The Long, Ugly Story of the Rialto Deal

The theater business is a treacherous, ugly mud pit where love is desecrated and money rules all—and especially in Santa Rosa, where the Tocchinis, the Coddings and the Duggans have owned or operated movie theaters for a collective 189 years. When Ky Boyd opened the Rialto in 2000, he could never have guessed the world he was entering into, nor could he predict that one day, ten years down the line, he’d be a new kid on the block caught in the crossfire of old Santa Rosa grudges and family alliances.

As everyone knows by now, the Rialto has lost its lease to the owners of the Roxy Stadium 14 multiplex theater, and there’s many places to read people’s opinions on the subject here, here and here. But there’s not a lot of history being told, nor has there been an explanation of how theater operation, and particularly theater booking, works, which has resulted in a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding. Also, so far, no one’s investigated things like property records and perhaps most interesting of all, campaign contributions.

Let’s start at the beginning. Pour some tea. This is going to take a while.

The History

The Tocchini family has owned theaters in Santa Rosa since 1924, when Dan Tocchini’s father, Daniel Tocchini Sr., built the Strand Theater on Fifth and Davis streets in Santa Rosa. It’s now the Last Day Saloon, and still says ‘Tocchini Building’ on the outside. Tocchini went on to operate a multitude of local theaters, the names of which many old-timers will recognize: the Rose Theatre, the Empire Theatre, the Analy Theatre and the El Rey Theatre. Tocchini Sr. also ran as a movie house the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, which is now a popular music venue.

A theater called the Cline Theater opened on Fifth and B Streets in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, which had destroyed Santa Rosa’s downtown vaudeville house, the Athenaeum. The Cline housed vaudeville shows, concerts and Broadway plays. Near the Cline, also on B Street, was the G&S Theater—it also hosted vaudeville and touring musicals. Both were large, beautiful auditoriums, both began showing movies when talkies came along, and both eventually had their names changed. The G&S became the California Theatre, and the Cline became the Roxy Theater. Though he actually once operated the Cal, it’s his longtime operation of the Roxy that will always be linked with Dan Tocchini, Sr.

In the early 1960s, developer Hugh Codding got into the theater business as well. At his Coddingtown Center, he opened the 20th Century West Theatre, which changed hands a number of times before rechristened as Coddingtown Cinemas in 1974. Codding also owned the Star-Vue Drive-in on Airway Drive, where there’s now an industrial area containing Creators Foam Shop, 24 Hour Fitness, Nancy’s Fancys and Azteca Restaurant, and later, Empire Cinemas in Rohnert Park.

The Duggan family had a stake in Santa Rosa theaters as well. The Duggans owned land where the Village Drive-In stood, which opened in 1952 and closed in 1986—it’s now a condominium complex behind a small strip mall across from Howarth Park, down the hill from the Villa restaurant. Local teenagers tended to call the Village Drive-In either “The V.D.” or “The Passion Pit,” in reference to the activities that took place in backseats of cars while horror and B-movies played. The Village Drive-In showed Jaws to famously packed screenings, and it was rumored that there was a speaker cable running across Montgomery Drive and up into a house on the hill above the Village Drive-In screen so the owners of the house, Joseph and Barbara Duggan, could hear the sound while watching the movies from their living room.

Two devastating 5.6 and 5.7 earthquakes hit Santa Rosa in 1969 and left many buildings badly damaged, including the Cal and Roxy Theaters on B Street. Because of the extreme damage, City Manager Ken Blackman made a special trip to Washington D.C. to negotiate an eminent-domain deal for a large portion of downtown land. As part of the deal, the Tocchinis received a settlement from redevelopment funds, and plans were made to tear down or relocate the historic buildings in the twelve square blocks that are now the Santa Rosa Plaza.

That’s a deal that Hugh Codding spent millions of dollars in lawsuits to try to block, because the mall would bring serious competition for his Coddingtown and Montgomery Village shopping centers. He justified his opposition by arguing, rightfully, that the mall would bisect downtown—but everyone knew that Codding had a great financial interest as well.

