Bring Sebastiani Theatre home

The Sebastiani Theatre belongs to Sonoma.

In the 80 years since winery patriarch Samuele Sebastiani opened his eponymous playhouse on the Plaza, that theater has symbolized the soul of Sonoma. If this town has a cultural nexus, it is that theater. If there is one place in town where more people meet, mix and mingle, it is there.

Thousands of Sonomans have stood on that stage singing their first public song, dancing their first public dance or performing their first magic trick before a live audience.

Thousands more have been that audience, cheering their children and grandchildren, joining a chorus of voices that knits them together into a community, into that proverbial village.

Sebastiani performances have included the Sonoma Ballet Conservatory, the San Francisco Mime Troup, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Performing Arts Camp, Broadway Bound Kids, comedian Will Durst, Norton Buffalo, musician/storyteller John McCutcheon, the Sonoma City Opera, countless Christmas shows, children’s programs and puppeteers.

Roger and Diana Rhoten, who have heroically kept the theater running on a shoestring, have made the stage their home, Diana in the role of her alter ego, Witchie-Poo, Roger as the Magic Man and the consummate master of so many ceremonies.

The theater has even hosted local film premiers, including Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker” (which was shot in Sonoma) and John Lassister’s ground-breaking digital masterpiece, “Toy Story.” And for 17 years, the Sebastiani has been home base for the Sonoma International Film Festival which presented, in one of its more treasured encounters, the unforgettable interview of Lauren Hutton by madcap comedian Robin Williams.

It is the only venue in the Valley with such stature, grace, volume and architectural presence, the only place with a wide cinema screen (showing both first-run and classic movies), a proscenium stage for live performances and a classic snack bar, where every manner of local entertainment can be staged.

It is truly our theater, it is of us, by us and for us.

But we don’t own it.

In 1986, the City of Sonoma had the opportunity to buy the Sebastiani Theatre for $1.35 million when Samuele’s grandson Sam put it on the market. For a variety of complex reasons the deal didn’t happen, an Oakland investment group bought it instead and leased it to the city. Years of conflict and neglect followed, resulting in a lawsuit filed by Roger Rhoten against the owners that was eventually settled in his favor.

Since then, Roger and Diana have kept the theater alive and technically up-to-date, even while a variety of needed structural improvements are delayed because the ownership group has been reluctant to make the investment.

April 7 marked the 80th anniversary of the theater’s opening, and there will be a gala celebration of that milestone on Saturday night. We hope it fills the Sebastiani to capacity, and we hope it inspires all who attend to voice their support for a plan to purchase the theater outright.

It belongs to Sonoma, ownership should return to Sonoma, and the price of that ownership won’t be cheap.

But we would rank the Sebastiani Theatre on the same level as a community swimming pool, and just a notch below our schools and our healthcare services, as one of Sonoma’s top priorities.