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Sebastiani Theatre memories

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This month marks the 80th anniversary of the Sebastiani Theatre. I have been attending movies there for the better part of 70 of those years.

Whenever I need to connect with my childhood in Sonoma, I persuade Dottie to join me for a movie at Sebastiani Theatre. Usually, the movies are good, even great, but the experience would be pleasurable in any case.

Somehow, some way, Roger Rhoten and the wonderful volunteers for the Sebastiani Theater Foundation, in partnership with the City of Sonoma, have saved our little hometown movie theater in spite of fierce competition from the chain-operated and virtually automated multiplexes that surround us.

I was reminded of Roger’s dedication again during the Sonoma Valley International Film Festival, for which all of us should also thank the local festival group led by Kevin McNeely. As good as the films were, watching them at the Sebastiani was, and always is, special.

As a young boy, I was in awe of the theater’s trappings, the enormously high ceiling with those incredible light fixtures, the Florentine decor, the balcony where I first kissed a girl. Even the ticket booth and entry way seemed grand and mysterious.

On Saturdays, there was always a matinee. I think the admission was 25¢. My favorite films were the ones starring Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans, or Gene Autry. Before each feature, there was a newsreel, a cartoon and then a serialized short. I loved the Flash Gordon series that included his battle with the evil Emperor Ming.

Another great serial was one that featured Gene Autry and a group of rangers who had their own sort of bat cave into which they could ride their horses. Inside this underground complex was the evil Queen Tika.

The theater was also a place where we met our friends. It was part of our small town social life.

Sometime in the early 1950s, I saw my first original Frankenstein movie, and then “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi, during which I heard his signature line, “I never drink… wine.” He was clearly not a Sonoma Valley vampire.

It was also about then that “The Wizard of Oz” came back to the Sebastiani.

Then along came the really scary movies – like “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “The Thing,” “It came from Outer Space,” “Invaders from Mars” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” They scared the heck out of me, but I loved them just the same.

One year, along with all of the cowboy and horror films I watched at Sebastiani, I saw my first musical – “Singing in the Rain.” I loved the singing and the dancing, and a whole new world of entertainment opened up to me.

So many good memories come back to me each time I enter this precious part of Sonoma’s history. I am forever grateful to Roger, our city fathers (who cover half the rent) and the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation for keeping it alive.

You can support the theater by going to movies there, and by donating to the foundation. Go to sebastianitheatrefoundation.org.