Meanwhile, Dan Tocchini Jr. began running his dad’s theater company. Most notoriously, Tocchini operated the Midway Drive-In at the border of Sonoma and Marin Counties. In the late ’70s, the Midway, like most drive-ins, showed porn, and local furor erupted over the fact that those driving on Highway 101 could actually at certain points see the action on the large screen from their cars. Tocchini continued to show adult films there anyway; the theatre eventually closed in the ’80s, along with the Village Drive-In and the Redwood Drive-In near Rohnert Park. In Santa Rosa throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, United Artists, a large theater chain, ran UA5, UA6 and Coddingtown Cinemas.

Then came the late ’90s, when Tocchini planned to build a two-story multiplex off the freeway at the old Yeager & Kirk site on Santa Rosa Ave. The site had been vacant since 1993—utilized only to film scenes in the Wes Craven film Scream—and it offered plenty of parking and visibility from the freeway. But the City of Santa Rosa wanted Tocchini to build instead at the long-empty lot next to the transit mall, citing revitalization of downtown. That plea from the city gave the theater developers acute bargaining power.

How acute? Tocchini and Wasem, with the help of City Manager Jeff Kolin and councilmember Mike Martini, were able to convince city council to grant them a preposterous concession. Namely, a vote that no other theater company but Tocchini’s could open a movie theater in downtown Santa Rosa without first supplying and paying for a costly impact report and public hearing which could prove the new theater would not hurt business at the Roxy Stadium 14. Essentially, Wasem and Tocchini secured for themselves a guaranteed monopoly on the movie business in downtown Santa Rosa.

Codding, who still owned Coddingtown Cinemas and Rohnert Park’s Empire Cinemas, led the chorus of those raising a ruckus about the monopoly deal, and again was found trying to block something that benefited Tocchini. Once more, Codding and Tocchini were at odds. Tocchini ended up getting what he wanted and opened the Roxy Stadium 14—named in homage to the old Santa Rosa theater run by his dad. It wasn’t long before David Codding paid homage to his own dad by getting revenge on Tocchini.

Since 1989, Tocchini had subleased his Lakeside On The Plaza theater at 551 Summerfield Rd. from the Coddings, who held a 50-year master lease with landowner Lynn Duggan. In his ten years at the Lakeside (formerly an ice rink that Charles Schulz deemed unsuitable for hockey in 1968, inspiring the famous cartoonist to build the Redwood Empire Ice Arena across town), Tocchini had added three smaller auditoriums in the rear of the building. But the movie business was slow, and the theater required a lot of work while Tocchini poured his energies into his multiplex. After Tocchini’s sublease ran out in 1999, he opted into a month-to-month lease.

Codding was then put in contact with Ky Boyd, an out-of-towner who was interested in leasing the theater for the long term. Codding signed Boyd on for as long as possible, the remainder of his master lease with Duggan—ten years. Because of the conflict between the Tocchinis and the Coddings over the years, he didn’t give Tocchini the opportunity to counter-offer—instead, he gave Tocchini an eviction notice. Boyd moved in, compensated Tocchini for the theater’s projectors and other assorted equipment, and opened Rialto Cinemas.

Soon after the Roxy Stadium 14 was completed, Boyd and Tocchini—both local, independent exhibitors—emerged as the only theater operators in Santa Rosa, which is incredible considering Santa Rosa’s size (in most other cities of comparable population, chains like AMC or Cinemark run things). United Artists declared bankruptcy in 2000, and their three theaters in Santa Rosa soon closed. Coddingtown Cinemas turned into Beverly’s Fabric & Crafts. UA5 on Mendocino Avenue turned into the Universalist Unitarian Church and the Glaser Center. As for UA6, Tocchini took over operations and called it Roxy on the Square.

Originally, Tocchini had pursued the idea of showing independent films at the Roxy on the Square—now called Third Street Cinemas—and even talked with the Third Street Aleworks about the possibility of running beer lines direct from their tap beneath the ground and into the theater. But Tocchini came up against a major obstacle: Ky Boyd’s control of independent film booking in Santa Rosa.

