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Sebastiani Theatre turns 80

(Editor’s note: A version of this story was first published on April 7, 2009. The late Gerald Hill was a prominent attorney, writer, political activist and teacher who, in his later years, also served as the Index-Tribune’s historian. He passed on March 6, 2012.)

Samuele Sebastiani insisted on “nothing but the best” when he decided to construct a state-of-the-art movie theater on a lot he owned across First Street East from the Sonoma Plaza. It was 1932 – the depth of the Great Depression – and the founder of the Sebastiani wine dynasty started by retaining San Francisco architect James W. Reid to design his dream theater.

Reid was an acclaimed architect who designed the fabled Del Coronado hotel in San Diego and, with his brother, pioneered steel-frame buildings on the West Coast. They also built the steel-framed Fairmont Hotel, the Cliff House Restaurant, the First Congregational Church and the Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park, along with numerous classic movie thaters.

Reid was about to close his office when Samuele Sebastiani convinced him to design one more theater, with no expense spared. So the 80-year-old Reid personally began the drawings for the Sebastiani Theatre, choosing “theatre” with the Canadian/English spelling.

Beginning in November 1932, and continuing through 1933, Sonomans followed the rise of 160 tons of steel framework, topped by a tower higher than City Hall. Shipments of well-aged oak barrel staves from a dismantled Sacramento brewery arrived to be used for railings and doors, and the floor of the 60-foot long foyer was laid with mosaic tiles. The design included a 60-by-80 foot stage, large enough for dramatic performances, with extensive lighting and a massive metal marquee with “Sebastiani Theatre” spelled out in red neon supplied by nearby Mission Hardware.

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