Monday, August 06, 2007

The Many Faces Of Empress Theater

The Many Faces Of Empress Theater -- Vallejo Jewel Undergoing Transformation
By Tony Wade, Daily Republic CORRESPONDENT

Photo by Zachary Kaufman. The historic Empress Theater, ÒThe Jewel of Vallejo,Ó opend its doors on Valentine's Day, 1912. The theater is now on its way back to former glory.

The historic Empress Theater in downtown Vallejo is a symbol of resilience. Its classic Beaux-arts architecture stands out from its fellow buildings on Virginia Street.

The 96-year old building has defiantly withstood a fire, years of neglect and a major earthquake. With the help from a consortium bent on restoring the "Jewel of Vallejo" to its rightful place of prominence, it is poised to make yet another startling comeback.

The original construction of the Empress Theater started in 1911 and was a project of the International Order of Odd Fellows. The organization began in 17th century England where it was odd to find people organized for the purpose of helping the needy and pursuing projects for the benefit of mankind.

The theater opened on Valentine's Day in 1912 and featured over 900 seats. Those who wanted to be up close and personal to the action on stage shelled out the princely sum of 30 cents. Those who stuck to the nosebleed section in the balcony only had to part with a dime. Theatergoers were treated to a then-popular vaudeville act, Sullivan and Considine.

Going to the theater had a very different connection with local folks than it does in 2007. Dressing up in one's finery and going to see a show was all the rage in the early part of the 20th century. The Empress offered the community a place to congregate and see top quality entertainment at affordable prices.

In 1930, a fierce fire ravaged the interior of the Empress. The damage it caused would be over $500,000 in today's dollars. While it appeared to be the death knell for the theater, it rose phoenix-like from the ashes and was rebuilt. The balcony was taken out and replaced with stadium seating. This drastically cut down the number of available seats but improved sightlines considerably.

In the 1950s, the Empress continued to slake the Vallejo community's thirst for movies and live entertainment but with a different name, the Crest. The distinctive gilt clouds on the ceiling and intricate undulating scroll artwork on the sides and stage were added during this period as well.

From 1962 to 1978, the theater went through a period of neglect and fell into disrepair. In 1980, new owners restored the original name and spruced up the classic interior. For nine years the Empress enjoyed a run of success which came to a (literally) jarring halt in 1989. The Loma Prieta earthquake which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale caused serious damage to the theater. The building was deemed unsafe and has stood vacant since then.

The restoration

In 2004, the Vallejo city council decided to restore the theater which had been declared a Vallejo historic landmark in 1990. The effort to bring the Empress Theater back to its past glory is due to the public and private partnership between the City of Vallejo, the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation and Empress Theater Associates LLC - a wholly owned subsidiary of mixed use development company Triad Communities. Work began in 2006.

Triad Communities Director of Project Management Dave Egan explained that ensuring the classic elements unique to the building were not sacrificed during the refurbishing was paramount. In fact, strict guidelines as to what could and could not be changed had to be followed. Yet the unreinforced masonry building had to be made seismically safe. Naturally, this lead to cost overruns.

"We had particular challenges because we couldn't put the structural reinforcements inside the building because it would have negatively impacted the historic architectural elements," Egan said. " We couldn't put it on the outside because there were other buildings in the way. So we cored down every foot along the full depth of the building. From the very top of the parapet to two feet into the foundation all along the side of the building. Then we built a steel framework in the attic area that tied all of that together and made the building structurally one unit."

Initially the project was estimated to cost $4.7 million, but cost overruns on historic buildings are commonplace and the Empress was no exception. Eventually the bill to bring the old girl back to life had ballooned to $6.7 million.

As the restoration was a labor of love, Triad Communities paid the difference out of their own pocket. The company will get about half their investment back from federal New Market Tax Credits but are just pleased they can contribute to the redevelopment of downtown Vallejo.

While finishing touches are still needed before the Empress is ready to open its doors, the work completed thus far is truly stunning. Gone is the sickly-looking teal which permeated the theater in 1980s. Rich, warm earth tones have replaced it.

The seats retain the look and feel of vintage theater seats, but there are concessions to functionality (no, not cupholders). The 471 seats at the Empress include three rows in the front which are removable. Also, several feet of the 40-foot stage is removable as well so a dance floor can be put down or the space can be used as an orchestra pit.

While the beautiful scroll work and plush seating are nice, what is most eye-catching is the ceiling. The wonderfully billowing art-deco clouds touched off with a delightful purple neon glow add a sensuous inviting aura to the interior of the Empress.

The connection with the past is an important part of the Empress experience. The front facade still has elements from its 1911 opening, there is 1930s architecture in the interior and a decidedly 1950s marquee hangs above the entrance.

Still, theatergoers needn't worry about having to do without modern conveniences. The Empress will have state-of-the-art lighting and sound, modern climate control, new and larger restrooms (which are Americans with Disabilities compliant) and of course plenty of concessions for sale.

The theater has rental spaces in the back where groups can have dinner before or after a show and also has yet another unique feature: a shared bathroom with Baci's, the Italian restaurant next door (staff will be on guard for those trying to sneak in).

What's on the marquee?

Randy Bobst-McKay is the general manager of the Empress Theater and is eager to see the project completed and a full schedule of entertainment be presented to the community. In the '80s, the theater would feature different themed movie nights like western, soft porn, and rock and roll flicks. Bobst-McKay is planning on a different business model.

"There's a gap in available arts and culture in this area that we'd like to fill. There's no art-house kind of movie theater in Solano County or Napa. There isn't a great, large-scale music hall here. These are voids we can fill," Bobst-McKay said.

"We're ideally designed for a lot of music events. It's a great space for small theatrical productions and modern dance. Our events will be an eclectic blend which will be appealing to a broad spectrum of our diverse community," Bobst-McKay continued.

As the anticipation grows for what the new Empress will bring, longtime Vallejo residents who frequented the theater for decades have been overwhelmed at the renovation.

"We had a fund-raising event and did a hard hat tour of the theater for about 150 people," Bobst-McKay said. "So many of them had stories of coming here and you should have seen the looks on their faces when they saw it. Walking in here and seeing it restored with a new richer color scheme really made people feel great about what their community has been able to achieve."

Reach Fairfield freelance writer Tony Wade at
At a glance
Empress Theater
330 Virginia St., Vallejo
The Name Game
The theater's changing moniker through the years
The Empress 1911
The Republic 1913
Vallejo Theatre 1916
Fox Senator 1931
The Crest 1952
The Empress 1980

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