We are only as active as the bands in our community are,” Agius explains. Since the coronavirus has made the in-person podcast a risky venture, Agius and Gaffey have temporarily pivoted their focus to local history. So far, they’ve done four episodes on Petaluma history, along with one episode on Calistoga. Future episodes will likely highlight Healdsburg, Guerneville, Forestville, Point Reyes and Santa Rosa.
Agius also assures me that the Halloween Covers Show will be preserved. “The current plan is to record without a crowd in late September and release a full lineup sometime around Halloween 2020 so we can continue the tradition,” he said. “It’ll be different, but with the tradeoff of no crowd, there is potential for more theatricality.”
Agius notes that these adaptive compromises have always defined The Phoenix. “It started as the finest opera house north of San Francisco when it was built in 1904,” he says. “Now it’s a DIY, nonprofit, graffitied, live music venue. Growing and evolving is how buildings like The Phoenix stay alive.”
And for the sake of a vibrant, creative collective, Agius believes that the continued survival of such institutions is paramount.
“Without the stages and places for people to share their art, does this stuff flourish?” he says. “Technology has allowed a lot more people to make music and distribute it. But I think the nature of art and connection is to go, to experience, to feel, to dance, to clap, to sway, to mosh, to feel alive. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? To express, to emote, to connect.”
Now, more than ever, we are starved for these experiences.
Agius finds this encouraging. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a post-COVID boom for The Phoenix. I think that could inform its evolution.”
May The Phoenix rise again.