Nothing better on a cold, wet, El Niño night along the surging banks of the Russian River than an escape to the movies. Little matter what’s playing, really. It’s all about breaking out from cabin fever and burrowing in a darkened space.
And after miles, curving, twisting and pitch-dark miles, on the Bohemian Highway near the Sonoma coast, there it is.
A flash of red neon smears across your wiper-active windshield. Hard to discern but, yes, you can make it out now: “RIO.” The marquee’s watery reflection shimmers off the rain-puddled streets, which adds to the Edward Hopper-like romance of the scene. Downright cinematic, actually. Tonight’s feature, in bold black foot-high letters: “CREED.” A single haloed streetlight guides cars to the parking lot, where your headlights pick up something curious.
It is the shape of the Rio Theater building. Is it a dome? A grain silo? On closer inspection, it’s a Quonset hut, one of those semicircular, prefabricated corrugated metal edifices that date to the World War II era. You are slightly surprised as rivulets of water stream down the arching slots of the roof and pool in the muddy lot. Then you notice faint traces of a mural painted on the structure, a seascape.
This, you think, will be an experience.
As is Monte Rio (pop. 1,152) itself. It is a funky community, both upscale and down-home, located between Jenner and Guerneville. In summer, it draws scores of tourists and second-home-owning Bay Areans to its riverside beaches and charming resorts such as the Village Inn & Restaurant, where they filmed Bing Crosby performing “White Christmas” in the cinematic classic “Holiday Inn.” But it also caters to year-round residents, who proudly call themselves “River Rats,” with roadhouses, dive bars and diners.
Monte Rio’s biggest claim to fame may be that, squirreled away on a ridgeline among big trees, is the Bohemian Grove, a retreat for well-healed Bay Area business tycoons (Hearst, Crocker, Spreckels), influential politicos (Hoover, Nixon, Reagan, Bush) and thinkers (Oppenheimer, Kissinger). But its heart and soul, the town centerpiece, is the Rio Theater, which since 1949 has been showing first-run movies, old favorites and hosted special events (example: today’s Super Bowl telecast will be free to anyone).
The Rio is a throwback to the old single-screen independent theaters found in nearly every town of consequence, a place where you watched what they were able to get this week and were grateful for it and, if you didn’t like the flick, you waited until next week’s offering. Sadly anachronistic in these Netflix-dominated days where the remaining movie palaces are liable to end in “plex,” the Rio’s civic worth was never more evident than in 2013 when it faced an existential crisis.
Then-owners Bob and Suzi Schaffert didn’t have the means to spend the $60,000 needed to purchase a digital projector – major studios had announced they no longer would distribute movies in 35mm films – but locals and cineastes who cherished the theater (including actor Zach Braff) raised more than $60,000 in 60 days via Kickstarter.
Less than a year later, the Schafferts could no longer meet the demands of running a business and put the theater (and attached cafe) on the market. Several buyers expressed interest in razing the Quonset hut and building another resort or bistro, a prospect that had locals reeling. But a consortium of 27 people from the greater river area and Bay Area formed and purchased the theater for $599,000, vowing to keep the Rio just as it is.
“It was one of those crazy ideas, like, why don’t we?” said Colin Mutchler, an Oakland nonprofit “tech guy” who is on the five-member board of directors. “It seemed such a valuable cultural place. … The vast majority of (Monte Rio) people we’ve interacted with thank us for keeping it going. But there is a little bit of, ‘Don’t screw this up; this is our movie theater’ thing.”
Longtime resident Zelda Michaels, who used to run the defunct Monte Rio newspaper (R.I.P., Russian River Monthly) and now makes hot dogs at the Rio’s concession stand, calls the community involvement unprecedented.
“Everybody talks about the very nice contribution we got from Zach Braff, the actor guy,” she said, “but you’ve got to realize, there were more than 500 donations to the Kickstarter campaign.”
That’s nearly half the town. The phrase “civic treasure” is often attached to the Rio Theater, and Paul Dubrey, who leases the cafe on the back side of the Quonset hut, says it’s not hyperbole.
“There’s so much nostalgia at the cusp of being buried, being lost,” he said. “We don’t have enough of that to keep us grounded in this world. We really need to preserve those moments in history, even if it’s just a glimpse (of the theater) when somebody drives through town. Everybody that drives through there has some type of connection to that old-movie-time experience, whether it be with grandparents or parents or whatever.
“People here are a true community. They rose to the occasion for the Rio. They rise to the occasion if somebody’s house gets flooded, if somebody needs help. That’s the kind of place this is.”
What kind of theater is the 164-seat Rio?
Well, general manager Jean Marquardt is fond of saying the theater “is like a person in the community.” If so, then the Rio is a proud “River Rat,” a little disheveled and paunchy but still ruggedly handsome, warm-hearted and loaded with personality.
