Rio Theatre

“ET, phone home”

I first heard these famous lines, in 1982, in a seat of the Rio Theatre in the Eastside of Santa Cruz.

The 938 seat Rio was opened on June 12, 1949, with the double feature of “Song of India” and “Law of the Barbary Coast”. Clearly not masterpieces of world cinema.

The screen was built as a cycloramic or curved screen which created a 3-D like effect for the movie goer.

While the Rio was not built during the Golden Age of Art Deco movie palaces (1920s-30s), the neon sign that illuminates the T junction of Soquel Avenue and Seabright is a classic.

While the Rio Theatre is not the mecca for cinema that it once was, today the Rio is alive as a music and performance space.

In recent times, like many historic, single screen cinemas, the Rio no longer serves as a mere movie theater. It now functions as a live music venue. Graham Nash and Judy Collins are slated to play at the Rio in the near future.

The stylized sign became my anchor for the sketch. I got to the theatre by 7 AM but the downside was the marine layer drizzle that covered my windshield. This was going to make field sketching a challenge. I found a parking spot on Seabright, facing the theatre and I used my car as a sketching blind.

I just had periodically use my windshield wipers to unblur my subject.

I returned later and sketched the ticket booth of the Rio.

KPIG, 107 “oink” 5 FM

It’s a bit like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. The music and voices comes through the car radio, but where does it really come from?

In my mind’s eye I envisioned a tall building with radio towers crowning the roof and an expansive studio on the top floor where a large staff puts together playlists and commercials while the DJ speak to their devoted listeners, taking requests and forecasting the weather and traffic patterns.

While I’m down in Santa Cruz, my radio is often tuned to 107.5, which is the frequency of the legendary radio station, KPIG. KPIG plays Americana (and other worldly music) music: rock, folk, blues, bluegrass, western swing, country, reggae, and everything in between.

The radio station identifies it’s location as Freedom, California but in reality the station is based in an unassuming building in Watsonville, across Main Street from Ramsey Park. Freedom does have a much nicer ring than Watsonville!

What brought me to Main Street was a bumper sticker. For years, I had seen the KPIG sticker on numerous cars and plenty of trucks. The other ubiquitous sticker in the Monterey Bay Area is for the Mystery Spot. I have always loved the design of the sticker,( by John F. Johnson of Teapot Graphics) of a sunglasseted swine dolfing his black hat. I wanted a sticker for my sketchbook but I have never seen it sold in local stores or on KPIG’s website. I thought maybe KPIG has a business office and I would be able to buy a sticker there. So off I went towards Watsonville.

As I drove out from my cabin, my radio was tuned to 107 “oink” 5 FM. Through my speakers was the Slickers song, “Johnny Too Bad”, a song I had first heard while watching film The Harder They Come. This is the film that introduced reggae to the world. I loved the eclectic variety of KPIG. Pig music, really, is just good music, no matter what genre. You can’t put your finger, or cloven hoof, on it, but it just seems right.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled off Highway 1 and drove down Main Street. As I neared KPIG Central, to my left, there was no tall building, crowned in tall radio towers, just a collection of businesses and a strip mall. I made a left hand turn and drove through the Dollar Tree parking lot. I came upon a complex that looked like it had once been a hotel. To my right was a single story long building that might have once been the hotel’s office. On the other end of the parking lot was an L shaped building which, at one time, housed the hotel rooms but now where businesses.

There was no sign, no ostentatious display proclaiming the business behind it’s twin brown doors, that this was the epicenter of one of the most beloved radio stations around. Somehow this seems just exactly right. The only reason I knew this was KPIG studios was that there was a sticker, the one which I was now seeking, one of the two doors. Also the sign in the window, “Beware of Attack Pig” was a swine giveaway.

What’s behind the brown door?

I parked and walked over to take few pictures of the door.

To my surprise, the door to the right opened. I was greeted by Vicki, the Saturday morning DJ. This was the woman behind the wizard! She invited me in. On the door was the phrase: “Real People, Real Music, Real Radio”. This rang true as I stood before the “real” DJ that I had just been listening to a few minutes earlier.

To my left was the studio, lined with shelves and shelves of music. In the center of the room was a deck with computer screens, a chair, and a microphone.

“So this is where the magic happens.” I said.

She gave me a few stickers and I thanked her for the music. I returned to the car and sketched the studio with the antenna rising above the former hotel.

On my ride back to Santa Cruz, I listened to the PIG and as I pulled off Highway 9 towards my cabin, Neil Young’s title track from his legendary second album came on, “Everybody Knows That This is Nowhere.”

This seemed somehow a fitting soundtrack to my KPIG morning adventure!


Del Mar Theatre

On Pacific Avenue, the Main Street in downtown Santa Cruz, is an impressive example of the era of the movie palaces.

This movie palace was opened on August 14, 1936 with the feature “China Clipper”. The Del Mar has a capacity of 1,521. This means that the town of Sea Ranch, in Sonoma could all attend a movie at the Del Mar!

The sign and marquee are now shrouded in trees from the street level and the sign could use a lick of paint.

The Del was built during the pinnacle of cinema and is designed in an Art Deco Zig-Zag Moderne style. The theater was built with a stage and a 25 piece orchestra pit. This was a space designed for many forms of entertainment from celluloid to live theater to music.

Many notable musicians over the years, have taken the stage at the Del, including: Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Jerry Garcia, and Emmylou Harris.

The imposing bulk of the back of the Del Mar as viewed from Front Street. I have always loved the mural that crowns the back of the Del.

Like many grand cinemas of the era, The Del Mar closed for a time, her vertical sign and marquee went dark.

At one time the theater was slated to be turned into a parking lot but local activists fought to save the landmark theater. The theater was renovated in 2002 then divided into three separate theaters and reopened.

It is now the grand dame of Santa Cruz Cinema whose neon sign again welcomes a new generation of movie goers.

A plaque on Pacific Avenue.