Magazine article Sunset

Screen Savers: A Troupe of Friends Rescues an Offbeat Theater and Community Treasure

Magazine article Sunset

Screen Savers: A Troupe of Friends Rescues an Offbeat Theater and Community Treasure

Article excerpt

CHRISTIE GEORGE HAS LONG DARK HAIR and an easy smile, with a decent amount of blood spilling out of it. Her partner--in romance and, now, business--Colin Mutchler has a serious person's beard belied by a mischievous air and, yeah, a lot of blood coming out of his mouth. In a half-hour, the movie theater they (along with 25 friends) have come to own will show a new vampire comedy, and the couple has invested in some cheap drugstore gore. Will anyone come? Will they laugh? Will the audio cut out like it did that one time? If you're going to worry about such things, it's best to do so in a sunny field, framed by solemn redwoods with the gurgle of a mellow, shimmering river nearby.

It's a slow, warm Saturday afternoon in Monte Rio, a woodsy little town 90 minutes north of San Francisco. Mutchler, George, and I are sitting at a picnic bench outside the Quonset hut turned theater, fake blood and cheap rose before us. If you'd lived in San Francisco a hundred years ago, it would've been silly to explain where Monte Rio is. You'd probably have been there, frolicking in your weird 1915 clothes. This was the place. It was the place for boaters and swimmers, for hikers and hunters, for Bohemian Grove-going masters of the universe, and for anyone who liked taking steam trains to pretty places outside the big city. Up through the 1930s, the area was a redwoody French Riviera.

Then came that familiar American transition, from hopping region to once-hopping region. The lumber mills shuttered, the twice-daily train from the city surrendered to the car, and then the car drivers started vacationing farther afield. Two world wars didn't help, by the way, and neither did epic flooding in the 1960s. An influx of gay entrepreneurs in the '70s boosted the tourist economy. But by the '90s, mentioning the Russian River often led to conversations about homelessness and meth.

That's the standard narrative, anyway. It's not wrong. But certain Russian River elements fit into no narrative that I can see. One of them on this Saturday afternoon looms behind me now, a provisional-looking half-dome of corrugated steel and low-fi mural work. In 1949, local merchant Sid Bartlett purchased a surplus Quonset hut from the U.S. Navy and immediately began transforming it into a theater. For decades afterward, through ups and downs, the Rio was the eccentric heart of an eccentric community. When it was cold, blankets were handed out. When the river flooded, neighbors turned out to help sandbag and to ferry the historic seats to higher ground.

About five years ago, longtime owners Don and Suzi Schaffert put the theater up for sale, and while some of the potential buyers planned to remake the property entirely, the winning bid came from a circle of creative and nonprofit types. Mostly from San Francisco and Oakland, they knew the grooviness of the Russian River and had been feeling whatever it is that makes people want to try something new and strange.

"For 10 years, I'd been fantasizing about starting some kind of community," says Mutchler, who's CEO of a crowd-promotion platform when he's not dripping fake blood. "Then we heard about the Rio, where there was already this community, and a far more diverse and vibrant one than I'd have expected."

A couple of dozen friends and colleagues and friends of friends were rounded up, calculations were done, and in 2014 a beautifully foolish investment was made. Overnight the group had to learn what it means to run a movie theater, plus the cafe out back. Together the co-owners had to learn what kinds of films the community likes, and what kind of food, and how to fix a roof, and how to manage a staff of 10 (age range: 17-68), and how to incorporate the experimental programming they had in mind, and how to make the damn machines work.

FOR ALL THE REDWOODS and swaying pines and wild grassy smells, you couldn't say the appeal of the Russian River is that of a pristine Northern California wilderness. …

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