Phoenix Theater general manager keeps the doors open for Petaluma teens
When Tom Gaffey returned to Petaluma in 1983 after running a theater in Cloverdale and was asked by friends if he would manage the Phoenix Theater, he said yes, thinking to himself that he would stay for six months, or at the most, a year. It would be a short-term gig before buying the perfect RV and heading out to cruise the country.
“But things never work out the way I plan it,” Tom says.
As the Petaluma community will attest, thank goodness Tom’s plans went awry because as the general manager of the Phoenix Theater, Tom has been nurturing creativity and confidence in Petaluma’s teens and giving them the space to express it for 35 years. For his selfless dedication to fostering community spirit and positive promotion of Petaluma, Tom Gaffey has been selected at the 2018 Good Egg Award recipient.
“Our young people are our most valuable resource and Tom has dedicated his life to ensuring a great start for these talented Petalumans. He is a local hero,” Eric J. Adams stated in his nomination form.
Local therapist Kathleen Adams who specializes in working with teens made a powerful statement in her nomination form about the impact that Tom has had on Petaluma’s youth. “I know for a fact that Tom has saved lives! Tom has invested in our youth and offers a safe haven for them to explore their music, art and soul.”
One of the reasons that Tom has had such success in working with teens is that he doesn’t have an agenda for the way the building is used or the activities at the Phoenix, as long as it is safe and law-abiding. Tom jokes in his characteristic humility that his main talent is “opening the doors and saying ‘no.’” In actuality, he is a facilitator, empowering teens to bring their ideas for music, art and self-expression. He doesn’t take on their project; ownership stays with the originator.
“People come up with ideas. Can we do murals on the wall, or build a skate ramp? I said no three times to the ramp, until they showed up with tools and built it. When I’m doing it best, I’m keeping my eyes open but getting out of the way.”
Tom’s history with the Phoenix Theater, originally built in 1905 as an opera house, began when it was a discount movie house in the early 1980s. “With the advent of movie multiplexes, the handwriting was on the wall that it couldn’t stay a theater, but what to do with the big, creaky, drafty building?”
With a capacity of just over 700, Tom saw the opportunity to experiment with booking live bands at the Phoenix including nationally known musicians such as the Neville Brothers. He recalls a sold-out show for the Violent Femmes in 1985. “The place erupted and that was really the starting gun. Let’s keep doing that.” Tom and some of the teens who frequented the shows worked together booking bands. He was eventually joined by Jim Agius, president of operations for Petaluma Market, who Tom describes as “a consummate booker for their market.”
Tom has been behind the scenes and sometimes literally in the middle of the action when he and 500 other audience members are on the floor at the Phoenix, feeling the energy of rock, metal, punk, alternative, or rap performances. “It’s been an incredible ride for me, through no design of my own.”
The positive impact that Tom has had on the community goes far beyond establishing the Phoenix Theater as a popular music venue. It’s his open-door policy that gives teens the space to play music, rehearse on stage, jam, skateboard or just hang out after school…all under Tom’s supportive and watchful eye.
“Ask around and you’ll find story after story of Tom taking the time to get to know our local kids, guide them, and teach them self-confidence,” says Kathleen Adams.
Tom recalls how thrilled he was as a young man to meet newspaper columnist Bill Soberanes and walk in the footsteps of people important to Petaluma’s history. By giving back to the “town that raised me,” Tom is building a legacy of young people who will continue contributing to the community. “I found life serving the youth audience and I would like it to continue. It is my honor to see these kids grow up to be successful people.”