Empress Theatre/Vallejo, CA

Vallejo Times Herald (California)

Friday January 14, 2011

Vallejo’s Empress Theatre could soon again ‘go dark’ at least temporarily

By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen / Times-Herald

Vallejo’s Empress Theatre has parted company with its management firm, calling the struggling venue’s future into question.

"The agreement between the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation and VenueTech was terminated in late December," Senior Community Development Analyst Annette Taylor said Thursday. "Hopefully VCAF will find a new manager."

This could mean that the circa 1911 Art Deco theater, at 330 Virginia St., restored in recent years to the tune of $7 million, may "go dark," at least temporarily, foundation board member Daryl Edwards said.

Foundation president and vice president Tim and Sue MacDonald have been key Empress benefactors.

In an interview, the MacDonalds said they’ve poured more than $400,000 and their "hearts and souls" into the Empress and want it to survive. But they need others to "step up to the plate" and help tide the place over until expected grants come in.

"There were promises from the businesses surrounding the Empress, but those did not materialize," Sue MacDonald said. "We can’t afford to personally fund the Empress any more without creating problems for ourselves."

About $300,000 is needed within the next six months to keep the doors open, they said. VenueTech will return if it can be paid the $9,600 per month it was promised, they added.

It costs about $20,000 per month to run the theater and $6,000 per month if it’s closed, they said.

The theater, still owned by downtown developer Triad Communities, was to be the centerpiece of an arts and entertainment district downtown. It’s held a variety of events and concerts from performing arts, movies, fundraisers, music and even weddings.

The foundation was once funded to a significant extent by the city, but now gets its money solely from grants and donations. That may help explain the present situation with the Empress, Taylor said.

"The city stopped contributing to community organizations a few years ago because of our financial situation," Taylor said.

VCAF recently asked the city for financial help. Taylor said.

"No one wants to see the Empress go dark, but the city isn’t in the position to help financially," she said.

VenueTech Management Group, LLC, took over the theater’s helm in April after general manager Randy Bobst-Mckay resigned. It’s a Bay Area-based firm involved in business planning, capital development and management of community-based organizations and public assembly facilities, according to its website.

According to the Empress’ website, several events remain scheduled and Edwards said he hopes a way can be found for those shows to go forward.

"If it’s not closed already, it will be soon," Edwards said. "Unless there’s an infusion of cash and we find a new manager who knows the business and the community, it will close its doors."

During its short tenure, VenueTech produced some information that may help save the Empress, Taylor said.

"They prepared a thorough report and guidelines, so VCAF just needs to find someone to implement the plan," she said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at (707) 553-6824 or rzrihen

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