Booking: What Really Matters

Theater booking can be a filthy, filthy business, full of cutthroat wrangling, bullheaded phone calls, complicated contracts and behind-the-back deals. The nice way to describe theater booking might be to say that it’s “about relationships.” The truth is that it’s merciless. Especially if your name is George Lucas.

Theater booking graduated to a new level of bloodlust when Lucas released his first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace. Lucas knew he sat on box office gold, and ensured that most of that gold would go to him. Therefore, for a theater operator to show Phantom Menace, he would essentially have to be content with increased concession sales while the box office receipts went almost entirely to Lucas—at least for opening weekend, if not the first week or two, after which the contract went down to a percentage split.

Lucas demonstrated to other blockbuster-minded studios what kind of gutting could be done to theater operators, but The Phantom Menace was thankfully just a temporary oddity. The stronger, more permanent factor influencing theater booking around the same time was the introduction of the multiplex.

Booking contracts had already dictated how many screens a movie must run on in addition to how many weeks the theater is forced to play the movie. But the multiplex, with a dozen or more screens, offered studios a larger playground to play bully in. It’s not uncommon at all now for distributors to work exclusive deals with theater bookers—if you want Up in the Air, as an arbitrary example, you’ve got to commit to showing, say, three other movies from the same distributor. You might have to show them for a long time, and oftentimes on more than one screen. Even if no one comes to see them.

For booking purposes, theaters are demarcated into zones, and when there’s only one theater in a zone that books independent films, that theater essentially has a lock on screening independent films in the area. Not only can a theater make a deal with distributors for exclusive rights within a certain radius, but there simply aren’t enough prints in existence for a distributor to give a movie to two different theaters in the same booking zone. Digital technology may soon change that, but for as long as the Rialto’s been open, that’s been the case.

The Rialto and the Roxy are in the same booking zone—and hence, no movie has ever played at the Roxy and the Rialto concurrently. It’s the reason that Tocchini was unable to turn Roxy on the Square into an art house. All he could get were Boyd’s leftovers. A big misconception that the Rialto’s supporters have subscribed to is that Tocchini has had the chance to run an art house on Third Street this whole time. Boyd has had a lock on independent film booking in the Santa Rosa zone, and he knows it. To say that Tocchini had any chance of running an art house at Third Street Cinemas is absurd.

The booking separation between the two theaters is assured further in that both companies have repositories for underperforming movies that they’re contractually obligated to keep playing. The Roxy once commonly picked up films whose contract with the Rialto ran out; that changed with Boyd’s  introduction of ‘Movies In the Morning,’ a 10:30am dumping ground for movies now signed to much longer contracts. Likewise, Tocchini now utilizes Third Street Cinemas for the same convenient purpose. But don’t call it ‘second-run.’ With DVDs now being released just three months after theatrical release, the second-run movie is a relic of the past—it’s replaced these days by a backlog of stale films at first-run theaters, immovable due to aggressive booking.

It’s not as if Tocchini hates independent films. Right now, at Tocchini’s other eleven theaters, you’ll see that along with mainstream fare, nearly all of them are showing Crazy Heart, The Hurt Locker, and The Ghost Writer—independent movies that the Rialto is also currently playing. They’re just not playing at the Roxy, because they can’t. What’s playing at Boyd’s other theaters? Diehard Rialto fans might be surprised to see titles like She’s Out of My League, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Alice in Wonderland. They’re just not playing at the Rialto. Because they can’t.

This strict separation doesn’t mean that bidding wars don’t occasionally erupt between the Roxy’s booker Mike Timko, who conducts business in Santa Rosa, and the Rialto’s booking, done by Exhibitor Support Services LLC in Los Angeles. Acquiring certain films like Brokeback Mountain, O Brother Where Art Thou and Sex and the City have inspired long fights between the two theaters. The Roxy and the Rialto will often both show trailers for an upcoming attraction while their bookers drive hard bargains with the studios to get the film. And every time Tocchini loses a mainstream film to the Rialto, like Sex and the City, the thorn in his side grows.

