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Rio Theater owners optimistic about its Kickstarter campaign helping it stay alive

Monday, February 4th, 2013 | Posted by

Rio theater: Kickin’ the blues

The Rio Theater’s Kickstarter campaign is within a few weeks of being launched, and now that the marquee has let people know their support is important, Don and Suzi Schaffert are holding more hope the fund-raising effort will succeed and the equipment upgrades needed to continue providing a “neighborhood” theater which can play the latest flicks will be forthcoming. More information, details and how to help the Rio follow.

The Rio is a relic,  an icon  and  a community meeting place, but most of all it’s the town’s most recognizable landmark. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, New York its Empire State Building, but neither of them hand out blankets to keep out the evening chill,  nor can you count on sitting next to people you’ve known for years.

Monte Rio’s beloved theater came to life at the hand of merchant Sid Bartlett, who started putting it together in 1949 and completed it a year later. Over the past 62 years the mural-covered Quonset Hut-cum-art gallery has undergone many transitions.

Last year, the big film studios announced that by the end of 2013 they would no longer release 35mm celluloid, which means that all theaters must convert to digital projection equipment if they haven’t already done so. Because the nation’s small, independent theaters are unable to come up with the $50,000 that conversion will cost, many face extinction. The National Association of Theater Owners recently estimated that up to 20% of theaters across North America, representing up to 10,000 screens, may be forced to close.

Mike Hurley, who owns two small theaters in Maine, wrote on the website BigScreendBiz, “I think of the millions of dreams and careers that have taken flight in a movie theater….People want to live where there are theaters. For the same reason that every successful city center, mall and downtown works to attract and keep a movie theater, small towns all over the world stand to lose a foundation that has kept them connected to the world. I believe the loss is unacceptable.”

Don Schaffert’s grandma in 1930 poster and River View on Rio interior wall.

Don and Suzi Schaffert bought the theater in January, 1993, and before they discovered people wanted them to keep the Rio functioning, were looking forward to retirement, weary of putting in seven days a week into the theater and the adjacent Don’s Dogs  cafe (disguised as a ’46 Ford). They believed it was likely their destiny to close the Rio. But not anymore.

Not long after they learned about the impending change, they heard  friends and River residents speaking about the importance of a local movie house. It was their movie house and besides, no one wanted to spend $8 for gas for a round trip to Santa Rosa.

They acknowledged the many local boards and committees the Schafferts have  served on, recalling the people the Schafferts found jobs for over the years and their propensity for helping out local youth.

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

Rio Theater

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

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

Since this was originally posted, Kickstarter has been contacted and a tentative launch date of February 28 is projected. But the more prepared the Rio team becomes, the more they learn needs to be done, so it might be somewhat (but not much more) later. The amount of time in which the goal must be realized will more likely be 49 days but at this time, that’s not written in stone. Incentives for contributing will also be offered and very likely they will be along the order of four admissions for those who contribute $25 to the Rio’s Kickstarter campaign.

There are also discussions about other incentives such as Rio T shirts and sweat shirts, and possibly small pieces of that internationally famous work of art that is draped over the Rio’s ceiling. For those who wish to contribute before the launch date, they may send their check to “Rio Theater, P.O. Box “F,” Villa Grande, CA 95486.  If the monetary goal established in the Kickstarter campaign is not reached, contributions will be returned to those who have sent them.

Don and Suzi Schaffert with Murphy Brown

If the Schafferts end up with more money than is necessary to cover the required equipment, their wish list includes an updated heating system and  rehabilitating and upgrading the  neon out front. Watch for updates on their campaign, or get involved by contacting Suzi Schaffert at 865-4190 or by email at suzis@sonic.net.


Recently, a theater in Tacoma called The Blue Mouse faced a similar financial situation, and with the help of Kickstarter, was able to reach its goal. The Blue Mouse dates back to 1922 and of course the Tacoma-Olympia area has a much larger population than that which lies between  Jenner and Forestville.

About Quonset Huts,  the Rio’s History and its Ghosts

In 1941 the United States Navy  needed an all-purpose, lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere and assembled without skilled labor. The first one was produced within 60 days of being awarded the contract,  by the George A. Fuller construction company. A lightweight prefab structure of corrugated galvanized steel having a semicircular cross section, the name comes from their site of first manufacture, Quonset Point in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Between 150,000 and 170,000 Quonset huts were manufactured during W.W. II, and after the war, the surplus huts (most commonly  20 ft × 48 ft) were sold to the public.

Now Playing in 1950
The Inspector General (1949), starring Danny Kaye, Barbara Bates and Walter Slezak
A Dangerous Profession (1949), starring George Raft, Ella Raines and Pat O’Brian

Bartlett eventually sold the Quonset to Thomas Dean who was a good friend of Bulgarian-born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, who with his wife, Moroccan Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, created environmental works of art including The Covering of Berlin’s Reichstag and overcoming red tape and obstacles-a-plenty to erect their 24.5 mile long, 18 foot high  Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties, which was completed on September 10, 1976.
Dean secured the largest extant piece of the widely 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 called Mandelbrot and when Don and Suzi Schaffert bought the theater in January 1993, the Christos’ installation, the largest intact and continuous section of the fence in the world,  remained a part of it.
So not only is the Rio a theater but perhaps the lower River’s most richly endowed museum, as well.

