In the beginning it was an old barn, not much to look at, more like a rickety tool shed your grandpa may have converted into a workshop. Once converted to a theatre by local thespians, however, the Palms Playhouse became one of the more revered road houses in North America. This cultural oasis in Davis, CA presented top-notch Roots, Americana, Folk, Rock, Alt Country and Blues music beginning in the 1970s. The venue was dusty and the wind would blow through it, sizzling in the summer heat. Nevertheless, it was also intimate; audience members could put their feet on the stage from front row seats.
One performer, upon arriving, called his agent, demanding, “Just what the hell have you booked me into?” Her response was “just play, believe me you will love it.” That performer was famed American singer-songwriter Tom Russell and this rustic venue grew to be among his favorite roadhouses; he was not alone.
For Northern Californians, the Palms became the place to go for quality live music. The natural acoustics made the experience special; thousands of dollars in sophisticated equipment could not equal the sound offered by the rickety barn, and performers agreed. Over the years, the Palms drew such stand-out acts as Richard Thompson, John Stewart, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Beausoleil with Michael Doucet.
The first to play on the dusty Palms stage were the late Utah Phillips and Bodie Wagner; they were also the final act many years later when the Palms was forced to leave its famous location.
After 27 years of producing some of the finest touring artists, the Palms management was notified that the venue’s land was being sold and the barn would be torn down. Dave Fleming, longtime manager of the Palms, searched for an equally special home for the Palms Playhouse experience, without much luck.
Almost fortuitously, a few miles west of Davis, the restoration of the old Winters Opera House was a passion for local George Saunders. George admired what the Palms Playhouse was doing in Davis, and had visions of the Opera House becoming a similar performing venue. He believed there was a need for more than just one roadhouse and began to present similar music at the Opera House with hopes of bringing audiences to Winters. A man full of life, George’s favorite saying was “Life is short, eat dessert first”. Unfortunately, that saying proved all too true as George died suddenly of a heart attack while still a young man. It seemed as if his dream of having the Winters Opera House become a respected venue would die with him, as well.
However, a few years after George’s death, Dave Fleming found himself in the frustrating predicament of relocating the Palms Playhouse. It was then that the Winters Opera House approached Dave about moving the Palms to their venue. At once, both George and Dave’s dreams for a successful performing arts venue were realized.
Today, the Palms Playhouse has brought new life to the Winters Opera House. At the center of town, the venue has created a renaissance for surrounding restaurants and businesses, with energy flourishing around the renovated space. As if in perfect harmony, the spirit of the Palms still thrives, and if one listens very closely you might just hear George Saunders blowing quietly on his harmonica, his dream of music in the Opera House realized.
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