How the Rialto Got Ousted

As everyone knows by now, Tocchini holds a signed lease for the Rialto property. Codding’s master lease is scheduled to run out on the Rialto property this September, and Boyd’s lease runs out with it. Boyd says that Duggan came to the theater in 2008 and expressed interest in keeping the Rialto on as a tenant, but Boyd had been getting the run-around from Duggan in recent months and grew worried. Then, on March 5, Tocchini called Boyd and said he didn’t want Boyd to hear it from anyone else: Tocchini had signed a lease agreement for 551 Summerfield Road.

This doesn’t mean Duggan handed the property to Tocchini per se. Who Tocchini signed the lease with wasn’t Duggan himself but Duggan’s new property management team for the Lakeside Center, Selway Management, Inc., headed by Larry Wasem and Richard Coombs. Of course, Wasem and Coombs are major investors in the Roxy Theater, Airport Cinemas, and several of Tocchini’s other theaters. They’re also the property managers for Tocchini’s Roxy Theater, the Airport Business Center and the Raven Film Center. This is information that’s listed plainly on the Selway website, and Duggan obviously knew that by hiring Selway as property managers for the Lakeside Center, he was effectively giving Boyd and the Rialto the boot.

Hugh Codding’s history and involvement in all of this is interesting and all—his lawsuit against the mall development which gave Tocchini a redevelopment payout, his protest against the city council’s generous concessions to the new Roxy Theater in 1999. But when it comes to the Rialto deal of the present, to use a film term, Hugh and David Codding are a huge MacGuffin.

The temptation to blame Codding is compelling. Some have said that if David Codding hadn’t awarded the lease behind Tocchini’s back to Boyd in 1999, Tocchini might not have been so upset and thus would not be so fixated on taking the Rialto back from Boyd. Codding’s actions couldn’t have pleased Duggan, either, because the Duggan family and the Tocchinis both amicably owned theaters in Santa Rosa for many years. Others have further pointed out that Codding-owned theaters, like Coddingtown Cinemas and Empire Cinemas, suffered from a dire lack of building repairs, and perhaps Duggan was displeased with Codding’s property maintenance. Surely, the skeptics say, Codding is to blame.

David Codding is an easy target. He’s been rich his whole life, just like Tocchini. He’s been married many times over. He tried for a time to strike out on his own from his dad’s shadow by opening a string of Taco Time fast food restaurants. When that failed, he came back to his dad, who handed him Montgomery Village. But the fundamental turn of events here is that Codding’s master lease simply ran out. If David Codding had any say in the matter, he’d obviously keep leasing the Rialto property to Boyd. The key is Duggan.

Lynn Duggan is an elusive figure—he’s is an ex-Secret Service agent who for 29 years has run a private investigation company in Mission Circle called SRS Private Investigators. Among other business, he conducts background checks for the County of Sonoma. He inherited his house near Howarth Park in 2000, while his parents were still alive, and has overseen 531-573 Summerfield Road, a.k.a. the Lakeside Center, in the Duggan Family Trust since 1998. He has remained tight-lipped about his decision to lease to Tocchini, no matter how many people try to pry it out.

Duggan might simply not like David Codding, but that wouldn’t account for why he decided to give the theater to Tocchini. He could have gotten rid of Codding, hired a perfectly fine property manager for the center, and kept the Rialto on as a tenant. Yet he specifically chose Selway, and Wasem, and Coombs, and Tocchini.

The story so far that Tocchini tells is that Duggan’s late mother, Barbara Duggan, once told Tocchini in 2004 that she had known him and his family for a long time, that she liked him, and that she wanted him to have the theater back. She might have told her son Lynn Duggan the same thing before her death a few years ago. Duggan may have heard it from Tocchini in a sentimental ploy to acquire the theater. Who knows? It could even have been a story concocted this past week between Duggan and Tocchini to placate repeated inquiries from the media and to soothe public outrage, and it’s a perfect line. After all, you’ve got to be a heartless bastard to argue with a dead mother.

