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Uncertain future for Monte Rio's one-screen movie theater

The Rio theater in Monte Rio, Friday, Dec. 28, 2012.

(Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 3:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 7:20 a.m.

The Rio, that funky little mural-covered movie theater in the heart of Monte Rio, limped its way through 2012.

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The Rio theater in Monte Rio, Friday, Dec. 28, 2012.

(Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

But the chances it will survive 2013 seem as remote as its location on banks of the Russian River just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Since 1950, the 240-seat theater in a World War II surplus Quonset hut has made it through all manner of calamities, from foreclosures to floods.

But the cost of switching from 35mm film to new digital projection equipment is proving too steep for owners Suzi and Don Schaffert, who have run the theater since 1993 and are ready to retire.

Without the $55,000 equipment upgrade, the number of first-run movies they can show is quickly dwindling, a dilemma that has the potential to shutter thousands of small movies theaters across the nation.

"Projectionists are history," lamented Don Schaffert. "We're done. We're dinosaurs."

This past weekend, the theater showed "Rise of the Guardians," an animated feature about Jack Frost. The film was perhaps fitting for a theater whose interior temperature hovered around 40 degrees. To save money, the Schafferts no longer use the propane heater, and instead hand out blankets to movie-goers.

The film was released Nov. 21, but Suzi Schaffert couldn't get a 35mm copy delivered before the end of December because studios are phasing them out in favor of digital files.

"It's getting harder and harder to get films," she said last week. "I'm forced to play films that are two to three months old."

Even though the theater is "way out here in the boonies," people who want to see a new movie will still drive to Santa Rosa or Sebastopol instead of waiting months, she said.

When she recently tried to get the sci-fi thriller "Cloud Atlas," which was released to theaters in October, her distributor told her not to hold her breath. The studio had made 1,800 digital copies available for the region, but just two 35 mm prints.

The couple knows the theater needs the upgrade to survive, but just can't afford it themselves.

"We've been here 20 years," Suzi Schaffert said. "We're tired and we're certainly not interested in dumping in another ton of money and going back into debt."

The pair moved to Monte Rio in 1979, and Don Schaffert, a retired firefighter whose family has owned property in town since 1903, began selling hot dogs outside the theater in 1990. They bought the property out of foreclosure, evicted the previous operator and upgraded the aging projection equipment and sound system.

For a while, business was good, especially in summer, when the town's population swelled with vacationers. But several trends have sapped the theater's vitality.

Competition from ever-improving home entertainment systems is a major challenge. Demographic changes also have significantly reduced the number of vacation homes for rent in the remote area each summer. As home prices soared in the mid-2000s, summer cabins got converted to full-time residences, Don Schaffert said.

Unlike vacationers, who enjoy hanging around the downtown theater on warm summer nights, full-time residents, many of whom commute to Santa Rosa and other cities, are more inclined to seek entertainment in inland multiplexes, he said.

A third challenge is the unincorporated area's lack of a sewer system, which is choking the life out of its businesses, many of which have closed or relocated in recent years rather than make septic upgrades required by county officials concerned about the health of the river, Don Schaffert said.

When they bought the theater, they showed films seven days a week. That soon dropped to five, and a few years ago they scaled showings back to just weekends.

Seeking to diversify, they added a cafe and deck onto the rear of the theater about six years ago, which has helped them weather the leaner years. Don cooks burgers and dogs on a grill built into the body of a '46 Ford sedan. Murphy, the couple's chubby chocolate lab, greets customers who hang out by the cafe's space heater beneath a hot dog sign that says "Bite me."

A well-intentioned effort by community groups to raise the money to save the theater stalled. They are now trying to raise money for the upgrade through the fundraising website Kickstarter, modeling theirs on a similar effort to save a historic theater in Tacoma, Wash., called the Blue Mouse.

"We're giving it our last shot. We're trying to see if it can remain a theater, " Suzi Schaffert said.

While they wait to see how that plays out, they've put the theater on the market. They hope to find a buyer interested in preserving the theater, but also know that the property at the intersection of Highway 116 and Bohemian Highway has development potential.

Brian Strong, manager of the nearby Bohemian Grove retreat, swung by the cafe for a hot dog Friday afternoon.

He said it would be a shame to lose a place that's been a part of the fabric of the community for so long.

"There are just not very many places left like this," Strong said.

Contact Staff WriterKevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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