(First of a two-part history)
Samuele Sebastiani insisted on “nothing but the best” when he decided to create a state of the art movie theater constructed 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.
A native of New Brunswick, Canada, after study at MIT and Beaux Arts in Paris, Reid began his architectural practice in Indiana where he was joined by his brother Merritt Reid, also an architect. When only 34, Reid was asked by an Indiana railroad millionaire to come to California to design a resort hotel on property near San Diego, which became the fabled Del Coronado. Then the Reid brothers moved to San Francisco, where James directed the design work. They became famous for the charm of their classic revival designs and the use of steel.
In 1891 the Reids designed the Oregonian Building in Portland, Oregon, the first steel-framed high rise on the west coast, followed in 1897 by the San Francisco Call Building, the tallest west of Chicago. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, although fire damaged, the Call building and the Reid-designed Fairmont Hotel, survived due to the steel framing. Among their other architectural triumphs were the Cliff House Restaurant, the First Congregational Church and the Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park.
Starting in 1907 the Reid office designed many of northern California’s most luxurious movie theaters including the Alexandria, Coliseum, Balboa, Embassy, Metro and other major San Francisco cinemas, the Grand Lake in Oakland, the Oaks in Berkeley, the El Camino in San Rafael, and the Sequoia in Mill Valley.
When brother Merritt Reid died on January 4, 1932, James decided to close their office, but Samuele Sebastiani convinced him to design one more theater, with no expense spared. So 80-year old James 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 arrived, 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, extensive lighting, and a massive metal marquee with “Sebastiani Theatre” spelled out in red neon supplied by nearby Mission Hardware. And in a period of high unemployment there was a minimum of 30 construction workers being paid by building contractor Leonard L. Thomas.
Upstairs there was a 5,000-square-foot ballroom with a kitchen for banquets, meetings, dances and entertainment, all part of Samuele’s list of desires. Remarkably 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, exactly 75 years ago. The Index-Tribune editorialized that the “Theatre marks [a] new era of progress.” Before the doors opened at 7 p.m. a street celebration of an estimated thousand people filled First Street East. At the Plaza Hotel (now Sonoma Hotel) Samuele and his wife hosted a dinner for his family, including young son August, daughter Sabina McTaggart and son-in-law John McTaggart, the press, visiting officials and manager John Mohr, who had previously worked for the little Don Theater.
Some 450 customers crammed into the theater for a celebratory ceremony prior to showing the movie. Master of ceremonies was grammar school principal J. P. Prestwood, and speakers included high school principal L. H. Golten, city trustee (now city council) A. R. Grinstead, Sebastiani, manager Mohr and others. Rev. Father Kenny gave the dedicatory prayer and music was provided by Paul Marcucci’s nine-piece orchestra and a singing trio of Sonoma Kiwanians.
The theater was thoroughly staffed. Projectionist was Frank Kral, and in the ticket booth (nowadays occupied by a stuffed manikin named “Trixie”) was Elva Flanchini collecting 30 cents per adult ticket. Doubling as doorman and electrician was R. Farnocchi, and two young usherettes, Maxine States and Winifred Randolph, directed customers to their seats. The foyer was lined with donated flowers, including a huge tribute to Samuele. The previous Tuesday night the Kiwanis had presented him with a plaque honoring his contribution to the cultural life of the city.
The inaugural film was the spanking new MGM release, “The Fugitive Lovers,” a mix of humor, romance and escape from danger, starring Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. Among the bit players were future stars Walter Brennan and Akim Tamiroff, and in individual roles the Three Stooges. 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 served publicly for the first time since the repeal of Prohibition four months earlier.
The initial movie schedule included two features every night at 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. except Saturday and Sunday when the first screening was a matinee. As a low volume small town theater, the Sebastiani was generally limited to a maximum of three or four days runs of major films, only available following screenings in metropolitan movie houses. John Flohr stayed on as manager until 1950, succeeded by a dedicated couple, John and Mona Murphy for eight years.
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. Also in the cast were Ida Lupino, Gene Lockhart, Barry Fitzgerald and Alexander Knox. At the celebration were future California governor and U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his then wife Jane Wyman, who came as friends of Robinson and Garfield, but were not in the film.
(Part two of a two-part history)
By the ‘60s 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 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, local branch of a 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.
At times when there were less than seven ticket purchasers the movie would be cancelled. For all 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 MCann, 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 asked to be patient 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.
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 to the IRS fall far in arrears, and the government was demanding payment from box office receipts which made it impossible for her to continue. Incidentally, eventually Flo settled personally with the IRS.
The City Council chose Friends Committee President Roger Rhoten as manager and 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 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 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 the Sonoma Hometown Band, and local celebrities. He also decorated the lobby with a collection of long-stored paintings depicting film stars of the 30’s and 40’s, the work of Barbara Bonnemont, mother of Sonoma 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, which were greased, painted and re-upholstered. Contributors were “sold” seats on which brass name-plates naming the “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 on-going, Neil Goodhue appeared to be stalling in making repairs, necessary to prevent continual 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 make a profit for his company from the upstairs hall failed as a nightclub and then as a teen-age “club” closed when 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 monetary 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 a song and dance” about overdue roof repairs the owner’s new 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 popular alter ego, “Witchie-Poo.” Jeff Gilbert, the Sonoma professional vocalist and crooner who has mastered the songs and styles of the 40’s, has often sung a medley of oldies before the feature movies. The Sebastiani hosted two “local premiers,” Napa-based Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker” and Sonoma’s own John Lassister’s ground-breaking digital “Toy Story.” It is also the home site for independent movies in the dozen years of the Sonoma International Film Festival.
The latest positive news is the formation of a non-profit 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 theater.” 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.