by Craig Smith | photos by Mitchell Glotzer
Boz Scaggs fell in love with the Uptown Theatre the first time he played there, saying it was one of his favorite venues. Since that performance in 2010, he’s returned almost every year. “We hear that a lot,” said Tim Herman, co-owner with managing partner George Altamura of the Uptown. “When we were refurbishing the place, we wanted the best sound possible, and worked with some of the best technicians in the world.” Herman says that equipment is just part of the equation that has made them a preferred venue for so many artists. “Our staff and tech crew work their tails off when artists are here, to make sure everything is perfect. They are amazing.”
Just as much as performers, audiences love the Uptown experience, and perfect sound is just one of the factors that makes an evening so enjoyable. It’s also a very intimate setting. “One of the first things we did was to reduce the number of seats. There were originally 1,300, which admittedly were built for very small people,” Herman said, laughing. “We took the number down to 857.”
The Uptown opened as a movie theater in 1937, and was turned into a two-plex in 1973. By 2000, it was in bad shape. The last people to watch a movie there were offered blankets when they walked in, as there was no heat and no money to fix it. The new partners bought the theater in 2001, figuring to remodel and open a couple of years later. “Before we started, we had to see what was there. As soon as we saw how spectacular it could be, that ‘couple of years’ turned into nine,” said Herman. “For years, the theater had been a four-plex, and one of the first things we did was tear down the dividing walls. When we did, it exposed the old paint job, which was really a work of art. We started peeling it back and agreed we couldn’t just repaint it, we had to fully restore it.” The same thing happened with the Mural, when they discovered that the ridges on the ceiling were actually copper frames bordering art work. “There was no question – the mural had to stay.” Altamura found an artist who specialized in ceilings, and who had done a lot of work on casinos in Dubai, to restore the Uptown ceiling. Cameos were repainted using the faces of the partners daughters and granddaughters. Meanwhile, a series of support beams had to be built to handle the lighting and sound system. The results of it all was to create not just an entertainment venue, but a jewel. Opening night was in May 2010. Unfortunately, by Herman’s assessment, it was far from perfect.
“The audience loved it, and to them, it sounded great. But what they couldn’t hear was that the music bounced off the ceiling and back down to the band, so they heard it twice,” said Herman. An engineer in his former life, Herman immediately researched sound panels and redesigned some to accommodate their needs. He built them on a pulley system, so they could be raised and lowered until the absolute best results were obtained. “Truthfully, it was a fun challenge and the results were good.”
Herman, an engineer and scientist, moved to Silicon Valley from his hometown of Cincinnati, in 1979. At the time, the semiconductor business had a unique problem with pollution. “The industry used a lot of nasty gases,” said Herman, “and it was hard to control them.” He invented a few machines that took care of the problem, opening his own business in 1981. He was wildly successful, and was able to sell the company and retire in 1999. He was a young man, and knew what he wanted to do. “I did very well, and wanted to give back, both financially and by volunteering.” He started several foundations that worked to “empower kids around the world.” He hired someone with ties to the United Nations, and started an organization to stop child soldiering, and to help former child soldiers get back into society. That morphed into working with the Church of Sweden, sponsoring a group of psychologists who work with kids affected by natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. It was seed work, of sorts – the psychologists trained locals to do the work and eventually take over the effort.
Not all of his philanthropy is international. Herman has been on the board of Justin-Siena High School. He spent nine years on the Queen of the Valley Foundation Board, two as chair, then spent another nine on the Advisory board, with two years as chair. He is now on the Regional Board of Providence Health in Northern California which the Queen of the Valley Medical Center is a part.
Herman’s late wife suffered major brain trauma after a horse-riding accident in 2007. The Queen didn’t have a Neurosurgeon on staff, much less a neurology department. Fog prevented his wife from being air lifted to another hospital, and she had to be taken to a hospital in Santa Rosa by ambulance. “Even if the Queen had had a neurology department, it wouldn’t have saved her.” Still, Herman wanted to make sure no one else was in that predicament, and he funded the Peggy Herman Neuroscience Center at the Queen, which employees a team of Neurosurgeon affiliated with UCSF.
Herman and Altamura were casual acquaintances when Altamura approached him about joining a partnership to purchase the Uptown. “There wasn’t much nightlife here at the time, and it sounded like it would be good for Napa,” he said. Initially, Herman was at the theater all the time. “I’m not real musically inclined, but I love seeing people enjoy themselves.” Things were going well, and then the earthquake hit in 2014. Part of the ceiling came down, destroying chairs with it. “We are so fortunate that happened in the dead of night.” The repair took months. Things were back on track, and then COVID struck. “Our last show was in March of 2020.”
Last year marked the tenth anniversary of the Uptown theater’s run under Herman and Altamura. The celebration had to be postponed, but will begin in earnest August 20th when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a Napa favorite, returns to reopen the venue.
He’s thoroughly enjoys working with Altamura. “It’s been a really good experience. He’s a great guy, and we’ve had a fun ride. We’re looking forward to opening the doors again, and I know a lot of locals are too.”