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Campaign to save the Rio Theater

Friday, February 8th, 2013 | Posted by

Don Schaffert and his Rio Theater. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

By STEPHEN D. GROSS / Guerneville Correspondent

The Rio Theater is a relic, an icon and a community meeting place, but most of all it’s Monte Rio’s most recognizable landmark.

Yet because the big film studios will stop releasing 33mm celluloid films at the end of 2012, Monte Rio’s beloved theater may be forced to close. Converting to digital projection equipment will cost $50,000, more than many small, independent theaters can hope to raise.

The National Association of Theater Owners recently estimated that up to 20 percent of all theaters across North America, representing up to 10,000 screens, may be forced to close.

Don and Suzi Schaffert have owned the theater since January, 1993, as well as the adjacent cafe, Don’s Dogs (disguised as a ‘46 Ford). Looking forward to retirement and weary of putting in seven days a week, they believed it was likely their destiny to close the Rio.

But not long after they learned about the upcoming deadline, friends and River residents began to rally around the movie house. They acknowledged the many local boards and committees the Schafferts have served on, the people they have employed over the years and their propensity for helping local youth.

The Schafferts were neighbors, people agreed, and no one wanted to drive 25 miles each way to see a movie. More and more stepped forward to offer support.

Now the newly encouraged Schafferts have put a website together and, with the help of an online funding platform called Kickstarter, are attempting to raise enough cash to keep the Rio alive.

Don Schaffert unlocks the Rio Theater’s front door.

Kickstarter requires that a specific monetary goal be set and attained within a finite period of time (they suggest 38 days). Within a few weeks, the Schafferts will launch the Kickstarter campaign with mailings, events, community outreach and enticements their patrons won’t be able to refuse.

If the Schafferts end up with more than enough money to cover the required equipment, their wish list includes an updated heating system and more exciting and alluring neon out front.

Over the past 62 years the mural-covered Quonset Hut-cum-art gallery has undergone many transitions. Named for Quonset Point in North Kingstown, R.I., the town in which they were built, the World War II corrugated, galvanized steel semicircles were sold as surplus after the war ended.

Monte Rio merchant Sid Bartlett started putting his together in 1949 and completed the theater a year later. He later sold it to Thomas Dean, a good friend of Bulgarian-born Christo, who with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, created environmental works of art including the 24.5 mile long, 18 foot high Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Dean secured the largest extant piece of the celebrated Running Fence and used it to drape the theater’s ceiling.

The Rio went into foreclosure in 1984 and was purchased by an Israeli family named Mandelbrot, and when the Schafferts bought the theater in January, 1993, the section of Cristos fence came with it.

So not only is the Rio a theater, it also may be the lower River’s most richly endowed museum.

The theater had been operated by a Midwest transplant who the Schafferts planned to let run the theater. Then they discovered a friend living in the theater who was engaged in illicit activities.

Angered by their demand to move out, the operator and his friend stole projectors and equipment, spray-painted the screen and caused an explosion that, Suzi Schaffert says, “blew her across the room.”

Digital audio strip is embedded into a 35mmtest reel at the Rio Theater.

Six months later the couple was able to reopen the theater with “The Sandlot,” a 1993 comedy about a group of young baseball players. The film broke 14 times that day.

The Rio’s 240 seats came from a Petaluma theater that was being renovated, with 90 seats left over for Michael Tabib, who installed them in Curtain Call Theater across Highway 116. They’ve sold out all 240 seats only twice, for successive screenings of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” a comedy by Harry Shearer that was a thinly-veiled reference to the BohemianGrove.

The theater’s heat comes out of a loft-level duct and rises straight to the ceiling. That results in huge utility bills and very little heat, so the Schafferts hand out blankets.

Suzi Schaffert says the theater and 1.26 acres of surrounding property are up for sale. If they get the new equipment, it will tide them over for a few years until the industry converts to satellite-generated movies, she says. Then every theater will get a theater code and put in its order. The satellite will program which movie plays when, and through which door the former projectionist should make his exit.

For updates, contact Suzi Schaffert at 865-4190 or visit riotheater.com.


  • with held by request

    how come your article did not mention that Don Schaffert has just purchased a house to turn into a vacation rental property, if they cannot afford to upgrade their business and wont donations from the community how can they afford to purchased and refurbish a vacation rental

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Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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