As Suzi tells it, the sellers were three people named Mandelbrot, two men and a woman,  and when she and Don purchased it, the Mandelbrots requested the money be divided equally and asked for three checks. The Schafferts were happy to comply but after dividing it, there was an extra penny, so rather than decide which of them got the penny, the buyers decided to ask for one check.

The theater had been operated by a mid-west transplant who had migrated West decades ago and the Schafferts planned to pull out the foundation of a skating rink which existed out back, put in a miniature golf course, and let the operator continue to run the theater.  They discovered the operator  had a friend living in the theater who was engaged in illicit activities for which. the Schafferts believed, if the “friend” got caught,  they would be libel, and they demanded he move out.

Rio’s interior ceiling draped with Cristo’s Fence

Angered by this demand, he operator and his friend crimped a propane line s tole projectors and equipment  and replaced it with outdated junk, spray-painted the screen   and secured the electrical panel  to metal outside which resulted in an explosion which, Suzi Schaffert says, “blew her across the room.”
Needing to make repairs and equipment and not knowing where to start, Don found a Union City equipment supplier in the phone book named Jerry Harrah who was remarkably helpful. Six months down the road, the Schafferts replaced what they needed to reopen the theater, which they did  with “The Sandlot” as a benefit for area seniors.  The film itself broke fourteen times that day but the Schafferts managed to get through the theater’s reopening.
There were still countless little  chores to be done so the Schafferts asked the many neighborhood kids who had been hanging around if they wanted to trade doing a few chores for a movie, a hot dog and a soda.

Christo’s 24.5-mile Running Fence

Someone turned the Schafferts in for  trading with the kids and the judge hit them with a $4k fine. But parents and locals spoke up on the Schafferts’ behalf, saying they were giving idle, bored kids something useful to do as well as providing them with something enjoyable to do in return. After hearing so much vocal support from the community, the judge cut the fine in half.

Several of the kids swear the old theater is haunted and Suzi has had encounters with “ghosts” herself.

On a few occasions kids reported hearing footsteps descending the stairs from the upstairs loge.  Suzi speaks of a Lady Ghost who “hangs around the vestibule” and turns lights on and off, especially when Suzi is in the restroom. Another youth reported he felt an arm reach through a curtain, tap him on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me.”

The Rio’s 240 seats came from a Petaluma theater which was being renovated and since there were 90 additional seats, the Schafferts gave them to Michael Tabib, who installed them in Curtain Call Theater across Highway 116.

The entire ceiling is draped in Christo’s fence which is somewhat soiled, pictures drawn by kids adorn many of the upstairs walls and the seat-level walls are covered with historical paintings which rival the WPA-financed murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower. There are landscapes, trains and a painting of Don Schaffert’s grandmom “pole dancing” in 1922.

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

Suzi Schaffert and one of two Christie projectors

The original projectors used carbon arc welding rods to produce light and  the Schafferts replaced them with  two 35 mm 70’s-era Christie projectors. They installed a dozen speakers and have surround sound and according to Don Schaffert,  when “Jurrasic Park” came to Monte Rio they had to spend $10K on a big woofer system.

Suzi Schaffert says the theater and the property, with its 1.26 acres, its two businesses and its four rental properties, is up for sale. If she gets the money for equipment, a second option is leasing it and letting someone else put in the hours. A third option is closing it as a theater and doing something else with it.

Asked if she ever sold out the 240 seats, she said she did — twice. And therein lies another tale:

The sell-outs were successive screenings of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,”  written and directed by Harry Shearer and made in 2002. It seems, says Suzi, Shearer who is a Democrat attended a Grove encampment and spent time in a camp with a few Republican Party V.I.P.s which prompted him to make a film covering an encampment at “Zambezi Glen.”
The film starts out with the first-ever women’s day at the Glen, where wives and girlfriends of Zambezi members are invited to visit the Glen ahead of the annual encampment — which also serves to introduce the Glen where they practice a ritual called “The Assassination of Time” with the Glen’s iconic ‘Pelican’ (replacing the Grove’s owl) overseeing the ceremony —  which features  an all-male chorus line in drag, a forest fire and an overturned booze truck which blocks the only way out

The Grove encampment was in progress when the Rio showed the very limited-release film which sold out both nights.
Schaffert says if they do manage to get the new equipment, the first year they will  start out with DVDs. She explains the reason the Rio waits a few weeks after movies debut before ordering them, is because the studios charge for a newly-released film,  90 percent of revenue taken the first week the film is available. The studios also require guaranteed minimums from the multiplexes.

In a couple of years, says Suzi, the industry will convert to satellite-generated movies where every theater gets a theater code, puts in its order and the satellite programs which movie is to be played, what the starting time is, when it will be shown and which door the former projectionist should make his exit from.  That’s the future of the film industry but for now, with the help of Kickstarter and a few appreciative movie fans,  the Schafferts will try to buy into the 21st century and keep River movie fans from having to shell out gas money for a 50-mile round trip.

