Couple breathes new life into Monte Rio movie theater – Santa Rosa Press Democrat Leave a comment

What: The Truffle Hunters Film and Wine Tour, with a screening of the award-winning “The Truffle Hunters” documentary, paired with wine-and-cheese tastings and demonstrations by local truffle hunting dogs
When: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21; Saturday, Nov. 27; and Sunday, Nov. 28
Where: Monte Rio Theater and Extravaganza, 20396 Bohemian Highway, Monte Rio
Tickets: $40
Info: monteriotheater.com
Bonus: The new owners have launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the ongoing renovation of the theater at wefunder.com/monte.rio.theater.and.extravaganza
Standing next to the 72-year-old Quonset hut of a movie theater they purchased in Monte Rio, Kim and David Lockhart can’t help but dream. There’s the new paint job. Live music on the lawn in the summer. Floating film festivals down the Russian River. Maybe a tribute to Burt Reynolds or a screening of “Gimme Shelter.” They want to make cafe tables out of the giant film reels or “platters” still stacked in the projection booth even though the leap to digital happened nearly a decade ago.
They bought a fixer-upper for sure. But there’s also a sense that they bought a time machine.
“When people say, ‘Relax, go to your happy place,’ I go straight to the Russian River as a kid,” David Lockhart says.
After he spent the past 16 years in Southern California, it’s a chance to return to the scene of so many Kodachrome moments, countless Polaroids and VHS scenes he filmed along the river. Growing up in Piedmont, he remembers endless summers spent at the family cabin in Odd Fellows Park a few miles up river in Guerneville. It’s where he played Underdog as a 3-year-old, changing into his superhero costume in the payphone booth near the general store. He saw “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at the Rio Theater. Seven years ago, Kim surprised him with “Happy Birthday Dave Lockhart” on the marquee.
So it made sense, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, that he and Kim and their 8-year-old son Jack would flee Santa Monica for the family cabin. While weeks turned into months, they fell in love with the community and started looking to put down roots.
One day in June 2020, while driving around, they saw the theater was for sale and eventually put in an offer. At the time, it was listed for $895,000. It was totally impulsive, they both admit. But as huge film buffs, they’ve spent their lives dreaming big, mostly in Southern California, where Kim works in marketing at Sony Pictures and David’s an indie filmmaker (work in progress: “Rock n Roll Zombie Apocalypse”) and lead vocalist in a Doors cover band and the Stereoblasters, a band he formed in the early 2000s while living in San Francisco after graduating from Chico State, where he met Kim.
It didn’t matter that it’s probably the only theater you can buy that comes with its own hanging rack of blankets — used by generations of locals willing to brave the temperatures in the theater with a subpar heating system. Even the handwritten flood markers by the entrance, documenting epic high-water levels over the years, didn’t deter them. Nor did the dingy gray fabric hanging from the rafters that Kim soon discovered was a remnant of Christo’s 1976 “Running Fence” art installation that once shined bright white while spanning the hills of Sonoma and Marin counties. As she learned more about the perseverance of the controversial Bulgarian-born artist, his words inspired her and “kept me going through the pandemic.” She finds Christo’s quote “You are all part of the art” a fitting reminder for their latest journey.
When the Lockharts discovered they were edged out by another bidder, who planned to turn the theater into office space, they kept their offer on the table and moved onto other properties, eventually buying River’s Edge Kayaks and Canoes in Healdsburg, where they now rent a house and Jack goes to elementary school.
But when they learned in August 2020 that the other deal fell through and the theater was still available, they quickly rallied support to try to make it happen. Calling in a favor from a veteran actor who goes back to his parents’ generation, David drove Ed Asner from Los Angeles to Monte Rio one weekend to film a short promo video at the theater to try to raise funds and interest from potential partners. The two had met while acting in the play, “Plays in the Park,” before the filming of the 2021 mockumentary “Senior Entourage,” starring Asner, Helen Reedy and Mark Rydell — a film Lockhart produced.
