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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.

Upstairs was a 5,000-square-foot ballroom with a kitchen for banquets, meetings, dances and entertainment. Remarkable for the period, not only was there heating, but it could be switched to “air conditioning” on a hot day. Everyone agreed that the theater’s Italian Renaissance design was splendid.

The grand opening took place on Saturday, April 7, 1934, and the Index-Tribune editorialized that the “Theatre marks [a] new era of progress.”

Some 450 customers crammed into the theater for a celebratory ceremony prior to showing the first movie. Master of ceremonies was grammar school Principal J. P. Prestwood.

The inaugural film (tickets were 30 cents) was the spanking new MGM release, “The Fugitive Lovers,” a mix of humor, romance and escape from danger, starring Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. While a second showing of the movie was on the screen, in the upstairs hall the Italian Club put on a dance to raise funds for completion of the Italian fountain in the Plaza. Sebastiani sweet wine was served publicly for the first time since the repeal of Prohibition four months earlier.

A highlight of those early years was a “local premiere” in 1941 of “The Sea Wolf,” based on the powerful novel by famed Sonoma Valley author, Jack London. Stars Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield were among its actors who appeared at the premiere party.

By the 1960s, the Sebastiani faced competition from the increasing popularity of television.The number of screenings was reduced and the theater was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. There were never enough funds for up-grades or to cover normal wear and tear to carpeting and seats. In December 1969, then-manager Bob Craig turned over operation to the Sonoma Valley Jaycees. They hoped to make a profit to help pay for the Santa Claus Fly-in, the Junior Miss Contest and the Glen Ellen Fair. Lanny Phillips, acting as manager for the Jaycees, announced the theater would be open seven days a week. General admission was $1.25.

At times, when there were fewer than than seven tickets sold, the movie would be cancelled. During this period, title to the theater building was in the name of Plaza Properties, Inc., wholly owned by the Sebastiani family. Samuele died in 1944. After his son, August, passed away in 1980, the Sebastiani corporation entered into a lease and management agreement with Flo McCann, who had prior experience in booking movies. Flo was dedicated to promotion of the theater, but she was operating on a shoe string, with no extra funds for maintenance, repairs and renewal of sound projection equipment. Regularly the film would break and the audience would be asked for patience while it was spliced and re-threaded.

While McCann struggled to keep the theater afloat, 1986 became a year of turmoil for the theater. Samuele’s grandson, Sam Sebastiani, had been replaced as president of the winery by younger brother, Don, and some of the family’s real estate was divided among family members. Sam acquired the theater building, including Eagle Hall upstairs and the two retail wings. Anxious to raise money to establish his own winery, Viansa, on March 28, 1986, Sam announced the building was for sale for an asking price of a $1,350,000.

Neil Goodhue, head of Oakland-based Sebastiani Building Investors, entered into a tentative agreement to buy the building from Sam, and also offered to lease the theater portion to the city for $4,000 a month. Despite the recommendation of city-retained consultants that the city buy the building, instead the City Council voted to lease the theater from Goodhue’s group for 25 years at $3,000 monthly. The city in turn would lease the theater to McCann for only $1,500 a month, effectively subsidizing the operation for the other $1,500 a month.

When the 99-year-old Mission Hardware building caught fire and blew apart in September 1990, the building next to the Sebastiani Theatre was also ignited. For hours the theater was threatened with destruction before the blaze was extinguished.

Then, in November 1991, the theater was shut down by the building inspector because Goodhue had not made required repairs to bulging plaster walls, leaks and water under the stage. The closing deprived McCann of holiday season income and precluded money-making live performances.

Roger Rhoten, a friend of McCann’s and a self-taught magician, with experience producing stage shows, founded a support organization, Friends of Sebastiani Theatre, that eventually raised more than $65,000 and provided hands-on help. He kicked off this effort with a guest editorial in the Index-Tribune on April 12, 1988, laying out the uses and community benefits of the theater.

On March 2, 1992, Flo McCann resigned as manager and withdrew from her lease. The City Council chose Friends Committee President Roger Rhoten as manager and lessee of the theater, and Jacqueline Smith assumed leadership of the Friends.

One of Rhoten’s first moves was to spend $60,000 of his own money on a Dolby sound system and modern projection equipment. The Friends had already financed installation of a sprinkler system, but there remained safety hazards, such as antiquated wiring, leaks and another bulging wall. Goodhue contended that most of these deficiencies were not his responsibility, which left Rhoten unable to install his up-dated equipment. Goodhue did agree with the city to pay for a sump pump to handle water accumulation in the basement and install some handrails, leaving the city to cover any other required repairs.

This partial settlement allowed Rhoten to use the stereo sound and quality projector, and to put on live performances that would improve revenues. Within a year, the lease with the city was renewed. The pro-active Rhoten installed wall hangings to improve both looks and acoustics and, thanks to an anonymous donation, installed a new marquee, redecorated by local artist Stefan Gold and highlighted with neon that no longer flickered and failed. It was lit up the night of Saturday, April 23, 1993, at a celebration featuring the Sonoma Hometown Band, and local celebrities. Rhoten also decorated the lobby with a collection of long-stored paintings depicting film stars of the 1930s and ’40s, the work of Barbara Bonnemont, mother of Sonoma artist Claudia Wagar.

Thanks to the Friends, new carpeting replaced the threadbare floor covering, with help from the Sonoma Plaza Kiwanis the seats were dismantled, greased, painted and re-upholstered. Contributors were “sold” seats on which their names on brass plates were attached. Faced with competition from a new multiplex in Boyes Hot Springs, Rhoten began interspersing foreign and art movies with the standard film fare.

While these efforts were on-going, Neil Goodhue appeared to be stalling in making repairs to prevent continual leaking, replace dangerous wiring and address hazardous conditions back stage. A frustrated Rhoten finally sued Goodhue and his company, demanding the promised repairs plus damages for business losses due to frequent closures and his inability to book live performances. Goodhue’s attempts to turn a profit from the upstairs hall failed, first as a nightclub and then as a teen club.

After several years of delays, an arbitration hearing on Rhoten’s suit resulted in a stipulated court order that required Goodhue’s company to make repairs to the building’s deficiencies and a substantial monetary judgment to cover some of Rhoten’s actual losses. Goodhue was replaced as the owner’s president in May 1997.

The Sebastiani stage continues to host live performances, first-run and classic movies, and serve as the central venue of the Sonoma International Film Festival. A nonprofit corporation, the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation (Rose Mary Schmidt, president) works to support the theater and to raise funds for improvements – like a modern HVAC system – and basic operating costs. Go to sebastianitheatrefoundation.org for more information.