STRING THINGS: Guitars by Michael Garlington & George Lucas.
Which one would you bid on?
Les Claypool's "How to Play Bass" guitar or George Lucas' Yoda light saber guitar? Stan Lee's baseball-card-collage guitar or John Lasseter's googly-eyed tongue guitar?
The Phoenix Guitar Gala has everybody talking, and with good reason. Where else will one find and be able to bid on 18 different guitars, all individually hand-designed and one-of-a-kind, created by celebrities both local and worldwide? And where else will one be able to further bid on autographed guitars by B. B. King, Carlos Santana and Les Paul, all under the same theater roof that over the years has hosted everyone from Harry Houdini to Metallica? That's not even mentioning the samba lessons, the capoeira martial arts, the Afro-Brazilian stick dancing, the Brazilian food and the fire dancers.
In fact, the activity under the Phoenix Theater's roof for its Guitar Gala auction and Carnaval party on Feb. 28 is only a microcosm of just how varied the scene surrounding the beloved building has become. On any given day, it's not uncommon to walk through the theater's glass doors—doors formerly entered by Count Basie, Van Morrison, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, the Ramones, Sublime and innumerable others—to see teenagers engaged in writing workshops, music lessons, art classes, a free health clinic, acting classes, podcasting courses, recording classes, photojournalism instruction, jam sessions and skateboarding mentorships.
All of this grew organically out of the Phoenix Theater experience. Two decades ago, after house manager Tom Gaffey augmented the theater's movie schedule by hosting shows with local bands after the late screening, the theater began attracting young people who between bands would draw in notebooks, write zines, practice guitar and work on homework on the lobby steps. Now all of those things and more are part of the theater's official schedule, thanks to a dedicated board of directors led by executive director Amber Faur, and plenty of volunteers.
STRING THINGS: Guitars by Seth Green, Josh Staples & Les Claypool.
It's a welcome change, Gaffey says, one that he wouldn't have been able to instigate on his own. "The organization and all that, that was never a strong suit of mine," Gaffey says by phone, standing inside the theater's broom closet to tune out the din of activity. "But now, with so many kids involved and so little space and so many activities, it does require a structure and a schedule. That way we can be consistent. People are coming in with ideas, and they know that there'll be space guaranteed for them, time guaranteed for them and even some funding sometimes."
After receiving a donation of guitars from Gibson, the Phoenix board of directors contacted various artists and celebrities to donate their skills. Lots of names were tossed around, many with direct connections to the theater. Devo, for example, played there in 1980; Les Claypool's played there countless times. Many of the local artists who designed guitars grew up there.
"This whole thing is through personal relationships and fondness for the Phoenix," says booking agent Jim Agius. Agius credits Jonah Loop, an old Phoenix regular who's forged a successful film career in Hollywood, with talking to a handful of high-profile names. Stan Lee, in particular, was "very impressed" with the theater and the concept. "Everyone who was asked," Agius notes, "said yes."
The finished guitars are impossible to accurately assess through photos alone; certain fine touches are lost—the sheer girth of Petaluma artist Jack Haye's piece, covered in BBs, for example. The way the eyes on John Lasseter's Thunderbird bass glow like marbles, or the intricate wood carving of Josh Staples' zombie-themed guitar.
It's similarly impossible to adequately assess the impact and inspiration the Phoenix has had on generations of North Bay teens. Some of them, all grown up, now host yoga classes there. Others serve on the board; some donate money; some organize poetry readings, tutoring workshops and theater productions. All recognize the value of the place.
Gio Benedetti, one such regular, heads the free music program at the Phoenix six days a week, teaching over 50 kids who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford music lessons. Benedetti credits the Phoenix with his course in life, and relishes the ability to pass along the inspiration. "I can't imagine what it would be like without the Phoenix," he says. "Having a building like that, and somebody like Tom who's so dedicated to the kids, the potential is infinite."
Indeed, much of the Phoenix Theater's stature is due to Gaffey's oversight and ability to convey guidance not from an authoritative fatherly standpoint but from an even-keeled brotherly one. To a casual passerby, Gaffey may seem like the building's janitor (he still says his favorite tasks include cleaning the bathrooms, and his dedication to sweeping the front sidewalk has become a Petaluma landmark), but all the regulars know him as the heart and soul of the theater.
"Over the years now, I think that we've been a good hedge against a lot of things in the outside world, that maybe has given kids a chance to get some breathing room and get a place to be a little bit grounded and avoid some of the pitfalls," Gaffey says. "I'm glad to see that most of the kids that have come through have been able to use this as kind of an anchor at times. It's been gratifying, and I hope we get to continue doing it."
The Phoenix Theater Carnaval and Guitar Gala, featuring over 20 hand-designed guitars, gets underway on Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Phoenix Theater, 201 E. Washington St., Petaluma. 8pm. $30. 707.762.3565. For more info, see www.phoenixguitargala.com.