Rio Theater seeing record audiences following upgrades

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

There’s a reason parking lots around the Rio Theatre have been overflowing on movie nights this summer. Owner Thomas Baham said he’s seeing record attendance.

The theater’s drawing double the numbers it saw in 2019, and more and more people appear to be coming from outside Sweet Home.

“Post-COVID, we’ve noticed a big change in the audience,” he said last week as he showed off his newest improvement: a powerful Sharp/NEC 4K laser projector that will offer a brighter image and improved color and contrast over the theater’s former lamp-based model.

“I would say 50%, I don’t know who they are,” he continued. “We’re getting people from Springfield, Eugene, Junction City, Albany, Brownsville, Halsey. We have a group that comes in almost monthly from Gresham. They just love the theater. It’s the weirdest thing. They like the audio and the video and now they love the new 4K.

“It’s kind of cool to see. We’ve probably doubled in attendance.”

BAHAM FAMILY members, from left, Samantha, Meagan, Tom, Andrew, TJ, Christian and Erika at the Rio Theater when they purchased it in 2014. File photo

When Baham and his wife Erika purchased the then-65-year-old theater, at 1439 Main St., in 2014, he immediately went to work on the building, installing a new sound system and updating the facade and exterior. More improvements followed: new seats and a complete remodel of the interior, exterior stucco and tilework, silhouette paintings of movie characters on the exterior to create what he called a “vintage Hollywood glam” motif.

In 2016 the Bahams purchased what had been a beauty salon adjoining the theater and spent two years developing it into a second theater, the Roxy, named after another theater in Sweet Home decades ago. The new 39-seat theater opened in late 2018; it included large recliners, each with personal electronics charging ports and small tables, which allow for dinner theater experiences.

COVID-19 was tough on the Rio, as it was forced to shut down in early 2020 and fell behind on its mortgage, prompting worried patrons to launch a GoFundMe effort that raised $5,000 in 24 hours. Baham was also able to procure relief funding from the state and federal governments, which he was able to use to keep the business afloat and make improvements.

“During COVID we decided to change the way we did business,” he said. “We did dinners and private shows. That kept us alive. It helped.”

Once the restrictions came off, he focused on getting things rolling again.

RECLINERS INSTALLED at the new Roxy screen at the Rio Theatre feature USB charging and detachable tables for food and drinks. A touchscreen device will allow spectators to order food and drinks during shows. File photo

It’s paid off, he said, acknowledging that the “gamble” he made in creating the Roxy has paid off, big-time.

“This spring, early summer we’ve had more sell-outs than we’ve had in the lifetime I’ve owned the Roxy.”

When a popular movie plays in the Roxy, it sells out in minutes.

“I made the theater too small, I guess,” Baham said, semi-jokingly, adding that he often offers tickets weeks ahead of a showing for dinner theater, which is doing “exceptional.”

“If you get to the window, it will be sold out 90 percent of the time,” he said. “We sold out every show for ‘Elvis.’ We have five shows. All five will sell out in an hour. Once I post it, you need to jump on it.”

Meals are prepared by staff, with occasional contributions from area restaurants. Dinners are served by staff to patrons in their seats.

Although the 175-seat Rio doesn’t sell out as quickly, Baham said the projector and other improvements he’s planning will spice things up.

“This new projector is laser,” he said. “You see the difference in every movie I play. It’s brighter, crisper. The contrast is beautiful.”

Assuming he can get necessary improvements approved by the city, including an ADA exit door on the theater’s south side, he plans to expand the Rio screen “wall to wall,” which will make it about 15 feet wider and 4 feet higher.

“The projector can produce a larger picture now; the (former lamp projector) could not. We are able to do 3D if we decide to go that route.”

Having the Roxy has helped Baham manage film distributors’ requirements that movies play for a specified length of time, keeping things fresh in the Rio.

“Opening the Roxy was probably a gift from God,” he said. “It’s helped the city. If we’re locked into a movie for three or four weeks, we can move it to the Roxy.”

The film companies have noticed his theater’s success, Baham said.

“The studios are calling us, congratulating us on attendance.”