Jerry Knight has a reason to live, and it may well be the clunky old Altman spotlight at the top of the back wall of the River Theatre in Guerneville. "Can you believe this shit?" he asks up in the nosebleeds. "How old do you think this is? Fifties? Sixties? Let's see if it actually works." He fiddles with some knobs; the unit comes to life with light. Directing the spotlight around the large stage below, like an excited child, Knight beams.
It's a hard-fought smile. One morning last year, the 64-year-old Vietnam War veteran woke up in his Forest Knolls home, went downstairs for coffee, called up to his wife of 33 years, Susan, and got no answer. He ran upstairs to find her motionless in bed. He was unable to revive her. When paramedics arrived, they confirmed that his wife had died of a heart attack in the night.
Leading a tour of the River Theatre with musicians Deborah Yates and Jon Mulvey last week, Knight says he could have given up. Instead, he bought this theater, honoring a long-held dream he and Susan shared to one day own a nightclub. "It was either buy the theater and put my time into this," he says, plainly, "or die on the roads or go off the bridge from drinking too much. That's a completely honest statement. I was completely devastated. Still am."
He gives it a moment. In a quick, barely noticeable split second, he surveys with his contractor's eye the theater's freshly painted ceiling, the newly installed floor, the upgraded sound system. "But you know what?" he says, righting himself. "I got 33 good years. You gotta move on in life."
Or, as it happened, move north. A longtime fixture in the Marin music scene who swears liberally but when in the presence of women asks them to pardon his language, Knight bought the run-down River Theatre in February for $600,000; he's since put $400,000 into refurbishing the venue from its "piss-poor" condition. The water heaters were broken, the ceiling in code violation, the floors were covered in a foot and a half of mud. "It smelled so bad in here," he says, "like an asshole, pardon my language. The mud, the dirt, the dampness—it was overwhelming. Your eyes would actually burn in here 'cause it was so bad."
For a month and a half, Knight spent every day doing nothing but crawling beneath the building, removing mud buildup from flooding. He fixed and painted the ceiling. He tore up and replaced the floors. He re-did all the electrical and plumbing. To celebrate, he hauled everything out of the attic—large foam angel wings, Egyptian pharaohs, Medieval armor, giant playing cards, framed sheet music, a crescent moon—and scattered it among the theater's four tiered levels in a cluttered, scrabbled décor.
Knight is a strong-set man with short brown hair, today wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt and stained jeans. He rarely answers his cell phone, still has what he calls "marijuana moments" and enjoys telling visitors about his Ferrari. He's worked as a recording engineer, a live soundman, a lacquer mastering engineer, a studio contractor, a band manager, a nonprofit director, a studio owner. He appreciates a challenge, such as taking over a theater that the community feels like they own. "Well, it is their theater," Knight says. "It's everybody's club. [Musician] Martin Fierro used to always tell me, 'You're just a caretaker. Get off this shit that you own the goddamn land!' Pardon my language."
Knight plans to host events every weekend, booking some himself (Elvin Bishop, Sept. 12); some with Yates and Mulvey (Vortex Tribe, Aug. 7); some with friend Nancy Lewis (Montrose, Aug. 6), whose gold records for the Grateful Dead and Billy Idol hang on the walls. Knight throws around other possible headliners like Huey Lewis, Boz Scaggs, Mickey Hart, Billy Idol and Mick Fleetwood.
He's also talking with the recently displaced Pegasus Theater Co. about producing live plays, and working with former owner Ed Martinez on upcoming gay dance nights (Sundance weekend, Aug. 14&–15). And while a pair of ancient carbon-arc lamphouses in the theater's old projection booth appear to be on their last legs, Knight mentions friends like Ben Stiller and Woody Harrelson, and declares he'll host a film festival at the theater in November—a return to the venue's roots.
Built in 1947, the River Theatre originally showed movies under the longtime ownership of Dave Williams. In 1973, it was bought by Tony Mata, and in the late '70s impresario Morty Wiggins began booking it as a live music venue, bringing in the likes of the Jerry Garcia Band, Emmylou Harris, David Bromberg and others, twice a month.
In 1981, Mark Russo took over, and local heavy metal bands played often, with the Dead Kennedys appearing in 1984. In 1985, it was bought by Bill and Diane Offill with Wayne Stam, who called it the Russian River Theatre Center and offered community events and theater classes. Starting in 1987, Laurel Pine began booking punk shows there with nonprofit collective Xcntrcx, bringing in Green Day, Primus, Operation Ivy, NOFX, Faith No More, Gwar and others. By 1992, it became Ziggurat, a dance club with an over-the-top Cleopatra-meets-Busby-Berkeley theme owned by Hans Grahlmann and Chris Coulores.
Grahlmann was tragically murdered in 1998; locals Ed Martinez and Gregg Seiler bought it in 1999 and christened it Club Fab, hosting gay dance nights, "foam" parties and weekly DJs. A New Year's flood forced Club Fab to close for good in 2005, and it's only sporadically hosted music since, such as last year's show with '80s pop icon Tiffany.
But this weekend, the River Theatre rises again, and Knight's vision for the building will be that much closer to complete. "But you know," he cautions, "it has to be right. I got a ton of people that want to bring bands in, but it's gotta be the right bands. I don't want to load it up with shit, you know? Pardon my language."
Montrose plays a grand opening party for the River Theatre on Friday, Aug. 6 (8pm; $25&–$30); Vortex Tribe plays Saturday, Aug. 7 (8pm; $20). 16135 Main St., Guerneville. 707.869.8022.