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Polly Klaas Theater renovation underway

Like most Petaluma residents, Kris Ahmed had driven past the Polly Klaas Performing Arts Center, the architecturally impressive faded red former church on Western Avenue, and wondered what it looked like inside.

On Monday, she and dozens of other volunteers got a rare chance to find out as the city-owned building’s doors were open to the public for the first time since it was shuttered 20 years ago.

Ahmed and about 70 fellow Kaiser Permanente workers as well as a few curious neighbors, removed four large dumpsters worth of junk from the old theater and a storage room across the street at Petaluma City Hall. The project, organized by Rebuilding Together Petaluma, was the first phase in a project to renovate the center for the Polly Klaas Foundation, which is set to take over the space from the city.

“The space was a lot larger than I thought it would be,” said Ahmed, who worked alongside her husband, Serwar Ahmed, also a Kaiser employee, and daughter, Leah Ahmed, 14, a Technology High School student. “I love the idea of giving back to the community. Our children are into the arts and this is a wonderful space for performing arts.”

Though a bit dusty inside the cavernous theater, the space is now empty save for several rows of burnt orange cushioned seats. Crews hauled out broken office furniture, filing cabinets, an old organ and a piano that “was completely trash,” said Jane Hamilton, executive director of Rebuilding Together Petaluma.

“People really worked hard,” Hamilton said.

For the last few years, the nonprofit that usually fixes up houses for low-income residents has been organizing volunteer days for Kaiser, Hamilton said. She said she approached the Polly Klaas Foundation about cleaning out the theater.

“We like to go around the community and do things we normally don’t get to do,” she said.

Raine Howe, executive director of the Polly Klaas Foundation, said she hopes to have the Polly Klaas Community Theater renovated and open by summer 2022. The outside will get a fresh coat of paint but will look mostly the same with the stained-glass windows from the original church built in 1911. Inside, the space will have a 99-seat theater, reception area, large backstage and kitchen for catered events.

“Today is the first step in the renovation,” Howe said. “Nothing could happen until this was cleared out.”

The theater and foundation are named after Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old victim of a 1993 kidnapping and murder that is Petaluma’s most notorious crime. The following year, the Petaluma City Council dedicated the center to Klaas, who excelled at performing arts. Cinnabar Theater used the center to stage shows, but by 2000, the building was deemed unsafe and closed.

Howe said the foundation has launched a $1 million fundraising campaign to renovate the theater, which needs a new roof, heating and cooling system, fire sprinklers and plumbing among other big ticket items. A Rotary Club crab feed on Feb. 28 and a foundation event at Lagunitas on March 30 will help add to the $318,000 already raised in donations and inkind labor and materials, Howe said.

To donate, visit PollyKlaasCommunityTheater.org.

The city is expected to transfer ownership of the building to the foundation in late March. City Councilman Kevin McDonnell, who stopped by Monday to get a glimpse inside the theater, said the city is happy to partner with the Polly Klaas Foundation.

“Many of the best things the city has done are through partnerships,” McDonnell said. “This is certainly a huge opportunity and I think we have the right partner.”

Now that the inside of the theater has been cleaned out, Howe said that she can start taking potential donors inside for tours. The city has also agreed to keep the lights on at night, illuminating for passersby the stained-glass windows that feature the names of early Petaluma pioneers.

And in a potential publicity windfall, cable channel HGTV has expressed interest in featuring the space for a series on renovating community theaters, Howe said.

Once the theater is reopened, it could host a number of events like Ted talks, West Side Stories, concerts and plays. Cinnabar Theater, which staged the last play there in December 1999, is interested in again becoming a tenant, Howe said.

That suits Leah Ahmed just fine. A member of Cinnabar’s youth theater program, she said she could see herself acting on the revamped stage.

“It’s a really cool space,” she said. “It looks like it will work really well for performing arts.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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