There is something unique and nostalgic about being entertained in a theater that celebrates a bygone era. Despite the challenges that many vintage venues face, the multi-purpose Rio Theatre has managed to maintain its classic décor, as well as remain a Santa Cruz beacon for locals to experience all forms of performing art.
When it first opened on June 12th, 1949, the venue was called the Rio Cycloramic Theatre. In the 1940s, the two prominent local cinemas were the Del Mar and the New Santa Cruz. Both were designed as convention style theaters, with stages and flat screens that could be raised or lowered. Golden State/T&D Theaters was a California-based chain of movie theaters with plans to install a curved “Cycloramic” screen in Santa Cruz. This new version offered viewers an improved movie experience, with 3D depth illusion, enhanced picture clarity, and less distortion for those sitting close to the screen. Because the curved shape could not move up and down and meant forfeiting the use of the stage, the other two theaters opted out. In 1947, Golden State built the Rio to introduce the Cycloramic screen along with a spacious performance auditorium.
Material was gathered from companies in Santa Cruz, Davenport, Oakland, and San Francisco to build the theater in the busy East Side business region. It was designed with ocean liner-inspired architecture and initially contained 938 seats. Since its opening, the venue has been carefully renovated so that as its amenities are updated its antiquity is preserved. The “Crying Room”, a glassed-in room overlooking the main theater and once used by mothers and babies during movies, is now a hospitality and dressing room for performers. The Rio now has 675 original refurbished movie theatre seats, as well as a 40 feet wide stage, a 20 feet high movie screen, high-tech sound and lighting systems, and a colorfully renovated marquee.
The Rio’s first event was a 15-minute dedication ceremony broadcast from live radio on KSCO, followed by a double feature of the 1949 films “Song of India” and “Law of the Barbary Coast”. Since then the venue has accommodated a variety of events, including movies, international concerts, comedy shows, lectures, film festivals, and theatrical performances. It has become the home for local awards ceremonies, including the Sammy Awards, the Gail Rich Awards, and the NEXTies. The Rio also schedules events outside of the artistic arena – on September 10th the theater will be hosting the 2016 WBFA Championships. In addition to public events, the space is available to rent for private occasions including rehearsals, classes, and weddings.
There are apparently different speculations as to why the theater was named “Rio”, meaning “river”. Some think it refers to Branciforte Creek or the San Lorenzo river. Others have guessed that the cruise ship-like architectural design is a salute to Santa Cruz’s seaside environment and evokes a tropical beach destination like Rio de Janeiro. Whatever the reason, the Rio Theatre remains a historic landmark for locals to experience diverse entertainment from around the world.
Find out about upcoming events at the Rio Theatre by visiting their website.