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This coming Tuesday, February 10th, the Council has on their agenda the proposal to restore the Empress Theater. They have already postponed this vote on the Empress Theater restoration four times in three months. This project is the cornerstone of our downtown revitalization, and postponing the vote yet again could jeopardize the entire downtown.
Please join us (with your friends and neighbors) at this important Council meeting — we need to pack the chambers and show our Council that our downtown revitalization is not a political pawn in their good olâ€™ boy games.
And a huge THANKS to all who attended last Tuesday’s meeting – you were GREAT!
EMPRESS THEATER VOTE AT CITY COUNCIL!
WHO: A broad spectrum of the Vallejo community in urging the City Council to approve the Empress Theatre renovation
WHEN: Tuesday, February 10, 7 p.m.
WHERE: City Council Chambers, 555 Santa Clara Street, Vallejo, CA 94590
WHAT: We need as many people as possible to attend this meeting to illustrate to the Council that the community is watching â€" and that there will be repercussions when the Council does not do their jobs and gets tied up by inaction and indecision. You donâ€™t have to speak if you donâ€™t want to; weâ€™ll just ask that everybody there in support of the Empress and the downtown plan during this important vote by City Council. For more information about the Empress, please go to www.vallejocpr.org and click on the Empress link to the left.
Please show your support – for the Empress Theater, the downtown revitalization, and for the future of our city.
Letâ€™s stand together as a community and let our voices be heard.
EMPRESS THEATER CITY COUNCIL SPEAK-IN!
WHO: A broad spectrum of the Vallejo community in urging the City Council to approve the Empress Theatre renovation
WHEN: TONIGHT, Tuesday, February 3, 7 p.m.
WHERE: City Council Chambers, 555 Santa Clara Street, Vallejo, CA 94590
WHAT: We need as many people as possible to attend this meeting to illustrate to the Council that the community is watching â€" and that there will be repercussions when the Council does not do their jobs and gets tied up by inaction and indecision. You donâ€™t have to speak if you donâ€™t want to; weâ€™ll just ask that everybody there in support of the Empress and the downtown plan stand up during Community Forum. For those of you not familiar with the Empress Project, details are listed below.
The Empress Theatre Project at a Glance
Dollars & Cents:
Triad is forming the Empress Theatre Associates (“ETA”), a limited liability corporation, to manage the Empress Theatre project.
After rehabilitation, ETA will convey the Empress Theatre for $1 to the City or a nonprofit entity that will manage the Theatre operations. The City has the option to purchase the Theatre and lease it to the nonprofit entity for $1 in annual rent. If the City doesnâ€™t exercise its option to purchase, the nonprofit will purchase the Theatre for $1.
ETA is purchasing the Empress Theatre from Litwin and Gomez for $508,000.
ETAâ€™s equity in the Theatre will be $72,000: $400,000 appraised value (including interest in the adjacent property for restrooms and dressing rooms) minus a $328,000 loan from the Cityâ€™s arts fund to remove indebtedness (lien removal loan).
The Cityâ€™s total loan amount (from the Cityâ€™s Arts & Convention Center Fund) cannot exceed $2,828,000 ($2.5 million for renovation costs plus the $328,000 lien removal loan). The loan will be secured by a note and first deed of trust. The renovation costs include $2,285,000 for construction and architecture, $115,000 for environmental engineering, legal expenses, building permit and impact fees, historical survey and marketing and $100,000 for pre-opening operations.
ETA will loan their equity ($72,000) and rehabilitation management fee ($100,000) to the nonprofit entity. This note will be secondary to the Cityâ€™s first deed of trust. The remaining $8,000 of the purchase price is being donated to the Theatre by ETA.
Both notes (the Cityâ€™s and ETAâ€™s) will be repaid in 20 years at 3% simple interest. Annual amortized payments will be paid from the Theatreâ€™s net annual revenue. The nonprofit entity, while it is setting up operations and not yet self-sustaining, will have three years where it can make a combined minimum annual loan payment of $50,000.
The Vallejo Community Arts Foundation, the financial umbrella organization for nonprofit arts organizations in Vallejo, has expressed interest in being the nonprofit organization to operate the Theatre.
