On The Rio Theatre’s 10th anniversary as a music venue, owner Laurence Bedford reflects on its dramatic transformation
At the beginning of the present millennium, Soquel Avenue’s Rio Theatre was about to be knocked down. Though the venue had been a local landmark since the late ’40s, resistance to its demolition was less than overwhelming: Locals had long bemoaned the venue’s sticky floors and crud-encrusted carpets, which were held together with duct tape.
But then Laurence Bedford, a San Francisco mortgage banker who did guerilla theater by night, made an unexpected move: He purchased the building from the soon-to-be-bankrupt United Artists. A day or so after getting the keys to the place, Bedford, who had recently relocated to Santa Cruz with his daughter, paid a visit to the local community fixture known as Chip. “I told him what I’d just done, and he laughed for a little bit, ’cause he thought I was kidding,” Bedford recalls.
But once convinced of the truth of Bedford’s assertion, Chip introduced Bedford to various Santa Cruzans who would prove crucial to the process of transforming the run-down movie house into an all-purpose entertainment venue. Among these people was humorist Sven Davis, who would build the venue’s stage.
The renovation process began one decade ago this week: August 10, 2010. While The Rio was being painted and fixed up, Bedford rented the space out by the hour for classes in such disciplines as African drumming and Brazilian dance. Once the venue was presentable, Bedford opened it up for some small shows. A pivotal point came in 2001, when rocker Joan Jett gave a concert at the theatre. “Out of nowhere, we got the call,” Bedford says. “That kind of brought attention to, ‘What is this space?’ We had, really, nothing: There was no theater lighting, no sound system … It was pretty raw.”
Not long after Jett’s performance, filmmakers began to take an interest in The Rio as a place to show their movies about surfing, bicycling and skating. This opened Bedford’s eyes to the venue’s versatility. “The whole game with this house is being multipurpose: We’re not pigeonholed into anything,” he notes. “So, I didn’t say it was a jazz club, a blues club, a rock club … We just said we were a house for performing, essentially.”
At an almost alarmingly rapid rate, demand for The Rio grew as a space for all kinds of performances, be they musical, cinematic, dance-oriented or something completely different. A particularly memorable show called “Puppetry of the Penis” fell under the final category. “When people remind me about things, that always seems to come up,” Bedford offers, seemingly unaware of the double-entendre. “We were called to do two nights. It was really funny that these two Australian guys get onstage buck naked and start doing origami with their units … and projecting it on the big screen!”
During the same month that The Rio held two back-to-back, sold-out puppet shows, the venue hosted a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” “I have a picture of the marquee: ‘Puppetry of the Penis,’ and ‘Vagina Monologues’ underneath!” Bedford notes.
Though it wasn’t all favorable, the press generated by the marquee’s “Penis/Vagina” communiqué helped call attention to the fact that there was a 700-capacity room available for local performances. Music promoters like “Sleepy” John Sandidge and Pulse Productions’ Michael Horne began approaching the venue, and soon The Rio was featuring live music fairly consistently. Since then, the theatre has hosted more than 1200 performances. Musical acts that have appeared on the venue’s stage include Baba Maal, The Residents, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Santa Cruz’s own White Album Ensemble. “We built the stage, and they came!” Bedford jokes.
Nowadays The Rio isn’t just a far cleaner, more pleasant place than it used to be—it’s more welcoming than most live music venues, period. Contributing to its friendly ambience is the work of local visual artists such as Darryl Ferrucci, Bridget Henry, Dag Weiser, Robert Irwin and Wendy Simon. Another important factor is the lack of booze on the premises. “We’re not told that we can’t do liquor; we [don’t sell it] by choice,” Bedford explains.
Here at The Rio’s 10th anniversary as a music venue, Bedford—who frequently refers to the building as “she” or “her”—is delighted with the changes that the theatre has undergone so far. “When we look at the pictures of this space when we started, and you look at it now, it’s like you’re a proud dad,” he states. “Your kid’s going to graduation: ‘Wow!’”
For more information on The Rio Theatre, go to riotheatre.com or call 423-8209.