Big Bucks: COPIA director Peggy Loar rides herd on the new $55 million arts and food facility.
Arts blossom in once neglected riverfront town
By Paula Harris
Not too long ago, as Cabernet-hunting tourists and their loot flooded into the trendy, upscale, and picturesque Napa County wine country meccas of St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga, the death knell was sounding for the city of Napa. Potential visitors snubbed the lackluster city, avoiding its decaying downtown lined with empty storefronts and its hazardous river that routinely flooded the area.
And as the muddy waters inundated the city, the community's character and heritage were also quietly but surely washing away.
"The downtown suffered," says Napa developer George Altamura. "The powers that be tore down the beautiful buildings and put up modern buildings that are crap. They completely neglected downtown."
Altamura, who in recent years has snapped up several downtown properties as investments in the hopes of a Napa comeback, sees a major change ahead for the city. He plans to be part of it.
Most notably, Altamura is currently restoring the city's Uptown Theater in partnership with a big-name co-investor--acclaimed Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola. Altamura says the renovated theater will revitalize the city by offering special movie premieres and world-class live performances.
But the Uptown Theater is only one piece of a holy trinity of major new facilities that are making dramatic entrances onto the Napa arts scene.
About to join the well established Jarvis Conservatory are the renovated Napa Valley Opera House and COPIA, vintner Robert Mondavi's new multimillion dollar monument to food, wine, and the arts.
The arts and entertainment vision for Napa is brashly ambitious, with an impressive amount of new investment, despite the economic slowdown. These lofty plans seem calculated to outdo all the county's trendy wine country sister towns combined.
It's a far cry from the Napa of just a few years ago. In fact, the downtown was almost defunct when groups of environmentalists, business people, and politicians finally collaborated to rescue it.
A challenging and costly project is underway to restore the city's neglected crucial lifeblood, the Napa River. Four years ago, citizens voted to raise their taxes in order to develop the riverfront, preserve the waterway, and protect the city from inundation.
"It's a $230 million flood control project to bring back the focus of the river in downtown Napa," explains Cassandra Walker, economic development director for the city of Napa.
The plan, currently in progress, calls for a seven-mile river trail system, including a downtown portion that will feature large, two-tiered promenade areas overlooking the river and new outdoor community gathering places.
The river walk will also link the key arts and entertainment venues.
"The arts component is naturally evolving because of COPIA," Walker says. "And people are coming back to the downtown now that cultural activities are opening and having a broader presence."
According to city boosters, the emergence of a new Napa arts scene will not only finally put the city on the tourist map and cater to a growing office population that keeps people in town after work, it will also serve local folks starved for nightlife.
"We're trying to give people more reason to be here," Walker says.
The numerous directional signs are in place, the city's repaving and revamping of First Street is complete, and high-profile vintner Robert Mondavi's much-anticipated castle celebrating food, wine, and art has been open 12 weeks.
COPIA is now an integral part of Napa.
Named for the Greek goddess of abundance (depicted naked and tending a vine in the center's logos), COPIA aspires to be "the world's leading cultural center dedicated to the discovery, understanding, and celebration of wine, food, and the arts," according to ads.
The $55 million ($27 million of which was poured in by Mondavi) facility offers a slew of exhibits, lectures, tastings, gardens, movies, and live musical performances.
But it has received mixed reviews.
Organizers say the private nonprofit institution is doing well. They point to a membership of 7,000 and a stream of daily visitors, half of whom come from Napa County. "We're very pleased with attendance thus far and have been on target with our predictions, averaging about 500 visitors daily," says COPIA spokesperson Holly Krassner. Organizers are predicting 300,000 visitors this year.
Before COPIA opened, some critics worried about potential traffic snarls. In addition, various local business owners complained about the lack of parking at the facility, although COPIA organizers say that's now been addressed with a 370-space parking lot.
Other folks fretted over the center's perceived elitist image. Heavy hitters like Martha Stewart, Alice Waters, Hugh Johnson, Robert Parker, and Julia Child jumped on the COPIA bandwagon to serve as honorary trustees. Child even loaned her name to the center's gourmet restaurant, Julia's Kitchen.
But some visitors are reluctant to plunk down the $12.50 daily admission fee. Others, perhaps expecting a winery, are confused over what the center actually is. "Probably, a portion heard about [COPIA] and it may not have been what they thought, but that doesn't mean they were disappointed," says Krassner.