“When we heard it might be turned into a parking lot, that was the final straw,” David says. “That’s when we said, ‘We gotta get Ed Asner up here. We gotta stop this thing.’”
Eventually, they formed a team of investors to raise the money. By then, the price had come down to around $650,000, slightly more than the $599,000 the previous owners paid in 2013.
In addition to the Lockharts, the new team of owners, who meet on Zoom at 3 p.m. every Tuesday, includes Paul DuBray, a Vermont native and former rodeo champion who owns the Rio Cafe & Grill across the street; Dan Jahns, a film financier who moved from Pacific Palisades to Monte Rio and helped raise financing for Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” Ron Howard’s “Rush” and Syfy Channel’s “Wynonna Earp;” and Bryan Gallinger, who works in marketing and events in Los Angeles.
What: The Truffle Hunters Film and Wine Tour, with a screening of the award-winning “The Truffle Hunters” documentary, paired with wine-and-cheese tastings and demonstrations by local truffle hunting dogs
When: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21; Saturday, Nov. 27; and Sunday, Nov. 28
Where: Monte Rio Theater and Extravaganza, 20396 Bohemian Highway, Monte Rio
Tickets: $40
Info: monteriotheater.com
Bonus: The new owners have launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the ongoing renovation of the theater at wefunder.com/monte.rio.theater.and.extravaganza
After rebranding the space the “Monte Rio Theater and Extravaganza,” they know the real challenges lie ahead. Just because the Lockharts work in the film industry doesn’t mean they know how to run a movie theater — a tough business any time, much less during a pandemic when not everyone is comfortable sitting in a room with strangers.
Starting from scratch, Kim actually has typed, “How do you license a film?” into a Google search. If the community was suspicious of Southern California transplants buying a local landmark, the Lockharts passed their first test. After opening their doors on what was the only rainy day in September, a couple approached them that morning to see if they could stage an impromptu emergency wedding in front of the theater. The Lockharts put their names up on the marquee and by 4 p.m. they were married.
“It was such a beautiful thing,” Kim Lockhart says. “I was really worried about how we would connect with people. I really wanted them to know that we cared.” Talking with DuBray, who has lived in Monte Rio since 2013, she learned, “If you just open the doors, people will come and tell you how they feel.”
Keeping the community in the loop, they’ve also created a new crowdfunding campaign so locals can help support the theater, especially during slow winter months, and help pay for ongoing renovations.
“I always go back to that stone soup fable where everybody adds their own thing to the mix,” David Lockhart says. “I feel like if you can be the spark that gets it started, you can create something cool, with the community rallying around it and each person adds their own flavor and support.”
That same spirit of community was on full display when Sid Bartlett, owner of Bartlett’s Store in Monte Rio, opened the Rio Theater in the summer of 1949. The first movie to light up the screen was “Northwest Passage,” starring Spencer Tracy and Walter Brennan.
“Just about everyone in Monte Rio who had a contractor’s license worked on it: electrical, plumbing, concrete, flooring,” wrote historian John Schubert in a Russian River Historical Society newsletter.
Over the decades, the oft-repeated story was that the Quonset hut was World War II surplus purchased from the U.S. Navy. But Schubert says Bartlett bought the structure from Great Lakes Steel Corporation and had it assembled by a local contractor. Bartlett worked the projection booth (outfitted with an adjoining bathroom so he wouldn’t miss changing film reels throughout the movie). His wife Bessie took tickets and his son Al popped corn and worked the concession counter.
Born the same year the theater opened, retired San Francisco firefighter Mike Murphy, 72, spent all his summers and half his life in Monte Rio. He remembers seeing classics like “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, in the 50s and “The Long Ships,” with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark, in the 60s, along with a “ton of cowboy movies and all those beach party and surf movies.”
Back then, the Redwood Bowl skating rink and the Keyhole Cafe was to the right of the theater (it burned down in 1973), where the grass lawn is now. And Ramona’s hot dogs was behind the theater.
“I’ve seen movies there with nearly everyone in my family, from my grandparents on down the line,” Murphy says. “I can’t wait for them to get it open again so I can go see movies with my two great-grandchildren.”
