Queen of the Underground
Meet Chico impresario Molly Roberts
My dad had a phrase for describing people who make things happen without making an ostentatious show of themselves: “Dynamite comes in small packages.” I’m pretty sure if he’d ever met Molly Roberts he’d have classified her as proof of the truth of that statement.
Born in North Carolina but raised in Chico, Roberts is a quintessential under-the-radar mover and shaker. Those in the Chico arts and social-activist communities likely recognize her work as producer and promoter of the annual Chico New Wave Prom (coming up Friday, Feb. 17, at Chico Women’s Club) and Chico Bike Races (the roving spring-time underground music fest), and as a member of the Chico Area Punks anarchic collective. But Roberts’ outwardly serene and good-humored presence belies the human dynamo spinning under the surface.
We sat down last week at Duffy’s Tavern (where she used to tend bar—and still does on an on-call basis), and Roberts offered her insights into the state of Chico culture and discussed her various endeavors. Currently, much of her energy is spent plotting the Chico New Wave Prom, the exceedingly popular 1980s-themed prom for adults that celebrates its fifth anniversary this year.
“My first prom was in 2002, but I went with a friend, and we didn’t even go,” said Roberts when asked about her prom history. “We ended up getting all dressed up and going to the El Rey Theatre for the late-night movies because they were showing A Hard Day’s Night, and I’d never seen it. The first time I actually went to the prom, I went with my friend [local singer/songwriter] Fera, and we got all dressed up and rode our bikes and made fun of the music, and that was my prom experience.”
The New Wave Prom isn’t a reaction to those early prom experiences; rather, it was an excuse to create an event that incorporated Roberts’ love of new wave music and dressing up. The impetus came during her time working at the Maltese Bar & Tap Room. The south Chico bar is known for its eclectic calendar of events, and Roberts brainstormed an ’80s-themed prom. “It started out really small but it ended up totally packing out the Maltese and everybody had a total blast,” she said.
“So the next year, I thought, ‘Well, let’s take it to a bigger level.’ And it was kind of scary, because it was all my own money and I just hoped it’d make enough to pay for all the decorations and the [Women’s Club] hall and the DJs—and it did,” Roberts explained. “And it’s gotten progressively … I won’t say it’s gotten crazy, but it’s gotten bigger. Last year, I think we had about 300 people, and I think that’s pretty cool.”
For the last couple of years, Roberts has also been the house manager for what is probably Chico’s biggest annual homegrown social and artistic event, the Butcher Shop Theater Festival, where she coordinates everything from food trucks, vendors, bands and drink dispensers to arranging for restrooms and valet bike-parking attendants.
“I just want people to have fun,” Roberts said, stating the abundantly obvious. In addition to that positive approach, her endeavors are often socially beneficial as well, such as the multiple benefits she helped organize for the Safe Space winter shelter program over the past year. In fact, in addition to her many “real jobs”—barista at Great Northern Coffee, bookkeeper at Chico Chai, health worker at Women’s Health Specialists, and events planner for weddings and other private events—Roberts is one of the shelter’s primary volunteers, handling much of the organizing for the program.
In summing up her outlook on being involved in the community, and in response to those who say, “Chico is boring,” Roberts said: “‘Then find something to do. Make something to do!’ That’s how the prom came to fruition. … I just did it.”