After signing the agreement, ETA, the City, the Redevelopment Agency and the Community Arts Foundation have six months to select or form a nonprofit entity to manage the Theatre operations.
If the City decides that the Theatre will be owned by the nonprofit entity, there will be a covenant to guarantee the Theatreâ€™s operation as a community arts venue for 50 years.
The City Building Chief has satisfactorily addressed the seismic safety concerns of the adjoining buildings.
Twenty percent of the available daytime and nighttime schedule will be allocated to nonprofit community arts groups.
The vote is scheduled for Feb 10, 2004. Please help us by contacting our Mayor!
The Empress is currently closed. BUT, it has been purchased and will be up for a vote at the Vallejo City Council to determine it’s restoration. Please contact our Mayor at
The facade’s simple, classic lines were designed to create an illusion of refinement and wealth while the building’s interior served as a temple for culture and entertainment in downtown Vallejo up until the post-World War II era.
By hanging on for so long, the theater evolved into an institution, earning its 1990 designation as a city historic landmark.
However, a combination of factors, including the theater’s location in a town known more for its shipyard than as a regional center for the arts doomed the Empress to the role of striving starlet. The theater worked hard on the sidelines and underwent the periodic nip and tuck to preserve appearances but it never broke into the A-list, whatever the A-list would be for old movie palaces.
The Empress had to settle for local fame, which may not be such a bad fate, considering its hometown is intrigued by the idea of giving it a chance for a 21st century comeback.
For more than a year, Vallejo officials have been studying whether to financially and otherwise support a scheme to revive the Empress as a movie theater, performance arts space or both. Behind this study is the hope that reopening the Empress will give some polish to Vallejo’s ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown.
It wouldn’t be the first time the theater, with around 500 seats, represented Vallejo’s hopes for prosperity and enlightenment. Its fortunes rose and fell according to boom-and-bust cycles in the economies of Vallejo and the nation. Trends in the entertainment industry and developments in visual and sound technologies also affected the theater’s livelihood.
All along, the Empress catered to the evolving tastes of its audiences. It did so by showcasing popular forms of entertainment, primarily film, which had debuted in the mid-1890s as a motion picture gimmick and was already beginning to be one of most powerful forces in global mass culture by the time the Empress opened.
The movies it screened entertained Americans of all ages, races and socio-economic backgrounds. They comforted audiences in times of national crisis and articulated, through moving images and stories, collective ideas about society, politics, art and self-identity.
Pretty high-brow accomplishments to attribute to what some might discount as a just a movie theater. Newspaper clippings and preserved playbills on file at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum reinforce the idea that much of the entertainment offered by the Empress was designed to appeal to easy sentiment and base instincts:
“The Disciple,” a 1915 silent William S. Hart western; “The Power of the Whistler,” a 1945 B-movie mystery; and, during the theater’s twilight years in the 1980s, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” one of director Russ Meyer’s revels in sex and tacky sensibilities.
1912: The theater opens as The Empress, but is soon renamed The Republic. It has 940 seats.
1920s: Fox West Coast Theaters take over and the name becomes The Vallejo
1930s: Fox changes the name to The Senator.
1931: Fire nearly destroys the theater. Fox rebuilds it.
1935: Fox renovates the theater, removing the balcony, installing stadium seats and adding a neon marquee.
1951: Fox remodels the ground floor and changes the name to The Crest.
1962: The theater is closed.
1980s: Bill Elliott buys the theater, renovates it and reopens it as The Empress.
1989: The theater closes after the Loma Prieta earthquake.
2003: Robert Litwin buys the now 500-seat theater and announces plans to reopen it as a performing arts venue.
Through it all, the Empress shut down twice and changed names five times, as many times as some female stars change surnames. And it hasn’t shown a movie in more than 13 years.
Until recently, the building had been boarded up, its condition since two weeks after the 1989 earthquake.
The owner at the time, Bill Elliott Sr., a local real estate agent and community activist, had decided he didn’t want to spend the estimated $400,000 to bring the building up to new earthquake safety codes.