In the 1970s, then-Rio owner Thomas Dean was good friends with artist Christo and acquired a piece of the “Running Fence” fabric after the installation ended its two-week run. When Don and Suzie Schaffert bought the theater in 1992, they opened Don’s Dogs Cafe on the back deck.
Initially screening movies seven days a week, the Schafferts eventually dialed it back to five days a week. By 2010, movies only showed on weekends. Aside from reviving a community gathering spot, their lasting contribution was to help launch a $65,000 crowdfunding campaign (capped off with a last-minute donation from actor Zach Braff) to make the conversion from film to digital when studios quit sending out film reels.
In 2013, the Schafferts sold the theater and its surrounding 1.25-acre property to a group of 27 Bay Area investors who tried to reinvent the space with annual Pongapalooza pingpong tournaments, a film festival called “The Book was Better” and occasional corporate retreats. Along the way, a scene from the James Franco film “The Fixer” was filmed in the Rio. But, eventually, members of the community grew disenchanted, complaining the theater was rarely open.
Less than a year after the 2019 floods breached the door and filled the theater, it was up for sale again.
“They went great guns for awhile, but then things slacked off and they stopped showing movies all together,” Murphy says. “It just turned into a vacant building on the corner. When Don and Suzie owned it, we used to call it ‘The Town Council’ and we’d all meet for coffee almost every day out in the back.”
The first screening last month at the newly christened Monte Rio Theater and Extravaganza was a double-bill with “Senior Entourage” and the Pixar animated film “Up” celebrating Ed Asner Day, an homage to the late actor who died in August. It was followed by “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Oct. 30, reviving a local Halloween tradition.
“I want to bring movies to life,” says Kim Lockhart, who grew up loving “rock ’n’ roll movies” in Sacramento. She managed a singer-songwriter in New York and once worked for Madonna’s manager. Now, she’s taking a sabbatical from Sony Pictures while working to reopen the new theater.
Knowing they’ll never be able to survive as a 170-seat, single-screen theater that shows daily first-run films, the new owners also want to reestablish the Rio as a communal space for people who might want to put on a play or stage a concert or hold a Christmas party.
The Lockharts also plan to produce experiential, themed events to complement movie screenings. Starting Sunday, Nov. 21, they’re offering wine-and-cheese tastings and local truffle dog demonstrations before showings of the magical Italian documentary “The Truffle Hunters.”
For David, it’s a new way to bring movies to life, after decades of doggedly pursuing low-budget filmmaking, often rallying friends, fellow actors and industry contacts while cobbling together funding partially raised from family and friends. In a 2014 Los Angeles Times story about the challenges of independent filmmaking on the outskirts of Hollywood, he explained how “low-budget filmmaking is about community and sharing your talents with others within that community.” That same sense of community is the reason he founded the Los Angeles nonprofit Artistspalooza, to give creative minds a space to show their work.
But with the new theater taking up most of his time these days, Lockhart is somewhat relieved to no longer be caught up in the Los Angeles hustle, even though they still rent an apartment in Santa Monica.
“You get into a zone where you think, ‘I have to be in Hollywood and I have to make movies,’” he says. “And it took COVID to make me realize that I really just like going to get ice cream across the street with my son. I still want to do projects, but I don’t feel like I need to do it anymore.”
But don’t let him fool you. He’s already envisioning a scene unfolding at the Monte Rio theater for his ongoing “Lockhart” film trilogy (starting with “Lockhart: Releasing the Talisman” in 2016).
The trilogy follows a character with the last name Lockhart who finds an ancient healing stone buried beneath the ninth hole of his grandfather’s old golf course (hint: David’s grandfather was a golf pro at a San Joaquin Valley course in the 1930s). It leads him on a quest to save the world from an evil cabal while tracing his lineage back to relatives who lived during the reign of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland during the Crusades.
“In my fictional mind, I come here to the theater and I meet a guy who’s telling me all these stories” that take shape in previously shot footage, he says, like memories flashing across the screen. The way he describes it, it’s almost like traveling back in a time machine.
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