Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Empress Theatre to See February Opening

Empress Theatre to See February Opening
Arts Group Wins OK to Lease, Operate Theater
By CHRIS G. DENINA, Times-Herald staff writer
Vallejo Times Herald

The curtain at Vallejo's Empress Theatre is expected to rise as early as February, after a nearly $4.7 million renovation project left the stage dark for years.
The Vallejo City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved - with one member absent - leasing the Virginia Street theater to a nonprofit to run as a performing arts center for $1 a year.

City officials hope the more than 80-year-old movie house will serve as a major attraction in an arts and entertainment district that's part of developer Triad Communities' ambitious plan to renew the downtown.

Vallejo Community Arts Foundation Inc. already has people lined up to run the theater when it is expected to open next year, executive director Celeste Smeland said Tuesday.

"I want to assure you we have made an absolute firm commitment," Smeland told the council. "We are excited about the response of the community."

Besides playing movies, the theater is slated to serve as a venue for such live events as plays, symphony concerts, ballet performances and poetry recitals.

"This is an investment in the city and it's an investment in the future," Councilmember Stephanie Gomes said.

The council in 2003 city approved as much as $2.8 million in loans to fix up the old theater. But two years later, after months of demolition, workers realized they didn't have enough money to finish the job.

The city committed nearly $1 million more to finish work strengthening the building against earthquakes. The foundation also poured more money into the project.

Residents appear eager to catch a show at theater.

"We see the frontier of the dream of opening the Empress," Diana Lang of Vallejo told the council. "It's just right there."

In 1912, the Vallejo theater opened as a silent movie house and venue for vaudeville acts. A couple decades later, the theater was remodeled to seat more than 500.

In 1980, the theater got another facelift, only to close a little more than a decade later until private investors bought the building a few years ago.

"This is going to be a really huge asset for the community," the council's Gomes said. "I'm really excited about it."

Interim City Manager John Thompson recused himself from the discussion saying he had a conflict of interest because he was a consultant for Triad, the developer planning to build several downtown buildings to invigorate the aging district.

Councilmember Gerald Davis missed Tuesday's meeting.

E-mail Chris G. Denina at or call 553-6835.

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