Will It Actually Stay the Same?

Boyd found out he’d lost the lease on March 5, but strategically waited until March 17 to spill the story to the papers because he knew the Tocchinis wouldn’t be around to tell their side of the story. On the day the news broke, they were out of town at ShoWest, the annual theater industry convention, running March 15-18 in Las Vegas. While Boyd controlled the conversation, thousands of people joined a Save Rialto Cinemas Lakeside Facebook page started by Allison Palmdin, a former employee of the Rialto, and uninformed speculation about Tocchini, his business practices and his plans for the theater ran rampant.

Tocchini came home and has repeatedly said he’ll keep everything the same at the Rialto, and that it’s in his best business interest to show the same types of films, to keep the same staff, to re-hire the same manager, to sell the same popcorn. He says he’ll first upgrade the sound and then work toward improving the “sight” of the auditoriums, which means installing stadium seating. He’s said he’s wanted to get back to the project of improving the theater that he first undertook twenty years ago.

But the main thing is that Tocchini says he’ll keep the same art-house programming come September. With Timko’s booking experience and connections, fulfilling that promise will be simple to do. More importantly, it would make terrible business sense not to. There’s a built-in clientele, there’s a built-in interest and there’s a built-in audience for independent, foreign and art film at the theater, and there’s every reason to believe that Tocchini will open on Sept. 1 and start showing the same exact kinds of films.

What to call it? It makes sense that Tocchini will call the theater the Lakeside. That’s the original name he used in the ’90s, and it’s a component of “Rialto Cinemas Lakeside” that will register in moviegoers’ minds. He’ll have advice on how to run the theater if he convinces the Rilato’s manager, Mary Ann Wade, to stay on—in her decades of working at theaters in Sonoma County, Wade has worked for Tocchini before. If she decides to leave, he has the advice of senior staff at his other local theaters, many of whom genuinely love the Rialto. Ironically, if Tocchini wants further free consultation, he has to look no further than the Save Rialto Cinemas Lakeside Facebook page, which is effectively a point-for-point primer on how to run the theater after he moves in.

One area that Tocchini says he’s passionate about is community outreach, and indeed, he’s already secured the Jewish Film Festival for the fall and says he wants to work with each and every charity that the Rialto works with currently; to do “just as much if not more” community outreach than the Rialto has. Currently, he sponsors special senior shows, he works with the Human Race, he hires clients of Becoming Independent, he sponsors pet adoption events through PAWS, and much, much more. Another thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is that Tocchini’s long allowed local independent filmmakers on multiple occasions the use of his theaters to screen their films, giving them a generous percentage of ticket sales.

But there’s one organization that may not want to partner with Tocchini, and that’s Face to Face-Sonoma County AIDS Network. The Rialto has since day one presented a gay film series to benefit the HIV organization, but doubts about that series’ future arise—if you look at where Tocchini’s investors have donated campaign money.

Following the Money

There are no political campaign contributions on record for either Tocchini or Duggan—a smart move for high-profile business owners—but Tocchini’s business partners, Larry Wasem and Richard Coombs, have contributions on record from the last 20 years that the Rialto clientele isn’t going to like. At all.

In 2004, between Wasem, Coombs, and their spouses, campaign contributions totaled $4,000 for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign. In 2008, the Coombs gave $2,300 to John McCain’s election campaign.

In 2001, Larry Wasem gave $1,000 to James Inhofe, the Republican congressman from Oklahoma who has repeatedly denied global warming; who has defended torture at Abu Ghraib; who has pushed to make English the national language and who is extremely opposed to gay rights. He has outwardly refused to hire gay staff. He is in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriage. He is against prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and is against adding “sexual orientation” to the definition of hate crimes.

In 1998, the Coombs gave $500 to Frank Riggs to defeat Barbara Boxer in the Senate race. When Riggs dropped out of the primaries, they funneled $2,000 instead to Republican Matt Fong in order to unseat Boxer. (Fong eventually lost to Boxer, despite having support from Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich.)