The interior of the sprawling facility, which sits on 12 acres purchased by Mondavi at the edge of the Napa River, is surprisingly sparse, angular, and industrial looking, with concrete floors and harsh stainless steel.
Visitors experience a range of activities that can fill an entire day (note: you must pay extra for some activities), ranging from tours, winetasting, and cooking demonstrations to art exhibits, live music, and movies.
The art on display at COPIA has caused some furor. Just plain weird is what some visitors are calling the exhibits, which include a pyrotechnic piece of wall art created by torching thousands of kitchen matches, and a "field" of large blocks of melting caramel undulating on spring legs.
"For nonregulars to art museums, this is something very new for them," Krassner says. "It challenges what they think art is. Before we opened and talked about what COPIA is going to be, people didn't get it."
Krassner adds that while visitors are quick to understand why COPIA is showing a collection of precious ancient glassware, other exhibits are harder to appreciate. "The glass collection has to do with fine wine, so they see the connection there, but contemporary art is not so easily understandable," Krassner says.
And then, of course, there's the Miralda exhibit, which is causing quite a stink.
Spanish artist Antoni Miralda filled soda machines with "food-related objects," including bedpans and defecating statuettes. These figurines, known as caganers in Miralda's native Catalonia, are traditional additions to Christmas nativity scenes. They date back to the 18th century and symbolize fertilization and the hope for prosperity in the coming year.
Miralda's exhibit features ceramic figurines of the pope, nuns, angels, and others with their pants down, squatting over their bowel movements. The display sparked angry denunciations from the New York-based Catholic League of Religious and Civil Rights, which blasted the pieces, calling them "insulting" and "gratuitous."
COPIA organizers say the Miralda exhibit comes down April 22 as scheduled. "This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that museums have had to withstand a flood of criticism regarding the nature and content of their exhibitions," says COPIA director Peggy Loar. "Often, as in our case, this is the result of misinformation and a lack of knowledge."
Krassner says the center received a handful of complaints in the first six weeks, but no religious complaints. "Other parts of the exhibit concerning gluttony and scarcity are much more difficult to look at," she muses. "Art's not all about pretty things."
It remains to be seen how successfully COPIA can cover its $15 million-a-year operating budget, which pays for a 60-person staff. (The center also has more then 300 volunteers and docents.) Organizers say the money will be generated by entry tickets, gift shop sales, special events, and fundraising.
Krassner says plans are in place to expand the exhibition space and offer classical and acoustic performances on the Concert Terrace in the summer.
"We hope to collaborate with the Napa arts scene rather than compete," says Krassner. "We've known what COPIA was going to be for several years, and it's turned out how we planned."
Don't assume that the multimillion-dollar restoration of the 121-year-old performing arts space known as the Napa Valley Opera House on Main Street will create a snobbish venue for high arts, high class, and oodles of opera.
The facility will feature opera, operetta, musical theater, dance, plays, symphony music, chamber music, recitals, and poetry readings. And the theater may also become a venue for the Napa Valley Repertory Company and chamber music outfits in Napa Valley.
But in a shift from earlier plans, the opera house will also offer more popular entertainment, including folk and blues music.
Because the facility is a national historical landmark building, organizers say they will retain the name "opera house." But they point out that in the late 1800s, any venues where you could bring ladies were called opera houses to distinguish them from those other kinds of houses.
"The name may mislead some," admits executive director Michael Savage. "But we will be rapidly known for what we do."
After an Internet audience survey of 40,000 homes, organizers discovered that folks wanted a "mixed bag" of programming. And that's just what they'll get according to Savage, who hopes the Opera House will appeal to locals, day-trippers, and out-of-state tourists alike.
One major addition to the historic space is the 200-seat Cafe Theater, an intimate and informal cabaret space downstairs. It will feature comedy shows and a wide range of music, including Latin, world, jazz, and folk. Sundays will be designated for family programming, including storytelling and other kid-friendly entertainment.
The Cafe Theater will open June 13, and the first few shows will include performances by Grammy Award-winning singer Dianne Reeves and jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli.
The 500-seat main theater, a historical space that will retain the original curved, wood facade of the balcony and the original proscenium arch over the stage, could open as soon as October. But it's more likely to come online in January 2003, according to organizers.
