Empress Theatre

Commitment and Perserverance

The story of the renovation of the Empress Theatre is a story of commitment; make that “bulldog” commitment. It is a story of commitment, perseverance and sheer tenacity on the part of key individuals and organizations associated with caring Vallejoans.

From the Elliot family, whose loving restoration of the theater in 1980 breathed new life into The Empress after nearly two decades of neglect, to the many who passionately advocated for the resources to restore her after the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, whenever things looked grim, someone stepped forward to save the day.

The City’s affection for the Empress is shown by the fact that it was designated Vallejo Landmark #17 in 1990—even while it sat shuttered.

The Empress changed ownership several times in the new millennium as various coalitions sought ways to fund restoration, but it wasn’t until Triad Communities stepped up in 2004 that a solid plan and a complex but innovative financial agreement were relentlessly hammered out.  

Even then, enormous challenges lay ahead. Although “groundbreaking” took place in April, 2004, the project did not get into full swing until 2006.  

Logistics Complexity 

The restoration itself was akin to assembling an enormous jigsaw puzzle, with each piece needing to fit perfectly. The architect began researching the original theater design in order to determine how to preserve the theater’s architectural integrity while reconfiguring for modern multi-purpose functionality.  And, of course, the newly-restored theater had to meet health, safety and public access standards never even envisioned when the Empress was originally constructed.

Meanwhile, structural engineers were attempting to solve another problem; how to unobtrusively reinforce the Empress’ brick walls and other structural parts to modern earthquake resistance standards—without taking down the entire structure.  One solution was the insertion of steel rods from floor to ceiling—through the bricks themselves!

As the workers peeled away walls and floors, more and more challenges came to light.  A “slight flooding problem” beneath the stage was revealed to be a year-around spring flowing beneath the property, capable of flooding the basement with several feet of water unless a pump is used round-the-clock to keep the building dry.  To guard against an occasional power outage, a back-up system had to be installed to insure the pump’s 24/7 operation.

As structural challenges were resolved—such as preserving the existing proscenium while replacing a tiny 10 foot stage with one that could accommodate a full-scale production—it was time for the finishing touches.  Painters, plasterers, lighting and sound specialists all approached the Empress as a work of art—and the results show in their passionate attention to intricate detail.

The Price of Perseverance 

Originally budgeted for $4.7 million, as the project unfolded and more damage and needs became apparent, the budget subsequently mushroomed by nearly $2 million, an amount that easily could have ground the project to a halt. Triad Communities agreed to fund the additional amount and fortunately, in June 2007, received approval through the National Development Council for federal New Market Tax Credits to offset about $900,000 of its investment.

Throughout everything, the City of Vallejo, the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation, and a network of concerned volunteers and activists have been aggressively fundraising and planning for the day that the Empress Theatre will once again be the heart—and soul—of Vallejo’s cultural scene.

Just four years away from completing its first century, The Empress Theatre has triumphed once again—through the commitment and perseverance of an entire community.