COVID-19 has brought business to a standstill for movie theaters across the country and as a result, the Raven Film Center, the only movie theater in Healdsburg, is closing its doors. While the end of the theater marks the reality of living in a COVID world, it also marks the end of a long chapter in the city’s history of movie theaters.
The announcement was made late last week that after years of business the theater would be closing its doors as a result of the pandemic. The nonprofit Raven Performing Arts Theater is not involved with the film center, and the performing arts theater will remain open.
The Tocchini family has owned and operated the Raven movie theater for several years and while the theater has been a place of business, it has also been a beloved gathering place for meetings, film festivals, shows and movies for Healdsburg residents both young and old.
For years it provided a space for folks to share in the love of movies and film, but it was also a space for special life moments and happy memories.
Healdsburg local Jessica M. Alcantar, said the theater was where she had her first movie theater experience as a kid.
“I watched my first movie at a movie theater there. The movie was ‘Selena,’ I was 9 years old,” Alcantar said.
Another resident, Rachel Hargon, said the Raven was where she was first introduced to the “Harry Potter” films.
She recalled the time when she stood in line in the pouring rain waiting to get into the theater to see the first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” when she was just 10 years old.
Local Rachel Neider, said she also has good memories from her times visiting the movie theater. Neider said she had her first kiss outside of the theater after seeing the Patrick Swayze movie, “Ghost.”
Mandy Witte, who doesn’t live in Healdsburg anymore but used to frequent the theater, said going to the movies at the Raven was a special part of growing up.
“Going to see a movie was such a special part of growing up. Healdsburg is such a magical place with the small town charm. And having the theater there was so unique. Being able to walk downtown and go have a bite to eat and catch a movie then walk home was the best,” Witte said. “We don’t live there any longer but when we come to visit Grandma always took the kids to see a movie there and those are special memories for the kids … I so wish this was staying open.”
A unique piece of history
The theater on Center Street now sits quiet, the curtains drawn and the doors locked up and even though it is shuttered, it leaves behind echoes of the past and a legacy of small-town history.
“It was part of the cultural life of the community,” said Healdsburg Museum Executive Director and Curator Holly Hoods
Before the theater was purchased by the Tocchinis it was owned and operated by Healdsburg native John Holt, who still resides in the city and is now retired. Holt was part of a wave of businessmen and investors who came to Healdsburg in the 1980s as the small town became interested in expanding its efforts to attract visitors and improve its central business core.
Holt was a partner in the ownership of the Hotel Healdsburg and once owned the property where The Matheson is now being built. He also was part of a small group of community members who worked to save the Aven movie house on North Street and he had the Raven Film Center built.
“I don’t remember why we wanted to save the old theater,” Holt said. “I guess because it was there and it was Healdsburg’s only movie theater.”
The Aven single-screen theater was never going to be economically viable, so the four-plex was constructed in the space previously occupied by a shuttered J.C. Penney department store.
“It worked for a while but the audiences were never that big,” Holt said.
Holt was part of a small group of people who purchased the single-screen theater. At the time, Don Hyde was hired as general manager and he screened documentaries and art films and held popular concerts at the venue. The Aven was first started by Richard Mana and opened in 1950.
Even before the Aven opened, Hoods said in her review of the history of movie theaters that Healdsburg always had a thriving movie scene starting with the Victory Theater in 1918.
The Victory then became the Liberty and was later purchased in the 1930s and renamed the Plaza for its close proximity to the Plaza from North Street. The Plaza continued the tradition of screening films and at one point during its run it had a special visit from the lion that the MGM film company (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) logo is based off of and the lion was given the key to the city. It was then in 1950 that Mana acquired and opened the Aven, which was named after his mother.
The Abel de Luna family then bought the theater in 1975 and started showing Spanish language films among other popular mainstream films.
When the J.C. Penney store on Center Street closed in 1992, Holt’s group purchased the building and converted it to the present day film center. Local contractor and planning commissioner Jerry Eddinger helped with the renovation of the old department store. They started renovations in 1994 and completed the project in about a year.
“The interior of the building was removed … and we had to go down to get the seats laid out and to get the screen to match. One of the owner’s wife was an artist and she was the one that came up with the Raven tiles. It was quite a thing to get going,” Eddinger said.
Eddinger said what he remembers the most about the theater renovation project was the night of the grand opening. On the evening of the opening they showed a major movie and catered the event for about 350 guests. The morning of the event, a cleaning company from Novato came to prep and clean the theater, but they flushed paper towels down the toilets, which ended up backing up the entire plumbing system.
Despite this initial hiccup Eddinger said the finished product was nice, and with bright curtains, hand painted tiles, a neo raven for the marquee and a camera from Lucas Enterprises, the theater was a special place unique to other cinemas.
“I hate to see it go,” he said. “It was really nice, we were happy.”