By mid-'80s, theatre was in disrepair
Published: April 10, 2009
By the 1960s, the Sebastiani Theatre 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 funds for up-grading or to cover normal wear and tear to carpeting and seating. In December 1969, the latest manager, Bob Craig, turned over operation to the Sonoma Valley Jaycees, a local branch of the national organization of young professionals and businessmen.
They hoped to make a profit to be used 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.
Whenever there were less than seven ticket purchasers, 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 Sebastiani 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. The film would regularly 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 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, Sam announced on March 28, 1986 that 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 outright, 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.
City Council discussions of applying for an historic designation preliminary to obtaining grants for money to purchase the theater were short-circuited, since such applications required four out of five votes, and two council members, Ken McTaggart and Nancy Parmelee, were ineligible to vote because they owned property on each side of the theater.
When the 99-year-old Mission Hardware store 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.
However, 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 from 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.
Suddenly, on March 2, 1992, Flo McCann resigned as manager and withdrew from her lease. In her desperate attempts to meet expenses she had let payments t the IRS fall far in arrears, and the government demanding payment from office receipts which made impossible for her to continue. McCann, incidentally, eventually settled personally with the IRS.
The Sonoma City Council chose Friends Committee President Roger Rhoten as manager lessee of the theater. 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 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 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, which would improve financial feasibility. Within the following year, 1992, 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 Sonoma Hometown Band, and local celebrities. Rhoten also decorated the lobby with a collection of long-stored paintings depicting film stars of 1930s and '40s, the work of Bonnemont, mother of artist Claudia Wagar.
Thanks to the Friends, new carpeting replaced the threadbare floor covering. The committee and other organizations especially the Sonoma Plaza Kiwanis - dismantled the seats, were greased, painted and re-upholstered. Contributors were "sold" seats on which name-plates identifying "buyers" 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 ongoing, Neil Goodhue appeared be stalling in making the necessary repairs to prevent leaking, replace dangerous wiring and 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 inability to book live performances. Goodhue's attempts to create a profitable venue in the upstairs hall failed -- first as a nightclub, and then a teen-age "club" that he had close when it was invaded by out-of-town rowdies.
After several years of delays, an arbitration hearing on Rhoten's suit resulted in a stipulated court order which required Goodhue's company to make repairs to the building's deficiencies and a substantial judgment to cover some of Rhoten's actual losses. Goodhue was replaced as the owner's president in May 1997. When Friends of Sebastiani Theatre president Tim Harrington complained in April 1998 that they were "getting song and dance" about overdue roof repairs, the owner's president apologized and said he was "doing the best I can to make up for Goodhue's mistakes. Soon the necessary work was performed. Rhoten currently reports that during the last seven years, he has received cooperation from both the owner and city government.
The Sebastiani stage has provided the venue for many performances, including Sonoma Ballet Conservatory, San Francisco Mime Troup, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Broadway Bound Kids, comedian Will Durst, musician Norton Buffalo, musician/ storyteller John McCutcheon, Sonoma City Opera, Christmas shows, children's programs, puppeteers, and Diana Rhoten as her alter ego, "Witchie- Poo." Jeff Gilbert, the Sonoma professional vocalist and crooner, who has mastered the and styles of the '40s, has sung a medley of oldies before the feature movies. The Sebastiani hosted two "local premiers," Napa-based Francis Coppola's "Tucker," and Sonoma's own John Lassester's ground breaking digital, "Toy Story." It is also the home site for independent movies in the dozens years of the Sonoma International Film Festival.
The latest positive news is the formation of a nonprofit corporation, the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation (Rose Mary Schmidt, president) for support of this cultural asset. Samuele's dream will continue to flourish, nourished by what Roger Rhoten calls a "great love of theatre." While it will never be much of a money maker, the people of Sonoma Valley are richer for it.
Yvonne Soto-Pomeroy of the Sonoma Index-Tribune contributed archival research to this article.