Laurence Bedford just spent a lot of money to chase away an adjective.

For years, the owner/operator of the Rio Theatre has been hearing the word applied to the classic former movie house -- by visitors, promoters, artists and the press including, it should be noted, this reporter. And now, with gorgeous new interior improvements, Bedford's hoping he's heard it for the last time.

"Whenever someone would mention the Rio," he said with a laugh, "they'd always put that word 'funky' in front of it. You know, the 'funky old theater'? Well, I'm just trying to get rid of that word 'funky.'"

This summer, Bedford spent an estimated $115,000 to give the Rio a new lease on life, and the result is that the funky factor has all but vanished. The theater's 548 seats were all taken out and refurbished, the floor resealed and polished, the interior, including the ceiling, painted. New carpets and LED lighting were installed, as was a new lighting system, a new sound board and a new movie screen -- "That old screen I was holding together with dental floss."

With the new Rio comes a new focus on bringing in nationally acclaimed musical acts that wouldn't be coming to Santa Cruz otherwise. Already in 2008, the Rio has hosted the Avett Brothers, Tegan & Sara, Rilo Kiley, Colin Meloy, Brandi Carlile, Stars and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, all indie acts of considerable national buzz that appeal to sophisticated pop music fans under 40, a demographic Bedford believes is underserved in Santa Cruz County. In the near future, he's hosting such artists as Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis Oct. 24, singer/songwriter Citizen Cope Nov. 5, innovative folk/jazz group Medeski, Martin & Wood Nov. 19 and neo-cabaret artist My Brightest Diamond Nov. 24. The theater is also open to outside promoters and keeps a full schedule with musical acts, film screenings, film festivals and lecturers. Political journalist Naomi Klein appeared Thursday night at the Rio to discuss her latest book "The Shock Doctrine."

The focus on hip, college-friendly pop acts dovetails nicely with what some might assume is the Rio's biggest drawback: its lack of a liquor license.

"These crowds aren't into drinking that much anyway," said Bedford.

The Rio first opened in the summer of 1949 on Soquel Avenue at Seabright, and famously closed its doors as a movie house in 2000. Shortly after, Bedford took control with an aim to convert the theater into a performance space while maintaining its movie screening capabilities.

Bedford admitted his redesign isn't on the scale of the redesign at the downtown art deco Del Mar Theatre. But the Rio, said Bedford, is from a different architectural era than the Del Mar.

"It was well past art deco," he said. "In 1949, the emphasis was different. It was all sleekness and curves, using concrete and metal and glass, the Airstream and Boeing look."

He points to the curved ceiling on the theater's lobby. "And what I wanted to do was to enhance those curvy lines."

Bedford also gave the Rio some versatility in seating with area near the stage where he can augment his seating, or leave it open for dancing or performance purposes. The Rio's capacity is 724. When the seats were pulled out in July, Bedford kept the theater open, booking some dance shows to take advantage of the contemporary open space.

Artist Dag Weiser continues to be the dominant vision of the outside of the Rio with his colorful, pop culture-oriented cardboard tableaus. The theater's marquee, a landmark on Santa Cruz's Eastside for 50 years, remains relatively unchanged from the Eisenhower era when a Brigitte Bardot film prompted a petition from citizens charging that the Rio was "endangering the morals of the community."

Bedford is hoping that his efforts to do away with the "funky" characterization might usher in a new adjective to take its place.

"I'm really inspired by Bimbo's," said Bedford, in reference to the landmark jazz club in San Francisco. "I want this place to be classy."

Contact Wallace Baine at 429-2427 or wbaine@santacruzsentinel.com.