The audience waits for the program to start at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo, Friday, for an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the theater's opening. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)

The audience waits for the program to start at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo, Friday, for an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the theater's opening. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)

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Vallejo’s ‘beacon of light’ celebrates 100th anniversary

By From page A1 | February 08, 2012

VALLEJO — Barbara Stackhouse waited patiently in the balcony of the Empress Theatre. Her friend and fellow moviegoer Mary Abeyta was getting popcorn at the snack bar.

It’s a routine the two have repeated for several Fridays, as the theater paired live performances with classic movies for a few months.

On Tuesday, the theater, at 330 Virginia St., celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The first performance was a vaudeville show. Today, it’s home to live performances as well as movies. The space can also be rented for private events.

“We want to patronize the Empress as much as we can,” said Stackhouse, a lifelong Vallejo resident. “I can’t believe Vallejo has something so unique. I hope it can keep going and going.”

Rich Montero of Vallejo Main Street feels the same. Vallejo Main Street works to preserve the historical significance of the downtown area.

“It is the crowning jewel of downtown,” he said. “It’s literally a beacon of light. It’s a blessing for our community. It’s our duty and obligation to keep it open.”

The theater opened as the Empress, but had six name changes over the century.

In 1930, a fire gutted the building, leaving little more than rafters and exterior walls. Today’s interior layout dates to the renovation after the fire.

It was renovated again in the early 1950s. At that time, the Skouras ceiling, with art-deco clouds, touched with a purple neon glow, was added.

The style is named after Charles P. Skouras, who served as the head of United Artists and was known to fancy art deco and Spanish colonial styles with glitzy gold leaf.

Built in the Beaux Arts style, only the exterior remains the same today as on opening day. The style combines Greek and Roman architecture and Renaissance ideas.

In 1980, the Empress was renovated again. It appeared to be reliving its glory days. Then the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the theater so much it sat vacant for nearly 20 years in a state of disrepair and neglect.

The building changed hands several times between 2000 and 2003 until Triad Communities purchased it for redevelopment in partnership with the city of Vallejo and the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation.

While the theater is operated under the umbrella of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation, Inc., the facility has a manager for day-to-day operations.

Despite $7 million in renovations for the 2008 re-opening, the theater had its ups and downs the last few years.

There was a break in programming in early 2009. In 2010, VenueTech, a theater management group, took over management. VenueTech also manages the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre.

In 2011, members of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation took over theater management. A few weeks ago, B.J. Lipari, a performance and visual artist, was hired to manage the theater.

Susan MacDonald is one of its many volunteers. She’s also a member of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation. Her husband, Tim MacDonald, serves as president of the board. She handles all the graphics for the theater, designing posters for the windows in front of the venue.

Kitty Aga is also a volunteer and member of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation.

“We are so passionate about this little theater surviving,” she said of the 470-seat venue.

Stackhouse said she appreciates everyone’s efforts. After all, the first time she set foot in the theater, she saw “Gone With the Wind.” And while she loves the classic movies, she said the live music before the films is also wonderful.

“It’s as professional as you can get,” she said.

Anniversary celebrations continue throughout the month. For a list, visit http://www.empresstheatre.org.

Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected]

Amy Maginnis-Honey

Amy Maginnis-Honey

Amy Maginnis-Honey joined the staff of the Daily Republic in 1980. She’ll tell you she was only 3 at the time. Over the past three decades she’s done a variety of jobs in the newsroom. Today, she covers arts and entertainment and writes for the Living and news pages.

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