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Rio Theater Raising Funds to "Go Digital"


Rio Theater Raising Funds to "Go Digital"

By Sherry Pimsler

The Rio Theater in Monte Rio is located along the banks of the Russian River, just minutes from the Coast. One of a dwindling number of WW II Quonset hut venues in the country, the Rio was named by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009 as a destination movie theater definitely worth the trip – the criteria being “interesting architecture, a rich history, attractive surroundings” that invite a walk after the show, and better yet, being “a little bit quirky”. More important to surrounding isolated communities who wish to avoid the long drive “over the hill”, the Rio is the only show in town. For generations, this mom and pop theater has been a gathering place where neighbors can come together socially while enjoying first run and classic movies. 


A Community Experience

The “Rio experience” is indeed unique, from the theater’s iconic hand painted mural and posters displayed outside to the warm reception patrons receive within from owners Don and Suzi Schaffert. As one enters, their chocolate lab Murphy greets people at the door. Don, peering through a small pass-through behind the snack bar, waits for Suzi to call out orders for polish dogs, chicken-apple sausages or Cajun hot links (sauerkraut optional), also sold from a grill built into the body of a ’46 Ford sedan at Don’s Dogs, their daytime café behind the theater. While orders are placed, the Schafferts exchange lively banter with friends, who have anticipated the food, including real butter popcorn, as much as the movie. Everyone files into the auditorium laden with goodies piled into complimentary basket trays. 

Dating back to 1950, this 240 seat Quonset hut venue has humble trappings. The auditorium boasts the largest extant piece of Christo’s Running Fence for its draped ceiling, but much is in need of repair. Blankets are made available since there is no heat, but nothing dampens the audience’s enthusiasm.  As the theater darkens, Don and Suzi’s vacation slides may come up - one last treat before the show begins. However one chooses to take it in, there is no denying the charm of this small town movie house, where people come to connect, or to quietly take it in. Once the show has ended, Don and Suzi will be in the lobby offering tissues and parting remarks to everyone. 


Movie House Threatened by Hollywood Digitization

By the end of 2013, movies will no longer be released in 35mm. To continue showing films, theaters must convert to digital equipment, and because many of the country’s small venues have been hard pressed to come up with the funds to convert (estimated at $55,000 for the Rio), they are facing the possibility of extinction. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) recently estimated that up to 20% of theaters across North America may fall victim to “digitize or die”. Small theater owners are scrambling for options, but unfortunately, no assistance is available from big studios, NATO, or public funding. 

Mike Hurley, who owns theaters in Maine, wrote on BigScreendBiz, “I think of the millions of dreams and careers that have taken flight in a movie theater. I know that the economic development power of movie theaters has been profound. People want to live where there are theaters. For the same reason that every successful city center, mall and downtown works to attract and keep a movie theatre, small towns all over the world stand to lose a foundation that has kept them connected to the world. I believe the loss is unacceptable.”

A fundraising campaign for the Rio is taking shape. Local residents, who recognize the theater’s importance and Don and Suzi ‘s integral part in the community, such as hiring local kids, establishing a dog park on their property, and serving tirelessly on local boards and committees, have offered support. Along with events and appeals, the campaign will encourage donations through an online funding platform called Kickstarter, where pledges will not be processed unless and until the goal is reached. provides a link to sign up to receive information on the campaign’s progress, and, once launched, will link to the Rio’s Kickstarter site. Supporters can catch Don or Suzi at Don’s Dogs behind the theater, 9 am to 3 pm, Wednesdays through Sundays, (707) 865-4190; or email Suzi at