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Land of the Loge

Does 22 new screens mean curtains for small theaters?

By Gretchen Giles

Forget all you've heard about cocooning, nesting, and the pleasures of being a homebody. In Sonoma County, people are going out in record numbers with seemingly only one thing (if you discount sex and groceries) on their minds: the movies. We are experiencing an unprecedented cinema-craze the likes of which would make the Lumière brothers light up like marquees in a power surge.

The county's movie-house maven is Petaluma realtor Dave Corkill who, with cinemas already established in Sebastopol, Sonoma, and Petaluma's Washington Square, has won final approval to build a multiplex with 16 screens in Rohnert Park, due to open next fall. What Corkill predicts will be the "nicest theater that Sonoma County has ever seen and probably ever will see" will have enough room for 3,000 patrons, but Rohnert Park is restricting actual attendance to a mere 2,560 per show to allow for parking and congestion problems.

Besides the cinematic spraw-ler--whose 15,000-square-foot lobby alone would comfortably house an entire United Artists polyplex--Corkill is adding four screens to his Sebastopol multiplex and two to his Sonoma operation.

Using an abacus and a calculator, even this writer can figure out that this amounts to a stunning 22 new screens.

"There are so many people in this county now, and there are so many different areas that are now large enough to be able to individually support theaters, that it's a very viable enterprise," says Corkill from his Petaluma office.

Already added to the market this year are the eight screens at Santa Rosa's Airport Cinemas, while plans are still on hold to add an additional eight viewing-cubes to the torn-up mustard field adjacent to Petaluma's Pacific Cine-ma. Figure in Monte Rio's quonset hut, and the number of screens in the county will hover like a Bakersfield sweat in the high 90s.

But here's the rub: count on most of them projecting the same images in duplicate, triplicate--heck, what's 80-plicate?--as mainstream, first-run releases dominate county theaters like a celluloid Cyclops.

"We're unsure as to whether we'll be doing anything other than current releases, whether they be art, mainstream, or foreign titles," says Corkill of his proposed 16-plex.

West county residents can gloat, as the revamping of the Sebastopol Cinemas will include one screen reserved for nothing but foreign and art films. "They've been beating our door down for art films ever since we opened," Corkill admits. "We're really looking forward to having the extra screens there to support the kinds of films they want to see."

As for the rest of us poor fools, there is life after the many running prints of Dan Aykroyd's Celtic Pride mercifully fade away to video heaven. The Sonoma Film Institute at Sonoma State University has done nothing for 22 years except show obscure subtitled flicks, American classics, and documentaries.

Ever reasonable about her filmgoing crowd, SFI director Eleanor Nichols was pleased to see a full house when she showed a Woody Allen print that had recently left commercial play. But she questions the wisdom in showing first-run refugees. "If you could go to a theater and see these films on a big, big screen," she laughs about her schoolroom, "why would you come to Darwin 108 and see them? So we like to offer films that can't be seen otherwise."

The Raven Theater can be counted on to offer thinking (wo)man's first-run releases, while the little Lakeside Cinemas in Santa Rosa will occasionally bloom with a Johnny Depp film, but the only all-the-time-we-mean-it art house in the county is Sonoma's gorgeous old Sebastiani Theatre, which for five months has tried to commit itself to nothing but the likes of Jane Austen remakes and serio-documentaries about Gypsies.

"The people who enjoy these kinds of films enjoy the ambiance of the Sebastiani," says owner Roger Rhoten. "And you just can't find that at the multiplexes." While less than ecstatically thrilled about the expansion of the Sonoma Cinemas, Rhoten can actually laugh in a western way. "I'm waiting for the cavalry charge to come over the hill," he chuckles, noting that he has made a one-year commitment to an arthouse format. "I'm surrounded right now, and I'm just waiting for the bugle to blow."

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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