The Phoenix Theater: A Series of Misconceptions
Updated: Nov 13, 2019
When people think of the historic Phoenix Theater in downtown Petaluma, many buy into the notion that the venue does more harm than good. Often misrepresented as a hub for juvenile delinquency, the Phoenix scares off the average onlooker as a run-down and worn-out building.
These ideas could not be more wrong. The Phoenix Theater is a warmer building than you might think, hosting a tightly knit community of skaters and musicians who are some of the most inviting people I have ever met.
“I was surprised the first time I walked into the Phoenix, how inviting people were,” said junior Nik Cotten. “It’s really a home for some people and that’s no exaggeration.”
The building’s owner, Tom Gaffey, keeps the door of the building open for anyone who wants to come in. For Gaffey, letting in anyone who needs the space without exception is the most important aspect of his job. Regardless of public image, the essence of “home” truly encapsulates the Phoenix Theater for the many young adults who visit regularly.
The Phoenix Theater has been a place for adolescents and skaters to hang out and go skateboarding or just make friends since the building remodeled from a movie theater to a publicly open auditorium. Unfortunately, this positive perspective is not a common one. Parents and teachers tend to look down on the building, saying that kids who go there are up to no good, or are just looking for a place to do drugs.
The initial appearance of the Phoenix does not make it seem like the most inviting place. Uneven wood floors, dimly lit rooms and graffiti as far as the eye can see may appear as intimidating and run-down, but looks can be deceiving. These attributes give people an excuse to judge the building based on appearance only: an assumption that’s rather unfair. Most people do not realize that the most consistent demographic of regular attendees are skaters, who pop in and out of the building every day to skate on the ramps and rails inside.
Surprising to many, the Phoenix is a very hospitable environment to newcomers. Gaffey in particular prides himself on maintaining the building for the general public. He lets anyone in for however long they please, whether they are staying the day to hang out on the couches inside, stopping by to skate with some buddies, recording music in the studio, or just walking in to see what the fuss is about. The doors to the Phoenix are always open, which is an important element of a well-rounded community.
When asked why he keeps the building open, Gaffey replied, “Well this was the building I grew up in. I started working here when I was in junior high when it was a movie theater. And it always felt like home to me and it seems as though it felt like home to [the kids who came in], so let’s open up the doors and make it as much home as we can.”
This concept of “home” stuck with Gaffey. For a building used primarily by local teens, Gaffey set out to keep the Phoenix as much of an open door as humanly possible. And it worked; the Phoenix has survived multiple near-catastrophic happenings in the last few decades.
An attempt to convert the space to an office building almost shut down the Phoenix as we know it a few decades ago. A year ago, a costly new roof, because the old one was not up to fire code, almost caused it to shut down permanently. Despite some notable issues in years past, the Phoenix is still up and running today.
For some reason, the Phoenix Theater is still looked down upon by Petalumans. This negative perspective needs to change. Led by Gaffey and backed by a different hoard of teens every year, the Phoenix is here to stay. Not as a place for kids to get into trouble, nor as a place for kids to evade their parent’s watchful eyes. Rather, the Phoenix serves as an open door for different kids to have fun every year, whether they are skating, recording music, or just making friends.