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Film family builds legacy with theaters

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For more than a century, watching motion pictures in theaters has been a fun and memorable entertainment experience. Nearly everyone has a favorite memory of going to the movies and not only remembering the name of the movie and who they watched it with, but also recalling the name of the theater they attended. But how many have ever given a thought to the people who operate the theaters that make the big screen experience so rewarding?

It may come as a surprise to some that one family, the Tocchinis, have been in the forefront of Sonoma County theater ownership for more than 92 years, ever since the silent movie era. While many movie lovers know the Tocchini family through its Santa Rosa Entertainment Group and as the owners of the Roxy, Airport Stadium, Summerfield Cinema and other theaters, some may not remember when Dan Tocchini ran the State Theater (now the Mystic Theatre), Showcase Theater (the Phoenix Theater) and the Parkway Drive-In (Petaluma Golf Center) in Petaluma.

Dan Tocchini was the sixth child and only son of Daniel and Maria Tocchini, Italian immigrants who lived in San Francisco before moving to Santa Rosa’s Little Italy neighborhood in the early 1920s, where they operated a small grocery store.

Daniel Tocchini started out with a nickelodeon in 1924 and later was the organ accompanist to silent movies, which were the dominant screen language for years before sound film arrived in 1927. By 1930, virtually every film was a talkie. As the owner of the only sound theater in Santa Rosa, the Rose, his ticket sales rocketed from $15 a week during silent films to $2,500 a week when sound came out. A one-time owner of four of Santa Rosa’s five theaters, Tocchini sold them and bought the El Rey in Sebastopol before building the Analy Theater in the 1950s.

Soon after his discharge from the Air Force, 1952 Santa Rosa High School graduate Dan Tocchini was given the choice between running the Analy Theater or the State Theater in Petaluma, which his father had purchased from Philip Zenovich. Initially, Dan chose the Analy, but a year later, in 1957, he switched to the 750-seat State Theater in Petaluma’s McNear Building.

During an era when major studios were prolifically releasing new movies in large volume, Tocchini operated by a theater industry formula in which the marquee and the movies were changed twice a week and theaters and every showing included previews of coming attractions, a newsreel, a cartoon, a B-movie and the feature. In the late 1960s that changed to three times a week, with Sunday, Monday and Tuesday usually featuring musicals, Wednesday and Thursday running B-movies, and Friday and Saturday showing Westerns.

Vic Fauser, who later became a Petaluma insurance man, was hired for security, a role Fauser fervently embraced by diligently patrolling the aisle and shining his flashlight in the eyes of talkative teens and those whose feet were on the seats. Tocchini also hired teenager Ron Brott to run the carbon-arc projectors and become Tocchini’s right-hand man for many years. High school students worked the ticket booth and the candy counter. He opened the newly-built Parkway Drive-In in August 1958, and it became an instant success. Unlike other drive-in theaters, the Parkway remained open in the wintertime, at least until it rained heavily and turned the flood-prone property into a lake.

Tocchini sold both theaters in 1968 and briefly became a salesman for Pitney-Bowes, for a short time before buying the foundering Cal Theater for $60,000 and changing its name to the Showcase. He also owned Players, a Petaluma nightclub and was instrumental in building the Dan-Mar Apartments at 1200 D St.

Tocchini has helped many people get into the theater business, including Petaluma Cinema’s owner Dave Corkill. He’s built or remodeled dozens of theaters throughout the state and administrates and buys film for more than 300 screens.

“We’re not a big company, but we’re a local company,” Tocchini said of his 350-employee enterprise.

Tocchini’s favorite movies of all-time are the original “Magnificent Seven” and “The Godfather” and his biggest box-office blockbusters were “Titanic” and “Avatar.” Asked if anything posed a challenge to the movie industry the way television, cable-TV and DVDs have in the past, Tocchini said, “It’s still an exciting experience to go out for a movie and we’re striving to make it even better. The way I look at it is, there’s a kitchen in every house, but people still go out to eat.”

(Harlan Osborne’s column Toolin’ Around Town appears every two weeks. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net.)

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