Phoenix is a rare bird in Petaluma

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Though the “giving season” supposedly ended on Jan. 1, some Petalumans may still be looking for a good local cause to donate to. If so I have one for you: the Phoenix Theater fundraiser.

The Phoenix is more than just a legendary music venue. It is, and has been, a second home to generations of Petaluma teens, who gather there after school to play music, ride skateboards or just hang out. It’s way too cool to be called a “teen center” — but thanks to the tireless Tom Gaffey, this place is the gritty locus of much our town’s youthful energy. It’s the kind of place that’s deeply missed in towns where it doesn’t exist, which is most of them.

In short, we need the Phoenix, and we need it keep it up.

Hence the fundraiser, which has already gone far in collecting the needed cash — about $300,000 — for two big maintenance projects: fixing the leaky roof and installing an updated sprinkler system.

“We’ve made great progress. We’re at maybe $230,000, $240,000 total right now,” said Jim Agius, a Phoenix nonprofit board member involved in a number of activities there, including fundraising. “But we’ve got a ways to go.”

Agius, who also is president of operations of Petaluma Market next door, said the sprinkler system upgrade is pricey because it involves digging into Keller Street to tap a water main. But plans already have been approved by the city, and he’s hopeful they’ll get it done by the March 31 deadline.

“Jim is such a genius at this stuff,” Gaffey told me recently as we stood in the theater’s front lobby. It was a weekday afternoon, and the entire building was buzzing with teenagers doing useful (or at least interesting) things. Gaffey focuses on the building, the kids and the music, and he’s one of those rare people who clearly is doing what he loves.

Over the years he’s booked Metallica, Green Day, Violent Femmes, Rancid, Offspring, Sublime, Snoop Dogg, Too Short — the list goes on and on — and he has a hilarious story to go with each one. But asked if he enjoys booking the big acts, Gaffey answers, “That’s work!”

They pay the bills, but he really loves the small local acts, and his eyes light up as he talks about Victim’s Family, or One Armed Joey, or a death-metal band of 14-year-olds called Plague.

As a teen himself, back in 1969, Gaffey was asked to help out at the Phoenix ticket counter. Elaine O’Donnell was the proprietor then, and ran a tight ship. Today her protégé Gaffey manages the Phoenix, and her son Kenneth O’Donnell manages the Mystic.

Gaffey returned in 1983 and agreed to manage the place for a brief stint. “They were going to sell the place,” he said. “It was supposed to be a one-year turnaround — and they never sold.” And Gaffey never left. Counting his teen years and later adult years, he’s been at the Phoenix for almost 40 years.

True to its namesake, the Phoenix has burned twice in its 115-year history and arisen both times. The first was in 1922, when a paint store fire spread to the building and the stage had to be rebuilt. The second was in 1957, when a couch in the upper lobby caught fire and burned the roof off.

The new sprinkler system will prevent such a thing from happening again. Petaluma Market, Lagunitas, and hundreds of individual donors have gotten them far along, but more is needed. Small donations may be made at www.gofundme.com/save-the-phoenix-sprinklers-amp-roof. For large donations, reach Agius directly at jimagius@thephoenixtheater.com.

Eventually a kid came along and handed Gaffey his guitar. It was time for me to go and I said goodbye. “I’d love to drop in again sometime,” I told him.

“It’s everybody’s building,” he said, “you can drop in any time you want.”

(Don Frances is a Petaluma writer.)

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