Back in July of 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton was busily posing for photos with Al Gore, his recent choice for running mate. “A League of Their Own” was the number one movie in America. And Ken O’Donnell, co-owner of McNear’s Saloon and Dining House, was about to attend the first concert at his recently-renamed and rebranded Mystic Theatre and Music Hall.
That’s right, Petaluma. The Mystic is about to turn 25.
For decades, of course, the place had been a movie theater with a variety of names – the Plaza, the Palace, the State. Originally built in 1911, the prominently positioned venue had long been part of the downtown Petaluma scene. Its art deco design had even landed it a cameo or two in movies such as “American Graffiti” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
Over the years, the occasional concert or theatrical production was staged there, but not since its very earliest days had the place been primarily designated as a music hall.
And when it was, its name was The Mystic. So in 1992, when the venue was repainted with its new name (See Looking Back column in this week’s Argus-Courier), the theater was really just getting its original name back – along with its original purpose.
The first show in the new-improved Mystic Theatre, on Sunday, July 19, 1992, was an appearance by Texas blues band Arc Angels.
“Doug and I booked that show,” says Bill Bowker, of KRSH FM, referencing the late Doug Smith, with whom Bowker partnered for many years, producing eclectic musical events around the county. Together, the two presented a few concerts at the Mystic in the early days. The opening of the Mystic was, Bowker says, a seismic event within the Sonoma County music world.
“The fact that the Mystic started to bring in touring bands you would have had to go into San Francisco or Marin to see, that was just really a significant development for this area,” he says. “It was big for Petaluma, and big for Sonoma County, having a music venue like that here. It changed the whole musical landscape of the county.”
Sheila Groves-Tracey, who booked all the music at the Mystic from 1994 to 2009, agrees.
“Before the Mystic came along, the music scene in town was very different,” she says. “The Mystic definitely helped establish a thriving music scene in Sonoma County. I think it’s pretty amazing how many local venues have arisen since then, and are doing good music. I think that’s largely because the Mystic created an audience for good music.”
She points out that the nearby Phoenix Theater, where she’d produced a number of shows herself, has always done a good job of giving local bands a launching pad and training ground. But the Mystic, she says, was able to bring in acts the Phoenix, a non-profit, would never have been able to afford. That said, the Mystic has been something of a “launching pad” for local bands as well.
“When we first booked the band Train,” Groves-Tracey recalls, “It was at the very beginning of their career. We booked them on a Thursday, with a big discount ticket offer, because they were so new. We thought they were great, but no one knew who they were. Then, a little later on, we had them on a Saturday and charged ten dollars. And after that, when they’d built a following and were ready to kick off their “Drops of Jupiter” tour, they came back and did it at the Mystic, as kind of a thank you for believing in them.”
CELEBRATING 25 YEARS: A few highlights of the Mystic Theatre’s Anniversary month
July 15, 8:30 p.m. – L.A.-based Latino-urban-hip-hop band Ozomatli
July 20, 8:30 p.m. – Reggae show Through the Roots with Thrive and Sun-Dried Vibes
July 26, 8:30 p.m. – Men at Work’s Colin Hay
July 28, 8:30 p.m. – Singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman
July 29, 8:30 p.m. – Songwriting legend J.D. Souther