Elliott had resurrected the Empress in the 1980s with the dream of developing it into a repertory house showing a mix of classics, foreign films and first- and second-run features. Eventually, though, the operators who leased the building from Elliott, added to the bill soft-core porn like “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
Elliott sold the building in March 2001 to two men, Rick Sylvain and Brad Peik. Their purchase prompted the city to initiate its study, but their plans to renovate the theater stalled.
Now a new owner has stepped forward in the past two weeks. Robert Litwin is the contractor who is completing the make-over on the hotel, cafe and restaurant next door to the Empress. Gary Meyer, the theater operator hired by the city to do the study, believes Litwin has the energy and vision to help mount the Empress' resurrection.
Recapturing the past
It’s a national trend among municipalities: Fix up old downtown movie theaters to attract money and culture to sometimes-abandoned city centers. Nostalgia also drives this trend — a desire to recapture a past viewed by some as more simple and gracious than the present day.
The Empress retains some of its grace. The faÃ§ade, rising about three stories high, is painted somewhere between a dark gold and light brown. It also features a series of off-white pilasters topped with ionic capitals and windows with intricate details and elliptically shaped panes.
Still, without an exact street address, a first-time visitor to downtown would have to circle some blocks before declaring “Eureka!”
It doesn’t stand out like other classic structures in the Bay Area like the Grand Lake and Paramount theaters in Oakland, the Castro in San Francisco, or even the Park in Lafayette and the Orinda in that Contra Costa city. It doesn’t occupy a prominent spot along a main thoroughfare or display an marquee that towers over other buildings in its proximity.
The structure is wedged between two other buildings. up. One is the massive former Masonic Temple with its grand arched windows; the other a red brick commercial structure, the old Vallejo Hotel, which now houses the Cinca Terra hotel and Mel’s Roast, a small but elegant cafe.
For years, plywood hung across the ground floor of the theater, and the marquee hung wordless. With its location in a partially empty downtown, the theater couldn’t help but give off an aura of seediness and decay.
But this past week, the plywood came off and the Empress sign hangs again, albeit with the “P” missing.
The Empress is built in a Beaux Arts or Neo-Classical style, either of which is known more for its simple symmetry than for its ornamentation.
The lobby is small. The interior of the theater boasts sea blue walls and gilded scrollwork that evokes images of scallop shells.
On the splendor scale, the Empress doesn’t match those palaces erected by entertainment impresarios like Sid Grauman in the 1920s and 1930s, the so-called golden age of movie palaces. Grauman is best known for creating the landmark Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
But there is something historically appropriate about the Empress being less opulent than expected. Something in the way its physical reality both challenge and affirm the accolades attached to it.
The theater’s more modest physical attributes are part of its charm. So is the way that contemplating its significance to Vallejo’s past can inspire mental leaps to other eras and modes of understanding the world.
Of course, giving people a platform to take those leaps — to escape, think, feel, remember, dream — is the purpose of art. It’s the purpose of movies, even of schlock like “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” or “The Power of the Whistler,” a low-budget effort that would never rate shelf space in the classics section of the local Blockbuster.
“All Vallejo Worships at New Shrine”
This was the headline in the Feb. 15, 1912, edition of the Vallejo Evening Chronicle to mark the theater’s grand opening three days earlier.
The headline promises an opening with all the rites and glory of a papal coronation. Or a 1950s Hollywood premiere for a new star-studded costume epic.
The accompanying article went on to describe how “the mayor made a speech” and open-air band selections drew crowds of nearly 1,000 people who lined the street to see the first show. The only thing missing from the description was an Elizabeth Taylor-like diva emerging from a limousine dressed in diamonds and white satin.
Some insight into Vallejo history might explain the newspaper’s excitement. After Mare Island Naval Shipyard opened in 1854 and Vallejo incorporated in 1868, the city grew and prospered as an industrial center, as a stop for travelers shuttling between San Francisco and Sacramento and as a residence for well-paid shipyard workers and wealthy manufacturers and merchants, some of whom commuted daily by ferry to San Francisco.
A stately downtown took shape around western Georgia and surrounding streets. During the first three decades of the 20th century, large municipal and commercial buildings rose, including the old City Hall, the Masonic Temple and the Empress, all within one-block area.
