When I’m 65

aelead rioSanta Cruz celebrates the Rio Theatre’s anniversary 

The Rio Theatre is hosting a birthday bash, and guests are expected to party like it’s 1949. It’s the venerable local venue’s 65th, and her caretakers are inviting the community members that have supported her throughout the years to come and have some fun.

“Our celebration is for the Rio, for being a work horse for six and a half decades and enduring through all the things that have happened in those decades—the presidents, the wars, the advents in movies,” says Laurence Bedford, the Rio’s owner since 2000. “She’s a brick-and-mortar time capsule.”

While the Rio’s birthday is technically June 12, 1949, the party will be held on June 8, kicking off with cocktails and champagne and ending with a free ’40s-themed variety show. Local comedian Richard Stockton will pair with historian Ross Gibson to provide partygoers with a historical look at the Rio, interspersed with comedy, historic videos and photographs, a barbershop quartet and other live music.

Between the libations and the show, there will be a planned blackout in the theater. The live radio broadcast that KSCO aired on the day the Rio first opened will play over the speakers. When the lights come on, Bedford jokes, it will be 1949, and everyone is expected to “talk it, sing it, and goof it.”

“It’s not about us today, we’re the current curators, but it’s only been 14 years out of 65,” he says. “There is tons of history that I don’t even know, and that’s really what we’re celebrating here.”

While that may be true, it’s fair to say that Bedford has seen the Rio at her best and worst. Barely maintained, and showing only second and third run movies, the Rio was going out of business when Bedford purchased the property in 2000. David Anton Savage, Bedford’s right-hand man and house manager for the past 14 years, recalls embarking on the long journey to refurbish the Rio.

“It took me two-and-a-half years of mopping to actually see the floor,” deadpans Savage. “When we got in there it was like, ‘wow, this place is filthy, stinky, rat-infested, and all-around busted up.’ It took years of working on the place to recover from the reputation she had.”

The Rio was a big joke to the public at the time, Savage remembers. He recalls a DeCinzo cartoon about the Rio, in which an ax has been thrown through the movie screen and kids are being held down in their seats by rats. Two men in suits are in the back, remarking that they don’t understand why the place is doing so badly.

“Now, after years of labor, I get stopped by strangers who thank me for everything we have done for the Rio,” says Savage. “It was strange in the beginning to hear people acknowledge that she had become a cultural gem.”

And she certainly has created a category all her own in Santa Cruz. With a 700-person capacity, the Rio is the only local mid-size venue offering live music, films, lectures, community events, fundraisers, and even weddings. After hosting widely celebrated performers like Joan Baez, Beck, Andrew Bird, Pink Martini and Joan Jett, it’s clear that the Rio is now on the entertainment industry’s radar.

“It’s been a gradual climb, and we’re not a world-class facility by any means,” says Bedford. “But we have managed to get to a point where we’re in the running for these world-class artists.”  

The Rio’s popularity is not based solely on the ability to draw in big-name talent, but also on the management’s contributions to the community. The philosophy behind the theater, according to Bedford, is specializing in being unspecialized; i.e., being flexible enough to accommodate (or at least try to accommodate) any kind of event or performance. That interest in working with the community has paid off in spades.

This past February, a Santa Cruz man with a history of mental illness and drug abuse drove his car into the Rio Theatre’s ticket booth and lobby doors. He emerged from the car and ended his life by cutting his neck and chest with shards of broken glass from the accident. The incident rocked the community, and left Bedford and Savage scrambling to fix the damage before a weekend of scheduled shows.                 

“The staff and the community just rallied behind us. I had people show up at 4 o’clock in the morning to help me just button her up and assess the damage,” says Bedford. “We had a show two days later, and we didn’t cancel. I think the fact that we were able to pull out of that tragedy, and be celebrating our 65th in tip-top shape a few months later, is pretty cool.”

It’s clear that the Rio was built to last—for the past 65 years, and as Bedford hopes, another 65 more.

“We’re not the most modern facility,” says Bedford. “But we’ll kill you with kindness and friendliness, and all the other things that make it worthwhile.”

The Rio Theatre’s birthday party will be held on Saturday, June 8, 7 p.m. at 1205 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, 423-8209. Free admission. If you have stories or photographs of the Rio that you want to share at the party, write to [email protected]

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