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Monte Rio Variety Show draws thousands for Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Buffett, Carlos Reyes

Nearly 40 years ago, inside a school gym, Melissa Palu and her mom watched barbershop quartets and local violinists as they performed at the Monte Rio show.

On Thursday evening, Palu again found herself at the Monte Rio show, this time with her friends.

Thousands of people gathered at the center of the redwood-rimmed Amphitheatre for the return — after nearly three years — of the Monte Rio Variety Show. The sold-out event marked its 111th year.

First held in 1911, the show raises funds for the Monte Rio Fire Services Foundation, Monte Rio School Foundation and St. Catherine's Catholic Church. It was emceed by late-night TV talk show host Conan O’Brien.

“I hosted this show virtually last year but I thought, ‘I need to meet these people!’ I need to meet these people!!” O’Brien shouted while the crowd laughed.

“It’s always a classy event when you have to bring your own chair!” he added.

A secret lineup of artists and acts, who were not revealed until Thursday night’s show, included singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, San-Francisco based harpist and violinist Carlos Reyes and a variety of local acts.

The performers are provided by the nearby annual Bohemian Grove encampment.

“We’re enthusiastic about bringing this tradition to you every year,” Charles “Chip” Wiser, president of the Bohemian Club said as he welcomed the cheering crowd at the beginning of the show.

Sitting in lawn chairs, people bobbed their heads to blues and jazz as smoke emanated from nearby grills. Some hugged, or stood in circles to talk, while many others stood in line for wine, beer, hot dogs or tasty barbecue.

Eager attendees arrived around 7 a.m. Thursday to set up chairs in the Amphitheater, reserving their spots before the show, which quickly sold out earlier this month, Michele McDonell, an organizer, said.

“That’s never happened before,” she said of the event selling out 10 days before show night.

Palu, who sat in the grass field as she waited for friends to arrive, said the show is “cooler” now than it was 40 years ago. She added that the show has evolved over the decades and has drawn in world-class acts.

“I don’t care who’s playing, I just love live music,” said Palu, 48, who walked to the show from her Monte Rio home. “The show is way cooler now.”

Over the years, entertainers such as Roy Rogers, blues singer Billy Valentine, and country singers Clint Black and Zac Brown have appeared at the show.

A Monte Rio school teacher who, along with her students, sold cookies and cake slices at one of the event’s booths said the show was her introduction to the Monte Rio community when she started teaching at the school in 2018.

“This event is how I got to know this community and my students,” Vivian Diaz, 29, an English and social studies middle school teacher, said. “I love the Russian River community. This is the school’s biggest fundraiser.”

The annual show began with a group of men from the Bohemian Grove. At their annual forest retreat along the Russian River, the group teamed up with the local Catholic parish to build a church in Monte Rio. From there, they decided to produce a show to raise funds for the church’s improvements.

Since then, the show has been held at different locations over the decades. The show finally settled at the Monte Rio Amphitheater in 1997.

Volunteer based, it has been a fundraiser for Saint Catherine’s Catholic Church since 1911. Proceeds from the event also go toward the Monte Rio Fire Services Foundation and Monte Rio School Foundation. It includes a raffle and online auction, which started earlier this month, at mrvs2022.ggo.bid. It ended during the live pre-show.

The funds go toward maintaining the church’s legacy, improvements and ministries to help serve the community, fire suppression training, art and music supplies and field trips.

“I’m excited to be back as a community. The show helps fill gaps that need to be met,” McDonell said. “We get to be around people that want to serve the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.

Mya Constantino

Features reporter

Stories can inspire you, make you laugh, cry and sometimes, heal. I love a feature story that can encapsulate all of those things. I cover the interesting people that exist around us, art and music that move us and the hidden gems that make Sonoma County pretty cool. Let's explore those things together.

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