Famous4 Owner Talks Up Thriving Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley

Lucy Mercer and 142 Throckmorton Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You
With “foot-stomping” celebration of Warren Hellman set for Saturday night, the venue that kept the Mill Valley arts and music scene alive looks to thrive in the wake of the Sweetwater Music Hall’s debut.

By Jim Welte in Mill Valley, Calif.

By all accounts, the Sweetwater Music Hall has been on an absolute tear since its late January opening, selling out the bulk of its shows, nabbing a slew of star-studded performances both booked and impromptu and injecting some sonic sizzle into downtown Mill Valley.

That surge has caused many in town to wonder how the Sweetwater’s arrival would impact the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, the nonprofit venue that has been the epicenter of arts and entertainment in Mill Valley for nearly a decade. Lucy Mercer, the Throckmorton’s unwavering founder and executive director, says she’s embracing the newfound excitement.

“The whole town is invigorated by it,” Mercer says. “It’s not about competition as much as it is about building that cultural landscape here. We’re trying to educate people that it’s not a polarizing thing about picking one venue over another. It’s only about exposing people to incredible experiences and drawing people downtown.”

Mercer isn’t speaking hypothetically.

Case in point: 142 Throckmorton and the Sweetwater are co-hosting “A Grand and Fine Celebration dedicated in foot-stomping tradition to Warren Hellman, a common man of uncommon proportions” on Saturday night. The musical tribute to the late philanthropist, banko player and founder of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, will feature a performance by Hellman’s band the Wronglers, as well as “other talented guests.” The show, which begins at the Throckmorton and heads over to the Sweetwater later, has already sold out but a wait list begins at 6:30 p.m.

“He was truly a hero,” Mercer says. “I wanted us all to tip our hats – to him – who I know many consider an irreplaceable friend. And I felt collaborating with Sweetwater was perfect for this – I reached out and they embraced the idea.”

With the Sweetwater bringing newfound attention to Mill Valley, coupled with an economic recovery that has brought some new art venues like the Seager Gray and Room Art galleries downtown, some say Mill Valley is assuming its rightful place as a hub of great arts and entertainment in the North Bay.

“With the Sweetwater here, it truly makes us a mecca for great music and art and entertainment,” says Larry “the Hat” Lautzker, a longtime concert producer and owner of the Famous 4 clothing shop downtown. “And we’re really bringing high-quality acts to downtown compared to the other cities in Marin. People are going to be looking at Mill Valley as the center for great art and entertainment in Marin County again.”

That excitement comes with gratitude to Mercer for keeping the scene alive after the old Sweetwater closed in 2007, along with John Goddard’s legendary Village Music.

Vasco owner Paul Lazzareschi, who has also started serving up live jazz music on Mondays and Tuesdays at his restaurant, says he can attest to the impact the Throckmorton had over the past several years.

“It kept me in business when the economy took a left turn,” says Lazzareschi, who adds that the Tuesday night Mark Pitta & Friends event “is the only reason why Tuesday nights are good business for me.”

Jules Broussard, the Bay Area jazz legend who helmed the house band at the old Sweetwater and just held his 75th birthday party at the new Sweetwater, had his 70th birthday bash at the Throckmorton. He said he definitely plans to return to the Throckmorton soon.

“She is just the nicest lady – an absolute sweetheart,” says Broussard, who opened for comedian Mort Sahl at the Throckmorton a few years ago in what Broussard calls a show that exemplifies the venue’s diversity. “She’s probably the nicest person I know.”

“Lucy hasn’t gotten her due – she’s the one who continued to put on so many great shows over the years – and all over the map,” adds Lautzker. “She’s been as creative as any booker around to bring a diverse slate of performances to that venue.”

It’s a far cry from 2009 when Mercer, seeing her own personal savings dwindle as she invested everything in the nearly 100-year-old theater she bought in 1999 and reopened in 2003, had to reach out to donors to keep it alive. She seeks to raise around $500,000 a year in donations, which accounts for about one-third of the venue’s annual budget (the other two-thirds come from ticket sales).

“The community’s response was, ‘Yes those programs are valuable and yes we want to help support them and they rallied around us,” Mercer says. “Once the community was better informed, we have been successfully building strength and planning a broad future.

And the Hellman event will be the first of many collaborations between the Throckmorton and the Sweetwater, its operators say. The two venues also plan to collaborate in June for DjangoFest, the 7-year-old event inspired by the lat gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. It’s grown each year, Mercer says, to the point that expanding to include both venues makes great sense.

“It’ll put some sizzle in the downtown corridor,” Mercer says.

Mercer says the collaborations come from both a willingness to boost Mill Valley’s cultural vitality and the logistical fact the venue’s are of a slightly different size, as the Sweetwater hold approximately 300 people and the Throckmorton call accommodate 400 without seats.

“In truth, neither venue is so large, but there are certainly ways we can complement one another,” Mercer says.

“I think we can all very easily play happy in the sandbox,” adds KR Holt, the general manager of the Sweetwater. “None of our intention is to take anybody out or steal anybody’s thunder. We want everyone to succeed.”

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