CHRISTIE GEORGE HAS LONG DARK HAIR and an easy smile, with a decent amount of blood spilling out of it. Her partner — in romance and, now, business — Colin Mutchler has a serious person’s beard belied by a mischievous air and, yeah, a lot of blood coming out of his mouth. In a half-hour, the movie theater they (along with 25 friends) have come to own will show a new vampire comedy, and the couple has invested in some cheap drugstore gore. Will anyone come? Will they laugh? Will the audio cut out like it did that one time? If you’re going to worry about such things, it’s best to do so in a sunny field, framed by solemn redwoods with the gurgle of a mellow, shimmering river nearby.
It’s a slow, warm Saturday afternoon in Monte Rio, a woodsy little town 90 minutes north of San Francisco. Mutchler, George, and I are sitting at a picnic bench outside the Quonset hut turned theater, fake blood and cheap rosé before us. If you’d lived in San Francisco a hundred years ago, it would’ve been silly to explain where Monte Rio is. You’d probably have been there, frolicking in your weird 1915 clothes. This was the place. It was the place for boaters and swimmers, for hikers and hunters, for Bohemian Grove–going masters of the universe, and for anyone who liked taking steam trains to pretty places outside the big city. Up through the 1930s, the area was a redwoody French Riviera.
Then came that familiar American transition, from hopping region to once-hopping region. The lumber mills shuttered, the twice-daily train from the city surrendered to the car, and then the car drivers started vacationing farther afield. Two world wars didn’t help, by the way, and neither did epic flooding in the 1960s. An influx of gay entrepreneurs in the ’70s boosted the tourist economy. But by the ’90s, mentioning the Russian River often led to conversations about homelessness and meth.
That’s the standard narrative, anyway. It’s not wrong. But certain Russian River elements fit into no narrative that I can see. One of them on this Saturday afternoon looms behind me now, a provisional-looking half-dome of corrugated steel and low-fi mural work. In 1949, local merchant Sid Bartlett purchased a surplus Quonset hut from the U.S. Navy and immediately began transforming it into a theater. For decades afterward, through ups and downs, the Rio was the eccentric heart of an eccentric community. When it was cold, blankets were handed out. When the river flooded, neighbors turned out to help sandbag and to ferry the historic seats to higher ground.
About five years ago, longtime owners Don and Suzi Schaffert put the theater up for sale, and while some of the potential buyers planned to remake the property entirely, the winning bid came from a circle of creative and nonprofit types. Mostly from San Francisco and Oakland, they knew the grooviness of the Russian River and had been feeling whatever it is that makes people want to try something new and strange.
“For 10 years, I’d been fantasizing about starting some kind of community,” says Mutchler, who’s CEO of a crowd-promotion platform when he’s not dripping fake blood. “Then we heard about the Rio, where there was already this community, and a far more diverse and vibrant one than I’d have expected.”
A couple of dozen friends and colleagues and friends of friends were rounded up, calculations were done, and in 2014 a beautifully foolish investment was made. Overnight the group had to learn what it means to run a movie theater, plus the cafe out back. Together the co-owners had to learn what kinds of films the community likes, and what kind of food, and how to fix a roof, and how to manage a staff of 10 (age range: 17–68), and how to incorporate the experimental programming they had in mind, and how to make the damn machines work.
FOR ALL THE REDWOODS and swaying pines and wild grassy smells, you couldn’t say the appeal of the Russian River is that of a pristine Northern California wilderness. The charm, rather, is that of a faded resort town. If you can dial into that frequency — if you love the ghosts of vanished railroads, the seedy whiff of dwindled grandeur — you’re home.
Like a lot of Bay Areans, I’ve been hauling up to Monte Rio, Guerneville, Cazadero, Forestville, and other Russian River corners for a while now — tasteful wedding here, boozy tubing weekend there. Then something began to change in the last couple of years. More people started coming, not just to swim but also to build, to entrepreneurialize.
In the half-mile-long community of Freestone, Omar Mueller launched Freestone Artisan Cheese, a fromagerie sourcing largely from local sheep, goat, and cow cheesemakers. At the site of a dilapidated old motel in Guerneville, out toward Armstrong State Park, Crista Luedtke opened the Boon Hotel + Spa, a stylish and Palm Springs–like oasis, then proceeded to open Big Bottom Market and an upscale bar called El Barrio, both on Main Street. A few doors away, an old diner called Pat’s transforms each night into a youthful Korean pop-up called Dick Blomster’s. A short walk from there is the Guerneville Bank Building, vacant for three decades but now reopened as the Guerneville Bank Club, an art and retail collective.
