Enter the Rio Theatre and Say Bon Voyage to Boring Venues

Rio Theatre Santa Cruz Interior

Santa Cruz has an abundance of unique movie theatres and thriving music venues, but only the Rio Theatre falls into both of those categories.

Opened in 1949, the Rio originally was intended as a sort of 3D-before-3D film viewing experience, thanks to its cycloramic (curved) screen.  On opening night, Santa Cruzans saw a double feature of Songs of India and Law of the Barbary Coast in a way few had seen movies before.

In the 1970s, the Rio was sold to United Artists, a large cinema chain. UA neglected upkeep on the theatre, and even refused to participate in a loan other tenants in the building wanted to use to improve the building’s appearance.

The paint was chipped, half the lights were out, and the theatre was reduced to an old movie house whose average audiences consisted of ten people. UA gave up on the theatre in 2000 and borded up its doors, and for a brief period of time, it looked like there not be any more Rio Theatre.

But then, just a couple months later, a local man named Laurence Bedford bought the theatre for $800,000. Bedford got a loan from the City of Santa Cruz, fixed the place up, and introduced Santa Cruz to the Rio as everyone knows it today.  Said Bedford of the renovations:

We have revamped all of the original seats to new as well as a new screen and innumerable gallons of paint in the last ten years. She is close to her original style, whilst more mature!

Now, the Rio serves as a movie theatre for special events and screenings, as well as a full-function concert venue.  A bit more formal and certainly bigger than many other independent venues in town, the Rio tends to draw some big names in the world of independent and alternative music, like Beck, Jenny Lewis, Ani DiFranco, and They Might Be Giants.  The Rio also hosts a lot of unusual cinema events, like the San Francisco Documentary Festival, and awareness-raising films from local organizations like the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center.

Entering through the doors of the Rio can feel like you’re taking a trip somewhere grand and romantic — the architecture and design is reminiscent of an old-fashioned cruiseship, and there are also obvious Spanish influences.  The Rio, with all its history, is once again a thriving entertainment destination.  One that retains the style and charm of an old fashioned movie house, with a sound system is worthy of the great acts that play there.

Photo Credit: The Rio Theatre

About Blair Stenvick

Blair Stenvick is a freelance writer who has lived in Santa Cruz for four years.