Inundated by February flood, iconic River Theater in Guerneville reopening

If You Go

What: River Theater reopening performance

Who: Jerry's Middle Finger, celebrating the music of the Jerry Garcia Band

Where: 16135 Main Street, Guerneville

When: Friday, 8 pm

Cost: $20 in advance, $25 at the door

There's a story behind the elephant standing guard outside the River Theater in Guerneville, which reopens Friday, more than three months after being inundated by February's historic flood. The iconic, 74-year-old building will host a show by Jerry's Middle Finger, which celebrates the music of the Jerry Garcia Band.

Jerry Knight owns both the theater and the pachyderm, which in 2000 graced the Treasure Island wedding of Mick Jagger's daughter, Karis. That elephant, now a strident pink, was gray when Knight acquired it.

“I painted it pink to go to the Bohemian Grove,” he said. “Henry Kissinger has posed with that elephant.”

Knight was standing under the marquee, whose arresting artwork, he said, comes courtesy of the multitalented Prairie Prince, a graphic artist who has been a drummer for bands such as the Tubes, Jefferson Starship and Journey.

“That board came from Journey,” said Knight, gesturing toward an amplifier stacked against a wall. “Still got their name on it.”

He's a vast repository of rock ‘n' roll lore, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran whose thoughts meander like the Russian River that on Feb. 27 engulfed his theater. It's a multilevel structure with a sunken dance floor that quickly filled with 5 feet of floodwater. The water rose 2 feet above the stage - you can still see the water lines on the speakers - also submerging the sound booth and lobby.

After buying this place nine years ago, Knight had equipped it with high-end sound and lighting systems. Most of that equipment was destroyed. Knight's conservative estimate of the damage to his building and its contents, none of which was insured, is about $125,000.

Fundraisers have put a small dent in that. Recent benefits at 19 Broadway in Fairfax and Cotati's Redwood Cafe, featuring Elvin Bishop, Mad Mama and the Bona Fide Few, among others, raised over $10,000. The theater's GoFundMe campaign has raised $4,300. The rest of ongoing renovations are coming out of Knight's pocket.

The event at 19 Broadway reminded him of the last time he saw his friend, surf rock pioneer Dick Dale, who died in March. “I was sitting at a table with Robert Altman and Chet Helms,” he recalled.

Knight is an unapologetic, even gleeful name-dropper. “The thing is, I've been with him when some of those (celebrities) walk right up and start talking to him,” said John Obertelli, aka Pirate John, a DJ at the Guerneville radio station KGGV, The Bridge. “So it's not BS.”

Knight has stockpiled large reserves of good karma among area musicians, including Lester Chambers, lead singer of the Chambers Brothers, whose hits included “People Get Ready” and “In The Midnight Hour.”

“Jerry is a beautiful soul, and he runs a beautiful venue,” Chambers said. “I mean, you can't go there and not be happy.”

One of the last shows at the theater, before the flood, was a memorial concert for the widow of the swamp blues musician Leslie Johnson, aka Lazy Lester. In addition to offering his venue, Knight reached into his own pocket to buy $500 of radio ads to promote the show.

“He went way above and beyond what any other venue owner I've ever worked with would have done,” said Mark Hummel, a blues harmonica player who performed at that benefit. “He wouldn't take a dime for the show, which is so unlike most promoters. Jerry's just a real giving guy.”

A disabled vet himself, Knight employs fellow veterans at his theater. “I don't shy away from people just because it might seem like they're a little off,” he said. “'Cause we're all a little off.”

He grew up in San Francisco, and remembers catching carp in the city's Mountain Lake, then boarding a streetcar to Chinatown, where he sold the fish for a nickel a pound - “double that if they were still kicking.”

At 17, he enlisted in the Air Force, and ended up in Thailand as a ground support crew chief for the Wild Weasels, a top secret squad of aircraft equipped with radar-seeking missiles, a breakthrough technology at the time.

After four years active duty, he returned to the Bay Area in 1968, and found work at the Royal Ashbury, a recording studio in Haight-Ashbury.

He moved to Marin County and lived in Lagunitas, near the Inkwells, a swimming hole immortalized, Knight said, by Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Get sick, get well,

Hang around the Ink Well.”

During this time, Knight met and proposed to his wife, Susan Rose, an award-winning photographer. They'd been married 33 years when she died 10 years ago of a heart attack, at the age of 59.

“We were like buddies, best of friends,” he said. “It's amazing how your life can change so fast and so dramatically.”

He bought the River Theater the following year for $600,000, and had put at least that much into its renovation before the Russian River rose in February.

Originally a movie theater, the building has gone through various incarnations, as a concert hall and night club. Later this month, it will add the title of radio station. KGGV, which had been broadcasting out of a nearby church, recently lost its lease.

“Jerry had always told me, ‘If you're in a pinch, let me know,'” said Obertelli, the DJ. In addition to offering the station a rent-free studio, Knight is paying for the installation of its antenna.

Obertelli is a retired commercial fisherman, which explains the name of one of his shows at KGGV: “Treasures From The Deep.” Taking residence in the River Theater, he said, “is a win for the radio station, a win for Jerry, and a win for the town.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Guerneville radio station KGGV.

If You Go

What: River Theater reopening performance

Who: Jerry's Middle Finger, celebrating the music of the Jerry Garcia Band

Where: 16135 Main Street, Guerneville

When: Friday, 8 pm

Cost: $20 in advance, $25 at the door

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