Empress Ready To Rule Downtown Vallejo
Developer Hopes To Spur Revitalization Efforts With Theatre's $6.7 Million Renovation
By Rich Freedman/Times-Herald, Vallejo
Randy Bobst-McKay (right), general manager of The Empress Theatre, talks about some of the challenges in renovating the 95-year-old building and anticipating the needs of community groups who will be using the theater. Triad's Dave Egan (left), director of project development and intimately involved in the work, listens. (Mike Jory/Times-Herald, Vallejo)
She's 95 and her future looks bright.
Nothing like a $6.7 million facelift to perk the ol' gal up.
The Empress Theatre, downtown's theoretically commercial Holy Grail, is about to begin its next life after a rocky road to renovation.
"There's been rumors and innuendo all around. It's been challenging, as all renovation projects are," said Dave Egan, director of project development for Triad Communities.
With programming earmarked for a fall opening, "we're getting close," Egan said. "It's really cool."
Egan, architect John Howland of Arc Inc., theater general manager Randy Bobst-McKay, and Triad publicist Hatti Hamlin led the Times-Herald on an informal tour last week.
The intimate theater - once 940 seats, the capacity is now about 470 - is of ornate decor and conforming to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The elegant Empress is almost ready for an anticipated mixed bag of art movies, live shows and community events.
A serious challenge, Howland said, was figuring all the potential uses into the small space, while maintaining the 470 seats and architectural design.
"What's unique about what we did is what you can't see," Howland said.
The structure's extensive and expensive seismic upgrade included drilling between bricks, using thick rebar with epoxy grout, Howland said. Steel wraps the building, tying the sides to the frame.
"It keeps it all safe and sound," Egan said.
From the time Howland first began the project, 95 percent of the original building was retained, accomplishing the goal and mandate of "keeping it a historical building," he said.
"There have been some compromises," Howland said. "But compromises we can live with."
Though the stage is new "and geared for modern performances," the neon marquee is definitely out of the 1950s, Egan said. The theater showcases two box offices, wheelchair accessible restrooms, a sound and light booth, and expandable stage that Egan hopes will lure the Vallejo Symphony.
"I see no reason why they wouldn't come here," Egan said of the orchestra that calls Hogan High School home. "Hopefully, they will see the light."
Bobst-McKay agreed that keeping the theater spotless presents a challenge, particularly with the obligatory popcorn available for patrons during motion pictures.
What's allowed inside the theater "will depend on the event," Bobst-McKay said. "If we have red wine available (in the lobby), you better believe we don't want any in here."
Theater maintenance is one reason only the aisles are carpeted, with a cleaning-friendly flooring around the seats.
Bobst-McKay believes most of the fall events will be fund-raisers, with a full slate of commercial events kicking in around the first part of 2008.
"We want to assure financial viability," Bobst-McKay said, noting that other cities have renovated theaters only to find money scarce.
"They've had to beg for civic funds or close the doors," Bobst-McKay said. "We don't need that."
Expect plenty of films at the start, Egan said, "because the set up time is so little. It does need to stay in operation year-round."
"(Art films) are probably the least expensive form of entertainment," added Bobst-McKay. "There are no art houses around here."
Bobst-McKay saw "no reason" why there couldn't be an eventual Vallejo Film Festival.
"Or we can certainly be part of other established film festivals," Egan said. "This really is a special venue."
Fundraising projects are in the works, Bobst-McKay said, including sponsoring a seat or even naming the backstage Green Room.
As for whether a successful theater would launch downtown or a successful downtown will boost the theater?
"It's a chicken and egg thing," Egan said. "Both depend on each other. The success of this place helps other new projects and business in downtown. A thriving theater begets restaurants and some other venues that would stay open later than 5 p.m. A new vitality downtown is what we need."
This past Thursday's farewell salute to Celeste Smeland of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation was the first step, Bobst-McKay said.
"It was an operational test to see what this building is like with a crowd in it," Bobst-McKay said.
Renovation of the Empress has taken time. But the public's patience will be rewarded, Egan said.
"The proof is in the pudding," Egan said smiling. "It's been a labor of love."
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