The cost of the decade-long project is $13 million, and almost $10 million has been raised so far. "Things slowed down since September last year, but we have accelerated the opening of Cafe Theater to June and delayed opening the upstairs theater a bit," says Savage. "But we're considering negotiating a loan to open both this year."
Most of the money raised so far has winery ties. The major donor is the Mondavi family, which has gifted $2.2 million. The main theater will be named for Margrit Biever Mondavi.
The Opera House first opened in 1880 as a second-story music center with street level shops. The last time artists performed there was in 1914. The venue was damaged by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and further challenged by the advent of motion pictures.
The building crumbled for years. Then, in the 1970s, some farsighted locals, including former city planner John Whitridge and artist Veronica di Rosa, managed to get it listed as a historical building, saving the dilapidated but still stately facility from the wrecker's ball. When di Rosa died in an accident in 1991, others picked up her cause.
Savage, who worked as managing director of the San Francisco Opera for six years, plans to use his extensive connections to bring in nationally known entertainers and international stars. He even envisions a small-scale summer opera festival. "But it will take time to develop," Savage says.
Other plans call for an outdoor gathering area called the Opera House Plaza and a coffee shop called the River Room behind the building that backs Napa Creek, one of the main tributaries to the river.
"There are things going on in Napa that are quite revolutionary," Savage says. "People used to bypass it to go to Yountville or St. Helena or Calistoga, but now it will be a main stop in the valley."
Forget Hollywood. Picture downtown Napa as the location for glitzy film premieres, complete with roped-off streets, dramatic search lights, and more movie stars than tipsy tourists lounging in the back of those shiny wine country limousines.
Sound like a fairy tale?
Not according to acclaimed movie director Francis Ford Coppola, Napa developer George Altamura, and a handful of other investors. This team of investors is currently restoring the Uptown Theater, Napa's once neglected 1937 art deco movie house.
In six to eight months, the vintage theater will reopen in all to its former glory. Investors hope to re-create the golden days of the big screen cinema in the building, featuring some 900 new plush seats, a state-of-the-art sound system, and restored original art deco motifs.
"We discovered the original ceiling underneath, but it had been discolored by cigarette smoke so we're in the process of restoring it exactly," Altamura says. "It has ladies in chariots, gazelles, and people playing the lute. It's great!"
The Uptown's artistic director will be no less a figure than Coppola, a resident of Rutherford who owns Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery.
"There aren't many art deco theaters around, and Francis Ford Coppola saw the magnificent beauty of this one," Altamura says. The famed director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now has brought in movie designers and tech people to work on restoring the theater.
According to the investors, Coppola will also use his considerable industry connections to bring film premieres to the Uptown.
And that's not all. Bucking a national trend that has single-screen cinemas going dark across the country, investors are converting the building back into a single-screen movie theater. The way to survive, they reason, is to supplement the films with top-notch live entertainment.
"We can't compete with the 10- and 12-plex theaters," Altamura avers. "We don't care about them. We can't compete with them, and they can't compete with us. We're going to have a lot of stage performances with high-profile people. We're going to bring some of the best performers in the country to Napa."
Then, to whet audience appetites, Altamura tosses out such names as singer Natalie Cole and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Uptown Theater will host concerts, movies, comedy performances, lectures, and benefits. Altamura says that his personal wish is to open the Uptown with Carlos Santana performing a free outdoor concert for the local Latino population, followed by a parade and a second show in the theater.
"That's my dream: to do something for the Hispanic community, the grape workers," he says. "Without them, the wine country would be shot."
Altamura, who has owned the theater for four years, is mum on the cost of the renovation project. But he has no problem discussing the positive impact he thinks it will have on the city.
In December, a public ceremony marked the replacement of the Uptown's rusted marquee and the relighting of the new one. Altamura claims that one elderly couple, who remembered the theater in its glory days and then watched it decay, wept when they saw the lights once again.
Altamura sees a bright future for the city.
"In the next four to five years, Napa is going to be the place, because Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga are completely built out," he says. "Now, with Mondavi's COPIA and the widening of the river and the river walk, it's not a 'maybe.' It's a reality.
"They killed Napa. But now it will become a jewel."
From the January 31-February 6, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.