More info about the campaign’s progress and the Rio at: www.riotheater.com

  • Teri Foster

    That was a wonderful story on the Rio, Stephen! There are some
    crabby people in Monte Rio who don’t care about the theater and
    I’m so glad you provided the history and all the good work Suzi &
    Don have done. Please continue to cover “The River”. We need your spotlight on so many issues!

  • http://www.pillowish.com kristin thurman

    Well that’s a lot of information about the theatre that I didn’t know!! What a fun article. I’m excited about the Kickstarter program and will definitely do everything I can to support it. We can make that program go “viral” with a little help. Thanks for this article, Stephen. It will help I’m sure, to keep the Rio alive and vital. Thanks to Don and Suzy for everything they’ve done over there on that corner. I hope they stick around for a long time.

  • Rita Conway

    Thanks for doing just an informational article on our community theatre……Suzi and Don are a huge part of our little Town…I will also do what I can to support our little treasure.

    • Stephen Gross

      Thank YOU! It would be great if we could get enough support to keep our little Indie theater going.

  • Bruce Schmidt

    Thank you for an informative article. I hope that many people of Monte Rio read it, and then when the pessimistic negative folks try to start gossip, others will point to the information here. Don and Suzi have been working hard to create a heart for Monte Rio, while others seem to be dedicated to putting a dagger in it… I hope Don and Suzi prosper and prevail! I will do what I can in my meager way to contribute.

  • Valerie Munthe

    Very compelling story. I had no idea that Cristos’ running fence dangled high above my head all these years! I do hope that it can remain a theater and that the community can pull together to make it happen. I’ll certainly be looking forward to toasty winter nights at the Rio.

  • http://riotheater.com Suzi Schaffert

    Thank you all for these wonderful comments of support, it means so much to us! Thank you Stephen for the beautiful article and all your time, energy, help and support! Huge thanks also to Sherry, Tia, Lucia, and Zelda for all your hard work in our effort to save the Rio!

  • Marsha Maston

    Don and Suzi…
    I will forever hold each of you, and The Rio Theater, close to my heart…. Your happy smiling faces and so many wonderful moivies both were such a blessing as I journeyed through breast cancer several years ago… Thank you and blessings! SAVE THE RIO….. PEACE

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  • http://Facebook BradPipal

    THe E.P.A. has requirements for Sonoma County. Stated earlier was The Russian River is located too close for high water winter months and leeche’ release into the River. Off set from the RIver and on “do-able” site, is the future with the Federal Government.

  • Bil Young

    An institution worth saving. Thanks, Stephen for a great article.

  • http://olriverrat.com Gene Whited

    WOW! Great story with lots of neat tidbits of the Rios history. I remember seeing a screening of the movie, Cliffhanger, with Sylvester Stallone. It was during the colder time of year and I remember remarking to Don after the movie,” That movie was great, the sound was just like you we’re there, the photography felt you were right there and the theater was sooo cold you would swear you were there!” It was filmed in a snow covered area. Love this gem of a theater and those noble folks, Don and Suzie. Will support the Kickstart in any way I can. Thanks for your usual “top drawer” writing. Gene Whited aka the OlRiverRat from Caz

  • http://Facebook BradPipal

    The article fails to state if any plumbing and community sewer system will take place for services. This health issue about community Russian River and the A. C. Of E. biologist operated river and fish hatchery. That has shut down many business due to non-compliance with Sonoma County building regulations, State of Ca., and Federal Laws from alongside of the Russian River to many tributaries for mile after mile in the Green Valley Creek Area, Dry Creek Area, Mill Creek Area, Cazadero Creek, Mark West Springs Creek Watershed, Porter Creek, The Laguna, etc.

  • jlh

    first went to the theatre in 1968

  • Stephen Gross

    Do you remember what movie you saw?

  • Kayte G.

    I LOVE the Rio, have been going there my entire life. Thanks for the great story Stephen!

  • http://rrgetaways.com Russian River Getaways

    Stephen, you are such a trooper and always get the story right! Thanks from all of us and I will be posting and sharing all that you do. As you are the force behind the storms of our little towns on the river. Keep up the great work!

  • http://www.jimoceanmusic.com Kathy Ocean

    Thanks for a wonderful and informative article. Long live the Rio!

  • http://carolynd95421@yahoo.com carolyn davenport

    It is Austin creek not cazadero creek

  • http://carolynd95421@yahoo.com carolyn davenport

    This is the best little theatre . If not for Don and suzi this town would not exist . It is the hub of our little town .if we lose the Rio the town loses a lot . I hope everyone supports the Rio . And @ brad p . We are talking about the Rio not the sewer system . Have you ever been to the Rio ? Also it is Austin creek not cazadero creek .

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  • http://standstrongfence.com/fence-company-humble-tx/ fence install bellaire

    How should my neighbors and I split up the price of replacing the houston fence in the back yard?

    • Stephen Gross

      Fairly and considerately.

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