In 2002, the Coombs and the Wasems gave $3,000 to Mike Martini, the pro-development councilman and onetime Santa Rosa mayor who pushed for the Roxy’s monopoly in downtown Santa Rosa and who ran in the congressional primaries, unsuccessfully, to defeat Lynn Woolsey.

Further contributions between the two families include $1,000 to Alaskan congressman Don Young, who earmarked money for the “Bridge to Nowhere” and who once said victims of Hurricane Katrina “can kiss my ear”; $500 to Republican-in-Democrat’s clothing Joe Nation; and $6,100 to the campaign and Rich Political Action Committee of Congressman Richard Pombo. Pombo in total took $500,000 from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff—more than any other member of Congress. His history of scandal and corruption earned him the title “Enemy of the Earth.” Why donate to Pombo? Perhaps because his district includes Lodi and Manteca, where SR Entertainment Group operates movie theaters.

In other news, Wasem’s wife in 2008 gave $1,000 to Barack Obama.

Why All Of This Doesn’t Really Matter

Calm down! They’re extremely wealthy developers—did you think they’d be Green Party activists? Wasem and Coombs are just investors, nothing more. They have no say in how the theaters are run or what films are shown. There is no reason for Tocchini to skew his theater booking to please the politics of his investors. His investors don’t care. They’ll be happy if the theater makes money.

History has shown that Tocchini isn’t opposed to sex—he once showed adult films at his Midway Drive-In south of Petaluma, and during that same swinging era leased the Tocchini building at Fifth and Davis to a bathhouse. Gay sex may be dicier, but Tocchini is first and foremost a good businessman, and good businessmen don’t let their personal principles obstruct good business. Considering that he fought to show Brokeback Mountain, he could be an incredibly gay-friendly guy who happens to have a business partner that donated money to James Inhofe. Is it good business to have Wasem as a partner? You bet it is. Is it good business to continue to show foreign films, art films, independent films and gay films when he takes over the theater? Absolutely.

As has been widely proposed, a boycott of Tocchini’s new theater will mean that he’ll have to endure picketers on opening day and slow box office receipts for the first month. Perhaps the first year. But bereft of other options, filmgoers will slowly creep back to see the kinds of movies that Boyd once screened there. Even if all 3,000-and-counting members of the Save Rialto Cinemas Lakeside Facebook page boycott the new theater forever, that’s still the same number of people over at the Roxy Theater right now on any given single Friday or Saturday night. He’ll get through the boycott slump.

The reality is that it would take a miracle for Boyd to find another suitable location, to build auditoriums, to bring in seating, to buy projectors and acquire the myriad necessary operating equipment to get up and running by September 1. Would it were not so.

Why The Whole Damn Thing Is Heartbreaking Anyway

Ky Boyd is just as much a businessman as Tocchini. But at the Rialto, Boyd’s love of film shows. He came to this area and took a risk on booking art films when no one else was taking that risk. He pioneered art house booking in the area, and he built up an audience of film lovers in Sonoma County. He believed in us. He trusted that we would care.

The Rialto exudes film. There’s old movie posters for classic movies like Gilda and Vertigo and Breakfast at Tiffany’s lining the hallway. And since the films the Rialto shows don’t often have the benefit of television advertising, Boyd prints up one-sheets for each film, every week, and sets them in the lobby to let people know why the film is important.

When Tocchini takes over, he may have the same staff. He may put some classic movie posters in the hallway. If he’s smart, he’ll limit his onscreen advertising to an absolute minimum, if not eliminate it entirely. He’ll use real butter on the popcorn. He might try to sell local coffee from Ecco Caffe in Santa Rosa, or Laloo’s ice cream from Healdsburg, or pizza from Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma. He can do all these things.

Most importantly, Tocchini can book the same kinds of films that Boyd booked, and partner with community organizations like Boyd did, and continue to genuinely enthuse the local community about the art and love and joy of film. He can do all these things. And it will be good.

But Boyd did it here first. Let’s never forget that.

Sonoma County Library