Previous Chronicle articles also lavished praise on the Sullivan and Considine Theatrical Company for deciding to back Vallejo as a location for its circuit of traveling vaudeville performers. Ed Homan of San Francisco and Gus Cohn of Vallejo, acting on behalf of the company, leased a 50-by-130-foot lot on the north side of Virginia Street, off Marin Street, from the San Pablo Lodge No. 43 Independent Order of Odd Fellows of Vallejo. Homan and Cohn paid more than $6,000 advance rent for two years.
Their plan was to build a 940-seat theater showcasing vaudeville and light opera. The theater would feature all the amenities enjoyed at the “biggest and highest-priced houses”: balcony seating, perfect acoustics, two performances nightly and ushers wearing red military-style uniforms with gold braids. The theater’s buff-and-gold color scheme was certain to make the Empress “one of the prettiest small theaters on the coast.”
Sullivan and Considine’s interest in Vallejo impressed the newspaper because the company was “well-known and successful” with a vaudeville circuit that “extended from coast to coast.”
By choosing Vallejo, the company guaranteed “the theatrical importance of the city” and could offer patrons performances by headliners who appeared “at the best theaters on the East Coast and Europe.”
The reality? It’s difficult to vouch for the fame of the “headliners” who appeared at the Empress, though Sylvain, the former owner, said the theater attracted a world-renowned dance troupe from Russia.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Vallejo’s new theater was the West Coast’s version of New York’s Palace. The point is that Vallejo could now offer its citizens a venue showcasing vaudeville, a brand of live performance that enjoys its own distinction in American entertainment history.
A typical nightly vaudeville bill featured comedy acts, song and dance, magic, acrobatics, juggling and mime.
Silent movies were part of the theater’s program from the beginning, though they only served as short inserts in the regular vaudeville program. This is because the burgeoning movie industry did not begin to regularly produce feature-length films until 1912.
By 1917, Americans had seen D.W. Griffith take the art of cinema to new heights with his Civil War epic Birth of a Nation. Movies had become a national pastime and one of the United States' leading industries.
The Empress, by then renamed the Republic, continued to show vaudeville but now devoted entire nights to showing movies. An Oct. 26, 1917, ad from the Vallejo Evening Chronicle shows the Republic proudly screening Mary Pickford, America’s then-sweetheart, in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and William S. Hart, the Gary Cooper of his day, in The Disciple, a drama in which a “shootin' parson” arrives to clean up the Wild West town of Barren Gulch only to lose his wife to local gambling hall owner.
World War I was followed by the Roaring Twenties, when Vallejo and the rest of the nation reveled in an inflated sense of wealth and new world order.
The Empress had undergone its third name change to the Vallejo and gained a new owner, Fox West Coast Theaters, which also operated movie theaters throughout Northern California. Fox and other exhibitors went on to open up several more movie houses in downtown Vallejo.
The late 1920s proved eventful for the movie industry. A handful of major studios had consolidated their power over production and distribution, mastered the factory-style method of churning out multiple products at once, created the star system and developed technologies that would lead to 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first-feature length sound film.
The stock market crash in 1929 presaged the Depression, a time of national crisis that would turn out to be good for the movie business. This is because Vallejo residents and other Americans needed temporary respite from the reality of mass unemployment, hunger and homelessness.
And movies provided an easy escape. They were ubiquitous in Vallejo. Movies also were cheap, cheaper than vaudeville, which was officially declared dead in 1932, the year the Palace vaudeville theater in New York shut down.
Golden Age of movie palaces
The Empress was nearly destroyed in a fire in 1931. But Fox, not wanting to miss out on good box office, quickly repaired the damage and re-opened it.
The Vallejo Evening Chronicle covered the re-opening ceremonies and provided its usual breathless description: how the streets were “gaily decorated” and large klieg lights flared in “true Hollywood fashion.”
Four years later, Fox decided the theater still was a good enough investment to warrant an upgrade. The renovation involved removing the balcony, which reduced the number of seats, installing stadium seating, enlarging the project booth and hanging a new neon marquee.
Sometime during the early 1930s, Fox also gave the Empress its fourth name, the Senator. This choice had little to do with marketing strategy and more to do with the fact that Fox had an extra “Senator” sign in storage in Sacramento.
