Published: April 7, 2009
This is the first of a two-part history of the storied theater on the Plaza. Samuele Sebastiani insisted on "nothing but the best" when he decided to construct a state-of-the-art movie theater 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, Reid studied at MIT and Beaux Arts in Paris, before beginning his architectural practice in Indiana where he was joined by his brother, Merritt Reid, also an architect. When he was 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, Ore., the first steelframed 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 it was damaged by fire, 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 Jan. 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 wellaged oak barrel staves from a dismantled Sacramento brewery arrived to be used for railings and doors, 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. Remarkable 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 with an estimated 1,000 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 first movie. Master of ceremonies was grammar school principal J. P. Prestwood, and speakers included high school principal L. H. Golton, city trustee (now city council) A. R. Grinstead, Sebastiani, manager Mohr and others.
The Rev. 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 staff fed. 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 was 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 and 9 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 run of three or four days for major films, which were 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 United States President Ronald Reagan and his then-wife, Jane Wyman, who came as friends of Robinson and Garfield, but were not in the film.
Yvonne Soto-Pomeroy of the Index-Tribune contributed archival research to this.
©Copyright, 2009, Sonoma Index-Tribune. Reprinted with Permission.