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Iconic Palms Playhouse comes back to life on film at benefit documentary screening for KVMR

By Joyce Miller - 

It was an old ramshackle barn with rickety, mismatched chairs, no heat in the winter, no AC in the sweltering summer, and a leaky roof. But when the Palms Playhouse in Davis closed 15 years ago, a piece of Northern California cultural history slipped into the past.

Its corrugated walls contained the echoes of such performers as Richard Thompson, Stephen Stills, Kate Wolf and Etta James. They played on a stage with a six-inch riser, so close that patrons in the first row could—and did—rest their feet on it.

Over its 27 years, the intimate performance venue, located in a south Davis field, developed a symbiotic relationship with KVMR 89.5 FM, the community radio station 75 miles up the road in Nevada City. The audience for the Palms was simpatico with the KVMR listenership—knowledgeable, dedicated lovers of folk, Americana, bluegrass, blues, jazz and R&B. One fan calls it “the background music of our lives.”

Eventually, KVMR broadcaster Wesley Robertson, host of Saturday afternoon’s Rockin’-N-Stompin’, launched a series of live remotes from the stage of the Palms, and he was there to broadcast its final show.

Recapturing the magic

Although the Palms Playhouse has moved to Winters, where it endures, the original barn is gone to condos. But Davis filmmaker Alvin Remmers has recaptured its magic in a feature-length documentary, “Closing the Palms Playhouse,” that will screen at 2 p.m.Sunday at the Nevada Theatre as a benefit for KVMR.

The film is a powerful dose of nostalgia for anyone who made the pilgrimage to the Palms in its glory years. It recalls the funky atmosphere of the old barn with its signature twin palms and the rusty tractor parked outside.

When Remmers learned the Palms was closing, he asked longtime manager Dave Fleming if he could film its remaining days. Remmers captured priceless footage, including performances by Sourdough Slim and the Saddle Pals, Steve Seskin, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men with the late Chris Gaffney, Shana Morrison, Lucy Kaplansky and Nina Gerber, and John Stewart. 

Natural collaboration with KVMR

The documentary has screened only a handful of times, making the Sunday show a rare opportunity—and, says Remmers, a natural collaboration.  “KVMR and the Palms are inextricably linked. I thought it would be natural to do a benefit because the subject matter speaks to the same audience,” he notes.  “I’ve been a fan of KVMR as long as I’ve been a fan of the Palms. It’s the very best radio station in Northern California and quite possibly in the western United States.”

The Palms’ life as a performance space started in the early 1970s with an acting troupe known as the Bad Actors. In a few years of feverish creativity, the Bad Actors put on locally written, elaborately costumed musical-theater productions.

In 1976, the Davis Pickers and Singers were planning a house concert with U. Utah Phillips and Bodie Wagner. It sold out in a matter of minutes and someone suggested moving the show to the Palms Playhouse to accommodate a larger audience.

Theater evolved into music mecca

For owner Linda McDonagh Stuart, the night was so “magical” that she began booking other concerts there, and the place evolved from a theater venue to a music mecca. Word spread to touring musicians who were looking for a freeway-close way station between the Bay Area and Nevada. Mose Allison was an early adopter of the Palms, as was Etta James.  Musicians were fond of the excellent sound quality and the 150-seat intimacy. Dave Alvin says the Palms was a place where he was “treated like a human and a family member.” Playing there, he says, “was always like coming home.”

History came full circle on August 24, 2002, when the Palms put on its final show in Davis—starring its very first headliner, local hero U. Utah Phillips. Phillips gives the Palms a suitable benediction: It was, he says, “quintessentially Californian . . . a warm, comfortable, loose, easy, familial place. . . . The Palms is its people. And the people aren’t going away.”

The film lovingly documents the evening the final notes faded away in the barn, bringing to a close a unique chapter of musical history. Thanks to Remmers’ film, the spirit of the Palms in Davis will come alive again, at least for one precious Sunday afternoon.


WHAT: “Closing the Palms Playhouse” Documentary Film Benefit Screening for KVMR

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. Doors open at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad St., Nevada City

TICKETS: $15   Advance tickets: <https://www.eventbrite.com/e/closing-the-palms-playhouse-documentary-film-tickets-38823075865>

INFO: www.kvmr.org/events/closing-palms-playhouse or call (530) 265-9073.