A rainy January night is perhaps not the best time to catch a first glimpse of the Rio. Better, locals say, to come back in the summer, when it’s all duded up, the Quonset-hut mural and facade glinting in the sun, the cafe’s patio brimming with diners peering down to the rushing water below, people throwing Frisbees on the lawn next door before buying tickets to the matinee.
But perhaps the Rio is best experienced on an evening of inclement weather, when the place serves as a shelter from the storm as much as anything. Do note, however, that buying an $8 ticket ($6 for 55-plus geezers) doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have to deal with the elements.
The auditorium was cold, as to be expected when the ceiling insulation is not much more than corrugated steel and some drywall. A steady drip from the rain plocked on the concrete floor near one of the back rows. The inside was mostly lit by white Christmas lights strung along the side walls, illuminating the murals painted by a local artist depicting major events in the town’s history and scenes from the movies. Overhead, the ceiling was a saggy off-white (plus darkened stains) nylon that resembles an unfurled parachute. The pipes in the restrooms – perhaps the original fixtures – coughed and complained. Remnants of the decommissioned 35mm projector were proudly displayed near the aging (but health-department-approved clean) concession stand.
But the seats?
The seats were plush, vintage but well-preserved, and exceedingly comfortable.
“We bought these seats from the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco,” Marquardt said. “They are new old seats.”
That parachutelike ceiling also is sort of recycled. It is part of the material used in the installation artist Christo’s 1976 “Running Fence,” which stretched 24 miles from Marin County to the ocean. “We took part of that ‘fence,’ ” Marquardt said. “It adds to the quirkiness here.”
It certainly makes the theater more homey. A home without heat, sure, but home nonetheless. Marquardt offered no apologies for the chilliness, but pointed to a small bank of space heaters – like you’d find on a restaurant’s patio seating – above the two back rows.
“They aren’t plugged in yet,” she said. “We’re waiting for an electrician to come out and hook them up. But it’ll probably only warm a couple of seats.”
Monte Rioans, though, are a hardy folk who survived the devastating floods of ’55 and ’97, so having a theater that’s a smidge drafty and drippy is no big thing. And, besides, at the doors on each side were long rows of fleece blankets for moviegoers to take off pegs and cuddle up with during the show. (You might try to tough it out but, 20 minutes in, you’ll head back for a blankie, like a toddler seeking security.)
One rugged blanket holdout was customer Dan O’Connor, who lives in San Francisco but has a second home in Guerneville. He took a bite from the hot dog Michaels made for him and mused, “This place has always kind of reminded me of the Cow Palace,” referring to the cavernous livestock pavilion/arena on the outskirts of San Francisco. “I like coming here. I don’t come here a lot. I mean, I mostly do Netflix now. All I gotta do is walk to the mailbox. But I miss the wide screen they got here.”
Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn, slouched in their seats near the front with blankets up to their chins, are regulars. Horowitz, a resident of neighboring Cazadero, revealed that he actually is part of the 27-member ownership group.
“I own maybe 1 or 2 percent,” he said, sheepishly. “I like (the Rio) because it leads to these happy accidents. Like, that’s usually just one thing showing, and it changes the way you think about it, right? You can just enjoy the fact you’re seeing a movie and enjoy the experience. We’re hoping, bit by bit, to make it a more complete experience.”
Among the Rio’s plans: a beer and wine license.
That fact made Marquardt smile.
“When I came here in the ’70s for the movies, there were a lot of couches and chairs and we’d lie around and drink beer and smoke pot and watch the movie,” she said. “It was great. There are a lot more (county) restrictions now, though.”
Still, a communal feeling endures. Many theaters stage midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but how many feature a guy on a motorcycle popping wheelies down the theater aisles? The ownership group has added promotions such as “Pongapalooza,” an epic summer table-tennis tournament on the lawn outside the theater, with beer flowing and a DJ spinning, culminating in a pingpong-themed movie showing. (In 2014, Susan Sarandon’s “Ping Pong Summer;” in 2015, “Ping Pong Playa.”)
The theater has been rented out to wedding receptions and bachelor parties (showing “The Hangover,” naturally) and opened up for free viewing of major sporting events.
The goal, Mutchler said, is not “to make massive money” but to “do a little better than break even” and “keep this amazing thing going.”
- Village Inn & Restaurant: 20822 River Blvd.; villageinn-ca.com
- Bia Cafe: 19420 Highway 116 A; facebook.com/BiaNorthwood
- Rio Cafe: 20396 Bohemian Highway; riotheater.com/cafe
- Highland Dell: 21050 River Blvd.; highlanddell.com
- Rio Theater: 20396 Bohemian Highway; riotheater.com