The 1920s marked a sophisticated new time for South Pasadena. Fueled by Jazz Age enthusiasm and served by the best electric rail system in the world, South Pas was poised to make its mark as a thoroughly modern city. was already a premiere destination and hailed as the Disneyland of its day. The luxury accommodations at enticed the world’s most powerful movers and shakers to spend long vacations in South Pasadena. Many decided to stay as building boomed and business flourished.
In October of 1924, one of the city’s many building permits was issued for a new theater to be constructed at the corner of Oxley and Fair Oaks. The proposed cost of the project was a whopping $100,000. This was a huge sum considering the average four-bedroom home at the time cost $2,500, and a multi-room mansion cost around $12,000. The golden age of cinema had begun, and distributors scrambled to outdo each other with opulence. The Los Angeles area was becoming a mecca of movie palaces.
Unlike the palaces of Europe—or even the playhouses of the East Coast—these glittering, fanciful theaters were available to everyone for a relatively small price of admission. At the time of the Rialto’s construction, the Washington—located on Washington Street near Cherry where the 10 meets the 110 today—was considered one of the finest in San Gabriel Valley. Pasadena had the Florence, Raymond and Strand theaters. South Pasadena had the Colonial (later known as the Ritz) on Fair Oaks next to the building that now houses. Downtown Los Angeles was home to the Palace, the Orpheum and the Mayan. Hollywood claimed the Chinese, the Egyptian and the El Capitan. Even Catalina Island had the exquisite Avalon. When you stepped into one of these gleaming structures, you weren’t just treated to a show—you were transported to another world.
From the very beginning, the Rialto was unique even among other grandiose theaters. The interior and exterior styles blended Neo-Classical, Moorish and Egyptian elements. Created by the flamboyant local theater designer L.A. Smith, the Rialto presented a fantastic tapestry of motifs. At the time of the 1925 gala opening, reporters weren’t sure whether to call the design “Buddhist,” “Spanish,” “Baroque” or “East Indian.” Although the reporters may have quibbled over the exact architectural definition, they agreed about the Rialto’s overall effect. It was breathtaking. Enthusiastic reviews poured in from around the region. The Rialto was a creation of exotic wonder: gold-leaf columns, overstuffed seats, ornate artwork, cascading tapestries and mythological beasts with glowing eyes. There was even a lobby drinking fountain set with tiles.
“The seats are upholstered in blue leather and the furnishings are very elaborate,” one journalist for the South Pasadena paper wrote. “The entire appearance is rich and pleasing.” Another reporter described the interior as that of a jewel-toned rainbow, with “draperies of the richest reds, blues, greens, yellows blended into restful mellowness under carefully shielded lights.”
The Rialto wasn’t just beautiful; it was fully functional. In addition to being engineered for movie projection, it was designed as a live stage venue with a scenery loft, an orchestra pit, 10 dressing rooms, a green room and a deep stage.
Theatergoers attending the gala grand opening were treated to the world premiere of Universal Pictures Whatever Happened to Jones as well as five vaudeville acts. Klieg lights were brought in from Hollywood to illuminate the arrival of film stars. If you had been sitting in one of the plush seats that night, you would have seen a daring trapeze act by The Aerial la Vails, a performance by the Stein Trio, a “novelty by Norma Gregg,” a sketch by “the distinguished colored gentleman from the Canary Islands: Grant Gardner” and an “elaborate terpsichordean creation with music” by The Dance Carnival. And those were just warm-up acts for the film.
Roy Metcalfe— famous concert organist for Pasadena’s Raymond Theater—played an overture on the Rialto’s massive Wurlitzer organ. The Rialto Orchestra played scores for the vaudeville acts as well as the film. After the show, the film’s leading man Reginald Denny was on hand to answer questions.
It’s not surprising that the Rialto came to be known as the theater of the San Gabriel Valley. When “talkies” were introduced, both of the two competing sound technologies of the time were installed. This way, virtually all films could be shown.
