Vallejo's Empress Theatre opened in 1912 as a vaudeville stage house. Over the course of its nearly one hundred year history, the theater has been known also as The Republic, The Vallejo, The Fox Senator, and The Crest. By 1915 the Empress was showing silent films. It installed sound equipment for talkies in 1929, only to be gutted by fire a year later. The theater was renovated following the fire; when it reopened, it showed movies exclusively (no more vaudeville). Most of the current stylistic elements are owed to a 1951 renovation by Fox West Coast. The theater closed in 1962, reopened in 1980 (finally reclaiming its original name), but was then devastated in 1989 by the Loma Prieta Earthquake. After nearly twenty years of renovation, the theater reopened again in 2007.
This article on Cinema Treasures suggests that Vallejo has seen a great number of theaters come and go. So why has the Empress survived? Its first stroke of good fortune is that Fox West Coast chose to renovate the theater after the fire of 1930. They had recently purchased the Virginia Theater (1920) and reopened it as the Hanlon Theatre in 1929, just a year before the fire. With another of their theaters already operating in town, they could have easily scrapped the Empress. Instead, they gave it new life. Next there is the 1951 renovation. Though the theater closed just a decade later, the renovation perhaps kept it alive longer than many of its peers, feeling the effects of television and still looking like old movie houses. Being closed for thirty-six of the past fifty years also means the theater missed its chance to be twinned, thus preserving its single-screen. Finally, the forces behind the recent renovation have had civic obligation in mind, rather than profit. The theater is for the community, and (this is my speculation) perhaps a response to the Century 14 Vallejo on the other side of town. The web site for the Empress has a lot of interesting history, so I recommend visiting it and clicking around.
The theater is located in old, downtown Vallejo. This was my first visit to the neighborhood, and I was impressed with how pretty it is. I arrived a bit early (who knew I-80 traffic on a Friday night could be so light?), and so walked around a bit. I ended up sitting by a fountain in front of City Hall and the public library. Also nearby is the ferry terminal, in case you're planning to visit the Empress by boat.
The marquee is new, but in a dazzling old style. According to the FAQ, the theater serves "live music and theatre, lecture events, film and other arts programs". I don't see too many events scheduled at present, and most are music; with movies shown so infrequently, you should jump at the opportunity to see one if it arises.
A 1950s-style box office sits out front, but tickets are sold online ($15 + $2 historic preservation fee + $2 online ticketing fee + any amount you want to donate to the preservation of the theater) or at modern box offices to the sides of the entry way. They were also selling raffle tickets. Seating is assigned.
The lobby is small and convex shaped, funneling patrons to either of two entrances into the auditorium. In addition to Red Vines (by the end of this year, I'll never eat another Red Vine for as long as I live), the concession stand sells earplugs for $1, useful for loud concerts or, like my friend Luke, if you think Holly Golightly is the most annoying character ever. In the auditorium, a bar was set up between the orchestra and loge, serving wine and other beverages in glasses (several of which could be heard shattering during the movie).
The auditorium is stunning. The web site calls this the Skouras-Style, with "undulating waves, lush swags, drapery and cloud-like gilded forms to draw the eye toward the screen". If the Na'vi from Avatar watched movies, it would be in an auditorium like this. I felt like I was inside some giant, alien flower garden. Tiny streams of decoration run along each wall, up to the stage, up around the proscenium, and finally gush out in lavender-lit waves across the ceiling.
Here's a shot looking up at the first wave on the ceiling...
... and at the decorations on the walls.
The stage has been extended to make room for live performances. The movie screen is lowered from just behind the curtains, many feet in front of where the original screen would have been. Though I'm happy that the theater can service a variety of shows, the new proscenium has the unfortunate side effect of obscuring the decorative trim that frames the stage.
When the theater first opened, it sat 940. It now seats 468. The seats are attractive, comfortable, but incredibly narrow. I had to dig my elbows into my stomach to keep from spilling over to the seats next to me. The rows are spaced far apart though, providing lots of legroom.
Since the Empress is mainly a music venue now, several of the front rows are removable, to create space for a dance floor. For our pre-show, the seven-member Adam Farone Band performed on stage for an hour. The band comprises saxophone, drums, percussion, keyboards, and three guitars. The music wasn't too enjoyable for me (mostly it was just too loud, making me reconsider the $1 earplugs), but the experience of having a band play before the movie was super cool. People in the first few rows were really into the music (in fact, many of them were there just for the pre-show, and left before the movie started), and several couples danced in the aisles.