I began to realize that these changes — young city people bringing their good intentions and cool fonts to new territory — were really nothing new. Quaint little towns are often here in the first place because some disruptive newcomer swooped in with an idea and some cash. Exhibit A: George S. Montgomery, a wealthy San Franciscan who in 1888 bought a tiny resort town for hunters called Ingrams; he promptly rebranded the place Cazadero. Montgomery, according to the late local historian Gary Rodgers, was “a two-fisted drinking Bohemian Club member and a man for good times” — right up to 1890, when some further rebranding left him, suddenly, a good Christian. Cazadero, he decreed, would be an ideal temperance town.
Since the early 19th century, when the Russians poured down for otter pelts and the Spaniards pushed up from Mexico to trade with them, the essence of the Russian River is people monkeying with the Russian River. The area began not with some pristine, untrammeled era — it was trammeling from the get-go. Buying a theater and doing cool, oddball stuff there? Ping-pong tournaments and screen-your-own-favorite-scene nights? This is practically in the town charter.
MY WIFE HAS TAKEN TWO DAYS OFF WORK, and we’ve committed ourselves to covering as much territory as we can — here Freestone, there Graton, and so on. I’d like to call this exploring, but really we’re just pointing the car south for a while, then east, then north. Here is a welding supply place. Here someone is selling pie from her house. This guy sells horse pellets.
What the hell are horse pellets? I don’t care, but I endorse them. Over the years, San Franciscans have watched their rural outposts become greener branches of the city itself. Which is, you know, fine. But it soothes my soul to get off Highway 101, wind west down River Road, and arrive at the opposite of all that urban fussiness. The opposite of urban fussiness is a giant, goofy, homemade, and yet decidedly nonartisanal Paul Bunyan. The ’60s-era fiberglass statue guards Forestville’s River Bend Resort RV park, a sentinel of kitschier times. I miss those times. They were stranger, less predictable.
Strange and unpredictable is what drew me to cities — the great miscellany of it all. Now, as more and more of that gets priced out, it gets easier to find those same qualities up here. It’s still (relatively) cheap enough, and the foundations are still bohemian enough, for a deep streak of odd. You feel it in the David Lynch-y slow motion — the slow wind in the grass, the slow shushing branches, the slow water drifting by.
Amy and I slow down here too. In Monte Rio, we park and make our way down to the river’s edge. “Look at this cute rock,” Amy says, bending down. She comes up with a rock that is indeed cute. Then she chucks it into the river. She’s laughing. I start laughing too, and we stand there a good while, throwing rocks. Something has been missing, and it isn’t missing here. I get it. I get how you’d dig deep into your savings, embrace your vast ignorance of running a business, and by god buy a movie theater made out of a Quonset hut.
THE RIO’S STORY is part of a larger one, however unique the particulars. As all kinds of beloved old institutions vanish from the cultural landscape, we’ve become intimately acquainted with that 21st-century lament: Oh god, another neat old thing’s about to go away. But that lament has led to heroic community efforts to prop up these institutions — think tiny radio stations, think record stores, think bookstores. The plucky spirit that once launched such operations has been remade as a force for preserving them.
So it is that a group of utterly unqualified citizens has drawn a funny little line in a tiny patch of Monte Rio sand: Not here. Whatever change may be sweeping our lives, for two hours at river’s edge on a Saturday night, strangers will get to be transported beside one another, and stuff their faces with popcorn.
While Mutchler and George and I chip away at that rosé, waiting for the movie to start, some locals they know swing by. “Everyone always congregated at the Rio over the years,” a woman named Sherry Pimsler tells me. Pimsler is a Rec and Park administrator and has lived up the hill in Monte Rio for a decade. The new Rio has her stamp of approval. “They offer you Kleenex when you walk out if you’re crying. Where else does that happen?”
Other traditions have taken root too. Come Oscar time, the theater rolls out a red carpet, and locals dress up like Hollywood royalty; the employees pose as paparazzi and snap photos. World Cup and NBA Finals games are screened for free, rollicking afternoons of beer and shouting and dogs in the aisle.
At this point, Mutchler wants to build a bonfire. Acutely aware that I’ve never done such a thing at a multiplex, I roam the lobby of the theater with him, looking for burnable scrap. We return with an armful of paper and wood, and find a spot on the bank leading to the beach.
The sun has fully set, and as Mutchler busies himself with the fire, I look out into the gloom. The river’s narrow here, and across it I can just make out the Village Inn. It has stood there for more than a century. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire made it theirs for a minute, in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. The Hollywood days are long gone. Now it’s just a pretty, old inn at the edge of a pretty, old river, coming on and off the market in recent years. Who knows — maybe it will be up for sale again soon.