The Phoenix Theater: keeping the teenage spirit alive


Illustration by Reporter Isabelle Jolson

Isabelle Jolson, Reporter

My eyes wander across the wallflower decorated walls painted with vibrant graffiti. Traveling up the staircase, the bathrooms echo with laughter and compliments and the balcony overlooks the busy concession stand where the excited concert-goers scramble below. Moving through the doors, a band plays songs that I never heard before as the audience begins to grow. A helping hand lifts me off the ground, and the Phoenix pulls me out of my forlorn mentality. 

Every teenager can relate to feeling helplessly isolated and apathetic at some point in their lives. It is apparent that young people are in dire need of a safe place to gather and have fun. That’s where the Phoenix swoops in. Unfortunately, there are not many places in Marin for high school students to gather and relieve stress. Despite its prevalence, today’s social epidemic of teenage boredom has not always been the case. 

Chloe Flynn, a senior at San Domenico said, “When our parents were teens, they had all these options of things to do as long as they came home at night.” 

She added, “Everywhere stayed open late and those were the places that attracted teens. But nowadays, especially in affluent areas like Marin, everything besides In-N-Out closes at 8.” 

Unfortunately, the 1950s iconic teen culture complete with drive-in movie theaters, roller rinks, and late night diner hang-outs are no longer. Now, students frequent parking lots and boring shopping centers with no intention of buying anything. Feeling hopeless, high schoolers oftentimes resolve their disinterest with shoplifting, drug use and alcohol consumption.

Another reason teenagers don’t have opportunities for socialization is a result of strict rules enacted by parents and police. Some may argue that strict limitations on teens are necessary for keeping them out of trouble. However, excessive rules and restrictions undeniably cause mental harm to teenagers. The adults in our lives are forgetting what it’s like to be young when all you want to do is have fun and make meaningful memories with your friends. 

“I feel like the reason we’re having such a big teen mental health and teen drug epidemic is because there’s such a lack of things to do for teens that naturally want to have fun and want to be with their friends to socialize. But right now we’re kind of forced into a place where… The lack of fun things for teens to do is steering a lot of teens on the path of doing drugs,” Flynn said.

Data highlights the tragic influence of mental illness and drug use by teens in Marin and across the globe.  

According to UCLA health, 2020 marked an unprecedented spike in teen overdoses; the rate nearly doubled. During the first half of 2021, the recorded deaths rose by another 20%. 

Additionally, SingleCare announced that 12-25 year olds have the highest rates of depression out of any other age demographic.

I am a part of this statistic: I have struggled greatly with depression in recent years. 

Despite the modern day crushing of the teenage spirit, there are solutions. Music venues like the Phoenix Theater—located in Petaluma—reject social suffocation and provide the youth with local, resurrective music.

Obviously, the Phoenix Theater is not a cure-all. However, while attending a concert there, I immediately felt relief from my stress and worry; but I was not healed, nor did my struggles dissipate. But, I did feel a sense of safety and support from other concert-goers, and I greatly enjoyed seeing the bands Vangoeezer, Gumby’s Junk and Mom’s with Bangs play amazing music. I believe that the Phoenix Theater can act as a bandaid for those in need of an uplifting experience.

Apart from hosting amazing concerts, the Phoenix has an open door policy from 3 to 7 pm that allows anyone to use the space for unstructured purposes. They host free music lessons, jam sessions and classes. They even open up their walls for young artists to practice their mural painting skills. 

The Phoenix Theater is a mecca for creatives where you cannot only develop your craft, but also receive guidance and meet new people. In the center of it all stands the local bands, many of which originated in Marin.

Tom Gaffley, founder and manager of the Phoenix Theater said, “I like what’s happening with a lot of the Marin County music scene…I’m seeing some movement there that’s kind of exciting.”

Gaffley’s long history with the Phoenix began with watching movies there as a child, to eventually landing him his first job. Fast forward to his adulthood, he leased and transformed the building to keep its spirit alive. Today, Gaffley opens the doors to the community to showcase local bands and artists. 

The Phoenix is not just a place to listen to music, but a place for young artists to exhibit their talents. Gaffley greatly values supporting youth creativity by providing a space where they can draw out their dreams. 

He said, “One of my favorite words is, ‘Yes’… if we’ve got the space, if we’ve got the time – what do you want to do? Can we do it without getting me or the business in trouble? Let’s try it.”

Although it is difficult for Gaffley to pick a favorite band that has played at his theater, he said, “I liked Shock G when he showed up one night with Ray Luv; I thought that was a history making night. It was them and a guitar player whose name I did not get. Shock G on keyboard, Ray Luv on vocals, and this incredible blues guitar player doing this very bluesy, hip hop-y set. That was one of the best bands we’ve ever had in.”

Other memorable bands and music artists Gaffley mentioned were the Neville Brothers, Primus, Jenny Lewis, Adrian Belew, Slayer, Metallica, and the increasingly popular band from Marin, Moms with Bangs.

He said, “Moms with Bangs came through and then it kind of mutated a little bit into Rumblepak (another local band). I’m seeing some movement there that’s kind of exciting.”

Impressively, the Phoenix Theater has played a major role in the upbringing of a multitude of well known bands. Not only does the venue kickstart local music artists, but it also creates a safe and empowered community in a world where youth autonomy is sparse. 

Gaffley formulated, “Find a spot that doesn’t need to make money—and every town needs one—that can just be this multi-vision building… [where] the adults don’t get in the way of trying to tell the kids what to put in.”

Teenagers need more places like the Phoenix run by people like Gaffley who, instead of shutting young people’s ideas down, he says, “This is your building, come and use it.”

While the social landscape in the Bay Area and Sonoma County is proportionally barren, Flynn believes that the Phoenix Theater is a haven for teenagers.

Flynn said, “The Phoenix is definitely by far my favorite venue because I feel like sometimes other punk venues have somewhat more of an intimidating vibe, but everyone at the Phoenix Theater is very welcoming and kind…  it’s safe, it’s easy to get to… they have a lot of shows that are really inexpensive, sometimes they’re free, sometimes they’re $10.”

In sum, teenagers are increasingly prone to depression and addiction as a result of parental paranoia and social isolation. Under the despair lies a solution: the punk and pop shows at the Phoenix Theater. You can find out more about “Everybody’s Building” by visiting the Phoenix Theater website.