Roger and Diana Rhoten.
Rome has the Parthenon. Paris has Notre Dame. Sydney has the Opera House. And Sonoma has the Sebastiani Theatre. You can’t imagine one without the other.
And you can’t imagine the Sebastiani Theatre—the cultural, creative, and cinematic hub of the town—without Roger and Diana Rhoten, who have for more than 15 years kept the theater functional and afloat through various feats of literal and metaphorical magic.
The little-known truth about this architectural icon is that its financial future has for years been balanced on the point of a wobbly pin.
Bought by Oakland investors in 1986 for a reported $1.35 million after a myopic city council majority refused to approve its outright purchase, the building—complete with real estate offices, the Town Square tavern, and mobile phone towers atop the roof—continues to serve the community on a sometimes tenuous lease.
But the Rhotens, now backed by a nonprofit foundation board, have never waivered in their determination to keep the theater and its multiple activities alive if not always well. That’s partly because they’ve watched multiple generations of Valley offspring traipse across the Sebastiani’s grand 80-foot stage during their annual Performing Arts Camp, the hilarious Witchie Poo Halloween extravaganza and in countless other amateur and semiprofessional productions. And they’ve seen the children of children they’ve coaxed and coached blossom before their eyes.
In truth, the Sebastiani Theatre has been a boot camp, training ground, and home-away-from-home for thousands of budding performers, some of whom have gone on to fame and fortune.
Says Roger, “We work very hard at presenting great films. That gives us a lot of satisfaction. But the bigger picture is the events. Kids get to gain confidence, become comfortable on a stage. Some of them have gone on to professional careers. There’s Michael Starr, Athen Ross, and a whole succession of kids who are now professionals in show business. Lots of kids are going on to bigger and better things.”
If some of this sounds a little magical, maybe that’s because Roger is a serious, self-taught magician who can pull a dove from a handkerchief with the best of them. His legerdemain is legend, and he has promised that another one of his rare Magical Medicine shows will appear on the Sebastiani stage “no later than August.”
Between now and then there is, of course, the film festival, with feature films and major events at the Sebastiani, followed by a Will Durst “Baby Boomer Show” on April 17, the Hometown Band on April 26, Vox Populi on April 27, and a week-long music fest in June.
“There are so many different kinds of shows here,” says Roger. “You interact with all parts of the community. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be here. There isn’t any money in it.”
Helping keep the doors open is the Movie Lovers Club, an opportunity for supporters to buy memberships—$25 to $1,000—that bestow ticket discounts and other benefits. The funds go into a savings account that help the theater get through the winter “when business is really slow,” says Diana.
The theater relies on a lot of volunteers, but the ultimate burden invariably falls on Roger who admits, “I kind of do everything.” That includes running the new, $100,000 digital projector, selling tickets, sweeping the floors, fixing the plumbing, and negotiating for the new and old films Sonomans want to see.
One patron recalls seeing Roger on his hands and knees scraping gum off the arcade tile and five minutes later taking the stage in tux and tails to greet the theater audience.
Concludes Diana Rhoten, “What Roger has done, is he has given the Sebastiani Theatre back to the community. He’s turned it into the heart of the community.”
Story David Bolling
Photos David Bolling and Patrice Ward