After the band finished up, the theater raffled off champagne glasses, a 60"x40" Breakfast at Tiffany's poster, and a beautiful Gone with the Wind quilt. Between the band, the raffle, the bar, and the movie, the Empress puts together a classy show.
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
When I first saw this movie many years ago, I was disgusted by Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Holly's neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. What, it wasn't enough that we bombed the foreign Japanese and interned the domestic Japanese, but Mickey Rooney has to mock them as well? When you're being made fun of fifteen years after a war by someone best known for being a former child star, you know Hollywood has it in for you. On this rewatching, however, I took solace in finding Rooney's role so far beneath contempt that it was a non-factor in my enjoyment of the film.
Audrey Hepburn is Holly Golightly, a New York transplant who stays out all night partying, eats pastries in front of her favorite jewelry store at dawn, and drinks champagne before breakfast. She befriends her new neighbor, Paul (George Peppard), whom she calls Fred, after her similar-looking brother. Paul is a writer and Holly a social butterfly, so naturally the two have a lot of free time to spend together, traveling around the city, growing fond of each other, and looking good doing it.
Holly has many iconic costumes, including the sleek black dress, two-foot saucer hat, and earrings from her "How do I look?" moment, also seen in 2002's Simone. I was most impressed with Paul, though. He looked so good in his suit, all the time, I felt like a complete slob. Men should always look that good. He even does justice to those dopey Mr. Rogers sweaters.
What, exactly, is it that Holly Golightly does for a living? We know she's a socialite, and that she mooches money from her dates to pay her expenses. Her manager, of sorts, is O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam), who originally coached her out of her southern accent. He asks Paul to weigh in on an important issue: "Well is she or isn't she?" I thought for sure he was asking if she's a prostitute, but instead he wants to know if Paul thinks Holly is a phony. In another scene, Holly doesn't miss a beat or seem the least offended when she sees Paul's bed guest Mrs. Failenson (Patricia Neal) leave a stack of bills on his table after they've had sex. (On seeing Paul getting paid for services rendered, a man seated behind me said, "That's never happened to me.") I thought this might be a set up for Holly and Paul understanding each other, because they're both members of the oldest profession. Instead, we learn that Mrs. Failenson sponsors Paul. Sex is Mrs. Failenson's primary interest, and money is Paul's, but on the face of it she is helping establish Paul as a writer. If he were a mere gigalo they wouldn't need the pretense. Paul's bedroom scene demonstrates that the movie isn't afraid to involve its characters in extra-marital sex, and for money, so I don't think they're withholding a similar scene on the Holly front out of prudery. From all this, I think we can conclude that Holly has a similar relationship with her dates as Paul has with Mrs. Failenson (an 'older' woman who, in fact, is only three years Peppard's elder), but that her companionship, rather than her body, is what she auctions off in exchange for the means to support her lifestyle.
Holly is one of the more realistic characters I've seen portrayed, in that I could believe her motivations enough that, like Paul, I was frustrated with her. She wants a rich husband, so she can support her brother. But when her brother is killed, she still wants a rich husband, leaving us to infer that, in fact, she's in search of a certain lifestyle that only money can secure. This is partly vanity, that she is willing to enter an arbitrary marriage to support her nice dresses and expensive jewelry. But more so I think she is subjected to the ramifications of feminism. Having rejected her rural roots and traditional role, she has gone in search of some other meaning. Marrying a man won't free her from male dominance, but that man's money will certainly help. What is her purpose? What will satisfy her? I don't think she knows; she only knows that she isn't yet happy, and must keep looking.
Paul's struggles to convince her that she can be happy with him. In a wonderfully long and intimate scene, the two talk in Paul's bedroom as if they were old friends. They get along well, and find each other attractive. Paul wonders what the problem is. They have all the components of a healthy relationship. He crosses the line with his "you belong to me" speech, though, inciting Holly's warning that his possessiveness will only make her more flighty. This conflict, I think, is why I don't really enjoy this movie. They two are wonderful together; it's a grand romance and by the end Paul has won out, inspiring Holly to stay with him. But the film has been too steady in its portrayal of Holly for me to believe that she could be happy with Paul for more than a short while. She will feel caged, and she will flee. The movie wants me to rejoice that they are together in the end, but instead I pity Paul for not listening to Holly when she was being honest, instead deluding himself that she could settle down. I'm reminded of the final scene in Basic Instinct, when Sharon Stone is deciding whether to continue dating Michael Douglas, or to murder him with an ice pick. She lets him live. For now.