They say that age brings wisdom. If the walls of the Empress Theatre could speak, they’d recite a veritable history of American theatre, tell tales of love and devastation, the trials and tribulations of time unfolding and the devoted investment of many individuals.
The Empress, located on Virginia Street in Historic Downtown Vallejo, is in her seventh incarnation and centennial year. Her maiden performance took place on Valentine’s Day 1912, when vaudeville was in its prime. Patrons could enjoy these variety shows in one of the theatre’s 940 plush, red velvet seats beginning at just 10 cents, with premier seating for up to 30 cents.
Over the next 15 years the theatre changed hands several times, and in 1929 was purchased by the Fox chain, which invested $20,000 in new-fangled “talking picture” equipment.
Tumult and turbulence followed for the country and the theatre with the advent of the Great Depression, followed by a fire that engulfed the original overhanging balcony. In an investment pattern that would continue into the next century, Fox decided against closing its doors and instead completed necessary—if costly—renovations, including the addition of a men’s toilet and smoking room, and a women’s toilet and cosmetic room.
After WWII and another change of hands and appellation, The Crest Theatre operated as a single-movie house until 1962. Then—dolefully—its doors were closed and it sat neglected for 16 years. In 1978 the Elliot family purchased it and lovingly restored it to its 1950s glory, complete with golden clouds to grace the ceiling.
Then, after almost a decade’s infusion of fresh human life and energy, happy couples, families and new films, natural disaster struck the theater a second time. The Loma Prieta Earthquake rattled the Bay Area and was the most costly natural disaster in the country to date. This time, damage was too great to repair and the theatre sat vacant again—for nearly 20 years. Though its seats remained empty, the city of Vallejo designated the Empress a historic landmark in 1990.
The current chapter of our story is one of outright perseverance, commitment, innovation, and lots of funding. In 2003, Triad Communities purchased the theatre in partnership with the City of Vallejo and the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation. The following restoration might be appropriately dubbed a modern miracle. The building was in need of a complete seismic retrofit and had to meet health and public safety codes that weren’t in existence in its former incarnations. The big question was how to accomplish these goals while preserving the building’s architectural integrity. Steel rods were inserted from floor to ceiling through brick walls for earthquake safety. A water pump complete with its own back-up power supply was rigged to an underground spring to keep the stage from flooding. Careful plans were laid to protect the original proscenium while expanding the small, 10-foot stage.
“Patrons could enjoy
these variety shows in one of the
theatre’s 940 plush, red velvet seats
beginning at just 10 cents,
with premier seating for
up to 30 cents.”
The total cost of restoration was over $6 million, almost $2 million over the projected total. Triad Communities stepped in to cover the additional amount, and applied for federal tax credit to offset the extra cost. At the end of the tax holding requirement, the theatre will be donated back to the City of Vallejo. In the meantime, the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation is operating and managing the Empress. Current offerings include an assemblage of talented live music acts, classic movies, comedy and more. The 100 Year Anniversary Celebration takes place February 12-14 with an open house, live music, artist and historical exhibitions. More details about upcoming shows and events can be found at empresstheatre.org. The website is a treasure trove in itself, with a thorough history and photos, and a rare gem of an audio recording from a gentleman who frequented the Empress in it’s youth as a silent motion picture house, romantically recalling movie-going days of yore.
The dedication and commitment that have helped the Empress stay alive for so long were worthy investments for such a community legacy. It’s up to us to continue the legacy by sharing in this treasure with our friends and loved ones.