Tuesday, January 16, 2007

City of Vallejo Refurbished Empress adds class to downtown entertainment venues

Refurbished Empress adds class

By J.M. Brown/Times-Herald, Vallejo

Article Launched: 01/14/2007 07:33:02 AM PST

Sixty years ago, "everyone who was anyone" in Vallejo went to the movies on Virginia Street.

That's what lifelong Vallejoan Pearl Jones Tranter remembers about Saturday and Sunday nights on the hot strip - home to the Hanlon Theater and its older sister, the Crest Theater, a 1911 vaudeville house.

"I saw a lot of movies, but we also saw a lot of friends," the artist said Friday night as she awaited a hard-hat tour of the restoration under way at the old Crest, which was later renamed the Empress Theatre.

Any longtime Vallejoan can recall with nostalgia how the two theaters marked the center of downtown nightlife before a fire destroyed the Hanlon in 1954 and bad business closed the Crest a decade later.

Hope surged for a downtown renaissance when the Empress opened in 1980, only to fold after the Loma Prieta earthquake a decade later. Attempts to revive it have since failed.

With downtown revitalization slated to get underway, will the Empress really reign again? When it reopens this summer, will it breathe life into downtown the way other refurbished theaters have across America?

After nearly $7 million in restoration and operational costs, Vallejo's business owners, civic leaders and arts patrons - who are pros at coping with redevelopment delay - say "yes." But whether it can anchor Vallejo's vision for a thriving, bustling downtown will depend largely on what its keepers put on stage and screen, they say.

Promising a vibrant mix of movies, live theater and community functions, Gail Manning of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation, said, "We can be very successful here - it's going to take a few years."

The foundation, which runs the Beaux-arts theater, has hired a new director, Randy Bobst-McKay, who says "film is key" to drumming up business. An entertainment advisory committee will determine "what people want to see in our town," Manning said.

Though it's raised nearly a half-million dollars, the foundation has launched a capital campaign to raise $1.85 million for "bricks and mortar" and operational costs. The foundation must repay the city $3.8 million it anted up for the project, but has the option to later buy the theater.

"It will be huge" and "will get downtown going," said Jim Mitchell, executive director of Vallejo Main Street. "It will take the community a while to figure out it's here and happening."

The foundation hosted a fundraising dinner and tour Friday to show off the luminous results of a year's worth of grueling work to modernize the historic playhouse while preserving its nearly 100-year-old luster.

The theater - which will seat 471 with space for six wheelchairs - is nearly brand new.

Crews reinforced steel throughout the theater and built a new, longer main stage with a sprung floor to support dancing. New staircases behind the stage provide easy access from a green room and dressing room to the orchestra pit two floors down.

Workers performed seismic refurbishing on the theater's signature feature, "the clouds," which are large gold fans that hang from a midnight-blue ceiling and emit a soft amber light from above, with blue and red neon lights underneath.

Original windows above the balcony were restored. Where property caretakers had placed paper over them to block light, there will now be drawn curtains.

To cover a turquoise-white combination, the theater's two main walls were repainted a rich maroon to match the plush, deeply-cushioned, high-back seats.

From there, audiences will view films on a new movie screen supported by a new camera and surround sound system.

Just getting through the door will be a marvel.

Under a new 1950s-style triangle marquis, patrons will pass by the original ticket booth and into a narrow lobby, where the concession stand will be centered with restrooms on either side.

The theater has no bar, but patrons can mingle at intermission or after a show at Baci Restaurante, Lounge and Cafe, a new Italian eatery next door.

Nee Lau, who owns China Wok around the corner, will open the venture with partner Alice Liu next month.

That only leaves the Empress' famous, old-fashioned telephone booth. Until crews can find the right spot for it, it's being stored on Mare Island.

Though Jones Tranter hoped to see it when she took Friday's tour, she was happy just to see the city's dream of a reborn Empress taking life.

"I'm optimistic," she said. "I hope for the best."

To donate to the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation's capital campaign, contact executive director Celeste Smeland at 648-4035. For more information, log on to www.empresstheatre.org

J.M. Brown can be reached at jmbrown@thnewsnet.com.

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