Holiday magic at Sebastiani Theatre
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Sonoma’s historic Sebastiani Theatre is magical any day, but during the holiday season it’s beyond captivating.
Forget that business owner Roger Rhoten is a talented magician who literally can pull a rabbit from a hat. During December it’s volunteer Susan Bellach who performs the real magic.
Bellach transforms the theater into an exquisite Christmas wonderland, one fitting of the classic Italian Renaissance movie house that presented its first film in 1934 for 30 cents admission.
A retired floral designer, Bellach, 66, painstakingly decorates the lobby, theater and stage with festive holiday garlands, dolls and adornments from floor to ceiling, creating elegant vignettes at every turn.
“She’s not just decorating, she’s an artist with it,” says Diana Rhoten, who runs the theater with her husband.
Bellach met the Rhotens 13 years ago when her grandson, Austin Bellach, attended their springtime theater camp.
“I didn’t know anyone would take a 4-year-old into a camp,” Bellach recalls. “He’s the reason we’re all here.”
Bellach was so impressed with the Rhotens’ dedication to the theater and the town’s aspiring young singers, dancers and actors that she offered to volunteer.
There was one hurdle, though. Bellach had no experience or ability in the performing arts. She helped with costumes then quickly discovered a need for her design talents.
“I don’t dance and I don’t sing and she (Diana Rhoten) doesn’t decorate,” Bellach says.
So, for more than a dozen years, Bellach has been the self-appointed chief design elf of Sebastiani Theatre. She started out decorating for the annual “Witchie Poo” Halloween show, which she continues to do each year.
Bellach is a natural for the job. As a young girl, she spent hours in her family’s upscale floral design shop in San Francisco, Belmont Florist, surrounded by beautiful flowers, ribbons and accessories.
Bellach trained with the floral designers and then brought her talents to some of the grandest homes in Pacific Heights and the Marina. She provided floral displays for debutante balls, social gatherings and special events for some of the city’s most notable families – the Zellerbachs, Spreckles and Hellmans among them.
Christmas was always her favorite assignment.
For Bellach, Sebastiani Theatre was just one more grand dame awaiting holiday adornment.
Her talents are visible as guests step into the entry from the 60-foot-long foyer. A flocked tree is decked out in gold, red and green, adorned with tiny satin poinsettias and shiny Christmas ornaments. Nearby, garland swags are generously layered with lights, beads, bows and baubles.
In the lobby, old world charm has a starring role. There are vintage and one-of-a-kind decorations collected when Bellach and her husband, Darryl Bellach, traveled to furniture marts in Paris, Milan, Cologne and beyond for their home furnishings business.
Many antique items were passed from Susan Bellach’s mother, others were gifted to Sebastiani Theatre by friends and visitors. Some items are from the early 1990s when the Rhotens traded movie-goers bags of popcorn for ornaments for the Christmas tree in the lobby – before they discovered Bellach.
These days, even the theater and stage are embellished with tidings of the season. Bellach and her assistant, Armando Molina, climb towering ladders to hang decorations, nothing too daunting for the duo. They’re careful to work around the original fixtures, concrete walls and limited electrical outlets in the 79-year-old building.
It takes a full week to transform the theater, with two days dedicated to the elaborate holiday village that features tiny shops, houses and people set in a snowy scene. Alongside a Ferris wheel and ice skating rink is another popular attraction, a replica of Sebastiani Theatre.
Bellach is especially fond of the sweet-faced vintage dolls with mechanical arms that move up and down. Old world glass ornaments from Austria are another favorite.
“I just love the older things,” Bellach says.
Bellach donates her time and talents for one reason: she adores the Rhotens.
“Roger and Diana are the heartbeat of this community,” she says. “They have touched everyone’s lives.”
She credits the Rhotens with saving the aging theater and all that it offers the community: live performances, first-run movies, foreign films, a vintage movie series, independent and art films, children’s theater camps and productions and more.
“You want to just jump on board in any way you can,” Bellach says.
Her husband is treasurer of the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to preserving and maintaining the theater. Glen Ellen resident and Academy Award-winning animator John Lasseter is an advisory member. When Disney-Pixar releases a new film, Sebastiani Theatre hosts the local premiere.
The Bellachs, who reside in Kenwood, are among the dedicated community members doing their part to assure the classic movie house doesn’t fall victim to the modern multiplex theaters so popular in today’s culture.
Visiting the Sebastiani Theatre, says Roger Rhoten, “is like stepping back into the golden era of film.
“It has a unique and special charm and character of its own and you can’t duplicate it in modern multiplexes,” he says.
Rhoten says Susan Bellach’s display provides his customers with yet another only-in-Sonoma experience. While regulars look forward to the annual Christmas display, others are caught by delighted surprise.
“It kind of puts them in the Christmas spirit,” says Rhoten. “They say, ‘Now it feels like Christmas.’ ”
Some of Bellach’s favorite visitors are the kids she brings from the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home for abandoned, neglected and abused children. As an active volunteer with its auxiliary group, the Cha-Chas, Bellach loves showing her young guests the holiday magic she’s created inside the theater.
To celebrate Bellach’s talents, Sebastiani Theatre presents an open house on Dec. 26. Diana Rhoten says it’s only fitting to host a community gathering.
“Without people ooh-ing and ahh-ing and sharing, it’s not the same,” she says.
In addition to its regular movie lineup, Sebastiani Theatre hosts several holiday events. Plan to come early to view Susan Bellach’s Christmas display.
Toys for Tots toy drive 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8. Bring a new, unwrapped toy as admission to the Disney-Pixar movie “Brave.”
“The Snow Maiden” performed by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8 and Sunday, Dec. 9. Reserved seats. Admission: $22 adults, $17 students with ID, $12 children 12 and under. Tickets and information: 938-1424, 996-9756.
“Music, Magic & More Holiday Extravaganza” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15 and Sunday, Dec. 16. Magic show by Roger Rhoten, live music and special entertainment plus Santa Claus. Admission: $10 adults, $7 seniors 62 and older and children 12 and under.
“White Christmas,” the 1954 holiday classic starring Bing Crosby, shows at 7 p.m. Dec. 17 and 1 p.m. Dec. 19, part of the vintage movie series presented by the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation. Admission: $9.50 adults, $7 seniors 62 and older and children 12 and under; $7 general for the matinee.
Holiday open house from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 26. Free. Refreshments and an opportunity to view the holiday display created by volunteer designer Susan Bellach.
Sebastiani Theatre is located at 476 First St. E. on the Sonoma Plaza. For program information, call 996-2020 or visit sebastianitheatre.com.