For the past three decades, Marin entrepreneur Jeff Harriman has presented live music — from local bands and touring acts to some of the biggest names in rock, reggae and hip-hop — at his Mystic Theatre in Petaluma.
Now, at age 77, he’s decided to step aside, hoping that someone will come along and continue what he started in 1992, when he and partner Ken O’Donnell, of Petaluma, turned the onetime vaudeville theater into one of the top music halls in the North Bay.
Harriman, a lifelong resident of Woodacre, put the Mystic and the neighboring McNear’s Saloon & Dining House up for sale this month.
“We’ve looked around to all our friends and family and couldn’t find anybody willing to take it over, so we said, let’s just put it out there and see if we can find someone simpatico with what we’ve been trying to do and continue it,” he says. “Someone may want to tweak it here or there, which is fine. But my main thing is I’d like to see it continue kind of like it is if we can.”
The list of stars who have performed at the 500-seat Mystic is long and diverse — Snoop Dogg, Brandi Carlile, Carlos Santana, Warren Zevon, Dick Dale, Bobby Weir, Johnny Winter, Train, Wynonna Judd, J.J. Cale, Waylon Jennings and Leon Russell, among others, as well as special events such as Easy Rider Live, an event showcasing the iconic 1969 film and its music.
When Van Morrison expressed a desire to play the Mystic, the stage was enlarged and other improvements were made to accommodate him. He performed there during the holiday season in 1992 and ’93.
“He said if we build it, he will come. And he did,” says O’Donnell, operating partner of the theater and restaurant. At 64, running a large operation like McNear’s and the Mystic for 36 years has been long enough for him. He’s looking forward to retiring from the six-day-a-week grind, spending more time with his grandkids and at his vacation home on a Caribbean island off the coast of Honduras.
O’Donnell is the patriarch of a family that has long been associated with the downtown Petaluma landmark. His 36-year-old son, Tom, manages the restaurant and his 40-year-old daughter, Shennon, runs the theater, which was closed for two years during the pandemic. Both of them grew up in the twin businesses.
“This place has been an integral part of Petaluma and the North Bay for so long, part of the fabric of the community,” Tom O’Donnell says. “It’s kind of sad to see it change hands, but hopefully we can pass the torch to somebody who can carry it on for the next 35 years.”
Shennon O’Donnell remembers working backstage with bands as a gofer and hospitality person when she was still a teenager, getting a kick out of meeting one of her reggae idols, Jimmy Cliff.
“I was still in high school and actually got to drive him to his hotel after the show,” she recalls. “It was a mind-blowing experience for a little high school girl to drive across town with one of your musical heroes.”
Fifteen years ago, she took over running the theater, and now books bands in partnership with an outside producer, Oakland-based Ineffable Music Group. She isn’t ready to move on, hoping to stay on under new owners, whenever that may be.
“My whole family has worked here over the years,” she says. “It’s definitely a mixed bag of emotions. I consider this building and this place as part of our family. It’s been a staple of my life. My heart is with this beautiful thing we’ve created and nurtured and taken care of. It’s definitely a big part of my heart and my history.”
Originally a vaudeville house, the Mystic was built in 1911, opening a year later with an act starring Ed the talking horse. With its art-deco façade and colorful neon marquee, it’s been featured in cameos in the movies “American Graffiti” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
In 1976, after his San Francisco restaurant lost its lease, Harriman bought the theater and the McNear building next door, which was built in 1886 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. At the time, the theater was an X-rated movie house called the State, and the McNear building was a motorcycle shop that Harriman renovated in 1987, transforming the space into what it remains today — a capacious 7,300-square-foot restaurant with murals on the walls honoring the McNears, a 19th-century father-and-son dynasty credited with Petaluma becoming known as “the egg basket of the world.”
“I put a lot of hours into making the restaurant a kind of a monument to the McNear family,” Harriman says.
Over the years, the theater and restaurant have worked together in a kind of a hand-in-glove, dinner-and-a-show partnership. Harriman calls it “the secret to our success.”
“It’s such a great asset, really, because it’s part of the history of Petaluma,” says Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association. “Downtown Petaluma has changed over the decades, becoming more of an entertainment district. And the Mystic and McNear’s are central to that. They are the ones that have preserved the history. Even though we have many new restaurants and bars, the Mystic stands alone as one of the old originals. I’m hoping we don’t lose that spirit of the place.”
It should be noted that Harriman is selling a 10-year lease with a five-year option on both businesses. Asking price is $1.3 million. It includes the recently renovated Red Bull Room, an upstairs space for music and gatherings. If the right buyer comes along, he says he would consider selling the buildings as well. The sale is being handled by Bob Oshetsky and Jo Tucker at Santa Rosa Business & Commercial.
Not that Harriman is retiring completely. He’s best known in Marin for building the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge in Olema with his brother, Tom, and operating it and the adjacent Farmhouse restaurant for 30 years before selling it to buyers who changed the name to the Olema House.
In 2005, he bought the Golden Hinde Inn and Marina in Inverness, changed the name to the Tomales Bay Resort and Marina and is currently upgrading and remodeling it in a Cape Cod style.
But it’s the Mystic Theater and McNear’s restaurant that are the centerpiece of his legacy, just as they’ve become the focal point of downtown Petaluma and a soulful part of its history.
“I think we’ve become a community resource in downtown Petaluma, a real anchor there for downtown businesses,” Harriman says. “I feel proud of what we’ve created.”
Contact Paul Liberatore at [email protected]
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