In 1941, the United States suffered a blow to its self-esteem and sense of security when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Hollywood went into high gear to boost wartime spirits with movies that idealized democratic ideals and America’s creative spirit. Between 1943 and 1946 production reached its peak of 500 movies a year. Vallejo, with Mare Island Naval Shipyard, likewise went into to overdrive to churn out ships needed to fight fascism.
Long-time residents ascribe boom-town descriptions to wartime Vallejo. The town was inundated with people from all over the country who found work in the shipyard and businesses that supported its industry.
The boom propelled the local movie-theater business to new but ultimately fleeting heights. Nine theaters operated in Vallejo, four of those on Virginia Street. And each ran shows almost constantly, including all night, to accommodate workers at the shipyard where production was going 24 hours a day.
Among the businessmen enjoying the boom was Raymond Syufy, the son of Lebanese immigrants. In 1941 and at age 23, he opened a theater called the Rita on Georgia Street.
Syufy would later figure prominently in the history of Vallejo’s entertainment culture and in the movie theater business nationally. The Rita was Syufy’s first movie theater, his first venture in what eventually grow into Century Theaters, an 800-screen, 11-state West Coast cinema empire.
The long good-bye
Forward to August 1945, the month World War II ended and the 20th century ushered in a new era of nuclear technology and superpower geo-politics.
The Empress, still called the Senator, was doing its bit to reflect this tumultuous, rapidly changing time in global history. The new post-war reality hit Americans, their institutions and their pastimes in many different ways.
A 1946 photo in the museum files shows the Senator featuring The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the theater’s more high-minded attractions.
The film, which won that year’s Best Picture Oscar, chronicles the struggles of a cross-section of veterans as they return home from the war. It ends on an uplifting note, with its three male leads finding love and redemption.
But what gives the movie more substance than standard melodrama are the scenes in which the men endure periods of sadness and dislocation. A quality of mourning pervades the movie. All three men are grieving the loss of youth and glory — the the best years of their lives.
In certain ways, the Empress' best years were over as well. The late 1940s marked the beginning of its long, steady decline.
The downtown it inhabited was beginning to lose its prominence in Vallejo’s civic identity. Vallejo was not immune to the suburbanization of post-war American society, meaning that its growth and economic resources shifted away from its core to its outlying areas.
Business blows that rocked the major studios also hurt the Empress. Declining attendance, Hollywood blacklisting and a federal anti-trust laws ordering studios out of the theater chain business forced them to quickly adapt to new economic realities or go bankrupt.
Blame for the drop in box-office went to television, the new big thing in entertainment in the 1950s. The studios tried to counter television’s couch-potato effect by increasing film budgets, introducing dazzling new technologies like CinemaScope and 3-D, shooting in exotic overseas locations and approving projects of epic length and proportions.
Not exactly the Greatest Show on Earth
The Empress partook of this desperation. In 1951, Fox remodeled the ground floor to “deluxe movie palace” standards and changed the name for the fourth time, this time to the Crest.
A year or so later, the theater engaged in another example of art reflecting life by booking a Cecil B. DeMille epic. No, not one of the grand auteur’s Biblical dramas, but 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth, his homage to circus life.
With DeMille in the director’s chair, this Best Picture winner attempted to lift a circus melodrama to Biblical stature. A highlight is DeMille using his God-voice to narrate a scene in which workers raise a circus tent. It’s the same voice he used while describing the construction of the pyramids in The Ten Commandments, and it’s easy to imagine that voice narrating the 1912 Vallejo Evening Chronicle headline deifying the Empress.
Spiffing up the theater extended its life for another decade. At one point in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the Syufy family leased the Empress from the Odd Fellows to continue showing first-run movies, according to a 1980 Vallejo Times-Herald article.
But nationally film production and profits hit their low points in the 1960s, trends that contributed to the decision to close the Empress in 1962.
Consequently, the Empress didn’t get to entertain, soothe or mirror the national upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It also missed out on the resurgence of film production and artistic quality during that era.
Critics regard these years, which coincide with the United States' war in Vietnam, as one of the creative high points in American cinema. Young maverick directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese and Brian DePalma began to explore adult subjects and to craft films surging with stark realism, raw language and graphic images of sex and violence.
