Monte Rio theater sold to film enthusiasts

  • Zelda Michaels walks up to the Rio Theater in Monte Rio on Sunday, February 2, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

A new generation of Bay Area hipsters is taking over Monte Rio's quirky, countercultural Rio Theater, with the blessing of retiring former owners Don and Suzi Schaffert.

A 25-member ownership group pooled resources to buy the theater for $599,000 after hearing about a successful fundraising campaign last summer that allowed the Schafferts to upgrade the theater's aging projector.

The fundraising drive, through crowdfunding website Kickstarter, achieved widespread publicity when Hollywood actor Zach Braff, of "Scrubs" and "Garden State" fame, helped keep the theater's lights on with a donation.

The Rio, which the Schafferts have owned since 1993, has been a gathering place for west county residents since 1949, when it opened inside what was then a quite new World War II-era Quonset hut. The Schafferts turned down multiple offers for the property, which has been on the market for four years, they said.

"Most people wanted to come in and get rid of what we built," Don Schaffert said. "(The new owners) just absolutely fell in love with it. All they want to do is just advance what we've done here."

Derek Fagerstrom, 38, of Cazadero, is one of the group's eight founding members and visited the theater with two of the other co-owners on Saturday.

"We did really come together with a shared love of theater," Fagerstrom said. "We all were looking at each other and said, 'We love this place.'"

Rather than step in and immediately shake things up, the group intends to have an open dialogue with the community to find out what changes, aside from the obvious improvements to the roof and the heater, they seek.

"We're looking at every part of the property as a place to do fun things," Fagerstrom said. "Even without trying we've been getting feedback. The community has a stake in it, and they've been forthcoming."

For now, the main focus is to keep the operation running and continue the traditions of the theater. Aside from the Schafferts, who are helping with the transition but will eventually retire, the rest of the employees will stay on under the new ownership.

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