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Napa Valley Opera House

The Napa Valley Opera House.

Napa vintners John and Michele Truchard have signed a purchase agreement to acquire the Napa Valley Opera House for $4.2 million.

The agreement puts the Opera House in escrow for the purchase by the Truchards, who were the only ones to come forward with an offer after the board of the Opera House announced a plan to find either a purchaser or a strategic partner for the historic building last November.

In a statement to the Register, John Truchard said, “When Michele and I first learned of the Board’s search for a private owner, we were intrigued. As multi-generational members of the Napa Valley community, we felt strongly that the Opera House’s best and highest use is as a performing arts center. We are grateful to have our vision shared by the board and take over as custodians of the property.”

At the time, the board explained that the reason for the sale was to create an endowment to expand programming in the upstairs space. The property was listed for $5 million.

The Truchards will become owners of a property that has an extended lease with Blue Note jazz club, a balance of $800,000 on a loan from the city of Napa, and, according to the Opera House board, $600,000 in deferred maintenance costs.

John Truchard is the founder of the John Anthony Family of Wines, which includes the JaM Cellars brand. Michele Truchard is a fourth-generation Napan. In 2008, they launched JaM Cellars wines, which includes a Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for less than $20.

The music-loving Truchards became a key sponsor of the BottleRock music festival, opened a downtown Napa tasting room that offers live music and made donations to support the Opera House, which resulted in changing the name of the upstairs venue to JaM Cellars Ballroom at the Margrit Mondavi Theatre at the Napa Valley Opera House. In 2018, the Truchards purchased the Beazley House bed and breakfast inn in Napa for $4.35 million.

A dramatic history

The sale is the latest act in a drama that has unfolded in Napa since a group of citizens decided to save the building. The Opera House, which opened in 1880, went dark in 1914 after earthquake damage was compounded by the demise of vaudeville.

In the 1970s, the building was saved by a group of residents who raised funds to restore the building, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The renovated downstairs cafe theater opened in 2002, followed by the upstairs theater in 2003 where rows of red velvet seats and a new acoustical system completed the space where Jack London and John Philip Sousa, among others, had once appeared.

In 2004, the board of the non-profit that owned the building recruited Evy Warshawski to become artistic director, and she programmed a variety of shows to bring the Napa community in to see what they had created.

“If you don’t have the community, you don’t have anything,” said Warshawski, who presented world, folk, country and classical music, as well as theater, comedy and children’s programs. Boz Scaggs, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Winton Marsalis, and Arlo Guthrie were among the performers who came to the Opera House.

“I remember the performers praising the venue and its acoustics,” said Robert Muh, a long-time Napa resident and a former board member who was one of the key supporters of the original project to save the Opera House from demolition in the late 20th century. “Performers offered to come back at reduced fees because of the venue.”

“It was the Golden Age,” said Barbara Neiman, another former board member and a member of the Opera House League, which did fundraising. “We were spoiled by the talent Evy brought in.”

But despite fundraising and ticket sales, “We were never in the black,” Neiman added. In 2011, the city of Napa lent the Opera House $1.5 million to pay off renovations debts, with an agreement that they would forgive the loan at a rate of $100,000 a year,” as long as they provide 75 days of community programming each year.

“The building is critical to the community; that’s why the ($1.5 million) loan made sense,” former Napa City Manager Mike Parness said of the 2011 agreement.

With the debts paid off, Warshawski came under pressure to increase programming at the Opera House, and she resigned in 2011. “I didn’t think 100 shows a year was sustainable for a community this size,” she said.

The Opera House subsequently increased the number of shows and switched to a jazz-focused programs. By 2013, the Opera House was in financial trouble again. The late Bob Almeida, the president of the board, announced a plan to lease the downstairs to City Winery of New York, which wanted to open a West Coast venue in Napa.

“The economics of a standalone theater are unsustainable,” Almeida said at the time. “Ask George Altamura what kind of check he writes to keep the Uptown (Theatre) open.”

Muh, on the board at the time, said he wrote a letter to the editor of the Napa Valley Register, asking for four to six months during which he was confident he could come up with funds to avert the agreement with Michael Dorf, the owner of City Winery.

“I was over-ridden,” said Muh, who then resigned from the board.

Under the agreement with City Winery, Dorf was permitted to make extensive renovations, removing the seats and the raked floor in the upstairs theater and building a restaurant downstairs. City Winery Napa opened in April 2014 but struggled to attract audiences or diners. It closed in December 2015.

Meanwhile, the board had sold the theater chairs, and Dorf said that there was no basis to reports that he had agreed to return the upstairs theater to its previous condition.

The board next negotiated a 10-year lease of the building to open a franchise of Blue Note, the jazz club that began in Greenwich Village, New York. Blue Note opened in 2016 with a jazz club and restaurant downstairs.

Initially it offered two shows seven days a week. It has since cut back, and is dark on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Sept. 4, the Register reported that a local contractor, John Bowman of Bowman Construction is suing Blue Note for $380,705 in unpaid bills for work done in 2016.

The 2011 agreement with the city required that the title to the building be transferred from the Napa Valley Opera House nonprofit to a new organization, the Historic Theatre of Napa Valley, Inc., also a nonprofit.

John Salmon, president of the latter group, said the purpose was to create a “holding organization” that would protect the Opera House from being encumbered with any further debt and protect the city’s investment.

The Historic Theatre of Napa Valley, in turn, leased the building back to the Napa Valley Opera House for $1 a year. As long as the terms of the agreement were kept, the city would forgive $100,000 a year of the loan, Salmon said.

According to the Opera House board, that agreement has since been dissolved because the Opera House has met the terms in providing the 75 nights of community programming.

What’s ahead

DJ Smith, the current president of the Opera House board, hailed the Truchard’s move as “the best possible thing that could happen, adding that he was “tired of hearing” about lost red velvet seats. Napa residents do not make up the majority of the audiences currently, he said, and he said a name change is needed to attract more people to performances.

“Opera House scares people off,” he said.

Whatever it is called, the Truchards appear to be committed to maintaining the Opera House as a performing arts venue. The board statement to the Register noted that, “John Truchard requested, and the board approved, a deed restriction to ensure all future owners will protect the registered historic aspects of the Opera House and continue its use for performing arts.”

As for the city loan, the board statement reads: “Terms of the City loan agreement has made it possible for the Opera House to provide quality performing art programming to our community. We all want this important programming to continue and believe it can without changes to the City loan agreement.

“The Truchards, Blue Note Napa and the Napa Valley Opera House board are enthusiastic about continuing our programs, we hope the City is as well, and we all look forward to working together. We look forward to meeting soon with city officials to discuss agreement.”

When the endowment is established, the Napa Valley Opera House board plans to “conduct a performing arts needs assessment, set goals and build a road map to determine the best and highest use of the endowment funds which will serve the needs of the community.”

“How wonderful that someone local and a winegrower to boot would step up to be the next steward of such a remarkable property,” said Alexis Handelman, a former Opera House board member. “It’s also comforting to know that it will remain an entertainment venue. I’m just sad that City Winery was allowed to dismantle the beautiful upstairs theater that those of us on the board at that time worked so diligently on to create a warm and world-class venue.

“But, whatever John does to continue the heritage of that great place, I applaud his daring and dash to take on this extraordinary venture.”

As for the long-gone red velvet seats, the board’s statement reads. “While the Truchards will be the new stewards of the Opera House, the entire building remains under lease to Blue Note Napa. There is no indication that Blue Note Napa will return the venue back to its red seat form.”

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.