On the business side, the 1970s saw the proliferation of multi-screen theaters, often located in suburban shopping malls. These complexes were massive and state-of-the-art enough to accommodate the crowds and special effects associated with the next big thing in movies: the blockbuster, of which Jaws (1976) and Star Wars (1977) are the pioneering examples.
The single-screen theaters still operating in America’s downtowns could not survive the competition. By this time, most of Vallejo’s downtown theaters no longer existed. The buildings had either been torn down to make room for parking lots or transformed into other businesses, for example, Syufy’s Rita became an auto dealership.
At the same time, though, appreciation for the art of cinema began to express itself in efforts to rescue old theaters and turn them into repertory houses where movie fans in the pre-cable and VCR era could see classics and foreign films.
The Empress benefited from this interest in old movie houses. Vallejo commissioned its first study of transforming the Empress in a civic performing arts space in 1976. An ardent supporter of this scheme was real estate broker Bill Elliott. He had fond childhood memories of going to the Empress in the 1920s and paying 10 cents to see a vaudeville show.
Empress readies again its close-up
So fired up was he about the idea that he bought the building after the city rejected the idea of reopening the Empress itself.
Elliott also put several hundred thousand dollars into restoring it to its 1950s splendor. He had the ceiling regilded and installed a new sound system and plush seats salvaged from a Fox-owned theater in Los Angeles.
A major reason he wanted to own a movie theater was that he was a fan of old pipe organs, the kind that accompanied silent films, Stephen Elliott said. He needed a place to house a Wulitzer Hope-Jones Orchestra pipe organ he had rescued from an old theater in San Francisco.
But his primary motive was to do something to help Vallejo, Stephen Elliott said. Through the 1980s, two companies managed day-to-day operations of the theater.
The playbill gives the impression that the programmers had less interest in providing patrons with a selection of U.S. and foreign films historically regarded as “classics” than in catering to the tastes of movie-obsessed adolescent males.
Granted, there was a night here and there when the theater was showing Singing in the Rain, the 1952 Gene Kelly musical, or Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and 2001: A Space Odyssey. More typically, though, the bill featured James Bond festivals — campy fun but still heavy on the guns, action and babes — Vincent Price’s House of Wax, and rock musicals.
At some point, the theater’s idea of offering patrons a taste of foreign cinema was “Emmanuelle,” a soft-core porn tale of a young woman’s sexual awakening, according to an undated playbill in the museum files. “Emmanuelle” was part of a regular Friday night series called “Sex in the Cinema.”
Economics strike again; so does an earthquake
Ultimately, Elliott’s Empress confronted some of the same economic conditions that forced the theater to close in 1962: sagging box office, a struggling downtown business environment and competition from multi-screen theaters like a new Syufy-run complex in Vallejo Plaza. Other problems challenging the Empress: vandalism and the widespread availability of cable and video technology, which lowered audience demands for repertory venues.
Then came the 1989 earthquake, after which the city adopted a tough new seismic-safety ordinance that caused it to declare the Empress and about 40 other downtown buildings below standard. Just bringing the Empress up to code would have cost Elliott up to $200,000, Stephen Elliott said. With regret, Bill Elliott opted to close the theater.
The 1993 announcement that Mare Island Naval Shipyard was on the list of military bases that the U.S. Department of Defense intended to close devastated Vallejo. The city faced the loss of 6,000 jobs and the monumental task of converting the 5,460-acre military site to civilian use.
A plan the city adopted in 1995 sought to transform the former shipyard into a dynamic residential, commercial and light industrial center which could provide up to 10,000 new jobs.
While that transformation takes place, the Empress once again inspires discussion about its potential to serve the people of Vallejo in its grand old way. Among the questions are whether economic conditions are more favorable now to the plan Bill Elliott had in mind two decades ago.
Alvaro da Silva, the city’s director of Community Development, said creating venues for performing arts and cultural events is a key component of the city’s downtown and waterfront development plan. A new and improved Empress Theater can “fulfill a number of community and cultural arts needs.”
Litwin said the building “just needs some TLC and it’s ready to go. … It’s a beautiful lady. She needs some make-up and a dress and she’s just gorgeous.”
Above from VallejoNews.com