Rio Theater, landmark along lower Russian River, up for sale again
The landmark Rio Theater, an iconic community hub in western Sonoma County for ?70 years, is back on the market after a 6-year experiment in collective ownership that succeeded in keeping the lower Russian River region’s only cinema operational - until last year’s flood drove home what key partners already knew.
With full-time jobs in the Bay Area and growing young families, there just wasn’t enough time, money and energy to fulfill their vision for the property, especially after on-site managers intended to oversee day-to-day operations didn’t work out, a representative for the consortium said.
But the group of 27 investors, which bought the 1.25-acre site for $599,000 in late 2013, hasn’t lost faith in its potential as an indoor-outdoor community event space, said co-owner Maura Dilley, a San Francisco-based green business consultant.
“I genuinely think this is a crown-jewel business that can serve the community and be viable and be dynamic in this day and age,” said Dilley, who with her husband, General Manager Dermot Hikisch, are principal investors.
Sale of the theater property, located in the heart of Monte Rio, could prove transformative, depending if future owners decide to keep the movie house, pursue the vision of its current owners, or raze the building and do something wholly different.
The site is zoned for recreation and tourist-commercial development, which allows a wide range of uses - from day care to telecommunication facilities, food service to hay cultivation.
“It gives you a lot of opportunities,” said Jeff Sacher, one of two listing agents with Santa Rosa Business & Commercial. The property is listed for $895,000.
A number of potential buyers have made inquiries, Sacher’s partner, Michele Habeeb, said by phone on the way to a showing.
“There’s interest,” she said.
Located in a converted World War II surplus Quonset hut above a public river beach at a busy rural crossroads, the ?167-seat, single-screen theater has long been woven into the fabric of Monte Rio and the lower river communities more broadly.
Generations of west county residents have bundled up in blankets to stay warm in the cool, cavernous space or heard the plinking sound of rain on the corrugated metal roof during movie screenings. Inexpensive family movies have long been part of community nights out, along with discounted meals at participating restaurants.
The building’s unusual semi-circular profile has lent itself to funky design features that include a faded landscape painted on the exterior. The curved ceiling is lined with fabric panels from Christo’s “Running Fence,” a famed 1976 art installation that stretched across nearly 25 miles of rural Marin and Sonoma counties.
But a string of owners has been challenged to keep the theater going throughout most of its history, through forays into live theater, the shifting seasonality of a micro economy and changes in consumer media consumption.
Twenty-year owners Don and Suzi Schaffert were nearly forced to draw the curtains in 2013 because they didn’t have the $55,000 they needed for a new digital projector. They had reached a point where it was nearly impossible to obtain first-run movies in the 35mm format they needed for their equipment.
Community members pooled funds through a Kickstarter campaign pushed over the threshold by actor Zach Braff. The fundraiser allowed the Schafferts to soldier on and make a few minor improvements, in addition to purchasing the new projector, while seeking a buyer who wanted to keep the theater viable.
Enter Colin Mutchler and Christy George, who have a weekend place in neighboring Villa Grande and took part in the Kickstarter campaign, Dilley said. They began talking to friends and friends of friends, and soon a group of people had come together to buy the place, taking on decades of deferred maintenance but also a kind of blank canvas on which they hoped to create something new and innovative, showing off the site’s open lawn and sweeping forest views, its proximity to river recreation and the unusual theater space.
“It’s too narrow to look at this opportunity as just for the cinephile,” Dilley said. “Selling movie tickets is not going to bring in enough money. But what is interesting is using the space all day long and for different applications, different purposes.”
The plan was an ambitious one: buy a “fixer upper,” do much of the physical labor themselves, and have staff to run the theater and manage the property for special events - from weddings to public occasions like the mostly annual Pongapalooza ping pong tournament.