Vaudeville continued into the 1930s, and the Rialto served as training ground for some of the era’s most notable acts including many by the production team of Fanchon & Marco. As vaudeville waned, the Rialto used its stage for matinee performances by The Charles Royal Players. (Admission to a three-act play plus a feature-length movie was 75 cents.) By the early 1930s, the Rialto even managed to lure away the Orpheum Theater’s musical conductor. His name was Mr. Frankenstein—a delightful foreshadowing of the Rialto’s future screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
One of the Rialto’s most unusual performances was by the Indian mystic known as Ali-Din. In 1929, he performed his famous Bombay Séance “for ladies only.” The spooky antics delighted and perplexed the audience, and his show closed to thunderous applause. What did he do for an encore? He drove a car to Highland Park blindfolded.
Throughout the Depression years, the Rialto served as a haven of fantasy and hope. Films offered escape from a bleak national condition, and the Rialto Theater offered accessible luxury at a time of economic despair. In addition to presenting the most sought-after films, the Rialto also held promotions to boost local morale. On each Bank Night, a lucky winning patron walked out with a grand prize of $1. On Dish Night, every ticketholder received a free piece of depression glassware.
The theater operated continuously until the late 1930s when a backstage fire caused some damage to the interior. The Rialto was dark for several months while repairs were made. After it reopened, no vaudeville act or other live show ever appeared there again. Yet the famed organists George Wright, Gaylord B. Carter and Robert Israel performed concerts in the 1960s.
Throughout the years, the Rialto managed to survive several other disasters: a few more fires, falling ticket sales, the birth of the television age, the popularity of the multiplex and even a 1975 South Pasadena Community Redevelopment Agency plan to have the theater razed to build a 45-space parking lot.
In 1978, a San Marino ophthalmologist named Nathan Roth pledged to buy the Rialto as a venue to produce local plays. (He was also the father of Van Halen rocker David Lee Roth.) Although he praised preservation efforts and spoke at length of his plans for the Rialto, he eventually bought the Raymond Theater in Pasadena instead.
During the 1970s, there was more talk of tearing down the Rialto (or gutting it for other uses), but preservationists prevailed. By the late 1970s, the Rialto had been designated a local Cultural Heritage Landmark, a State Historic Landmark and a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
So who has ultimate control of the Rialto? Ownership of the theater remains in a trust fund involving numerous heirs of a deceased former owner. To further complicate matters, a 99-year-lease was signed in 1924. In 1976, this lease was acquired by the art house chain of Parallax Theatres, which later became Landmark Theatres. They still have it.
For decades, the Rialto was home to some of cinema’s most innovative and unusual films under Landmark’s management. Although VCRs and DVDs began to take hold of much of the movie market, the Rialto offered film buffs everything from classic movies to foreign, independent, revival and art house films as well as midnight showings of the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show—all in the same gorgeous setting that had delighted generations of South Pas residents. Sure, some of the paint was peeling and many of the seats had broken springs, but the overall effect was the same as it had been all those years ago: magical.
The Rialto was still a place to escape the headlines and step into another world. Although Landmark spokespersons often talked of bringing the theater back to its original glory, the venue couldn’t escape the effects of low attendance. On August 19, 2007, the Rialto was officially closed.
A few intermittent midnight showings of Rocky Horror brightened the Rialto marquis in 2009 leading some to believe that the theater was going to reopen. Instead after heavy rains dislodged a large chunk of the exterior façade, the Rialto was declared unsafe for public entrance by a city fire marshal.
Back in 1925, a reporter wrote about the upcoming Rialto grand opening.
“It’s no exaggeration, for some time hundreds of people have passed by the handsome new theater building and wondered when it would be thrown open to the service of an amusement loving community.”
I could ask something similar today. How many hundreds of us have passed by the Rialto wondering when its doors will be thrown open again? What I wonder most of all as I peek through the front door and into the gilded lobby is if this beautiful, tarnished palace is closed forever? But most important of all, do enough of us care?
Stay tuned to this column for more on the Rialto. Up next in this series: The Future of the Rialto: Where Do We Go From Here?
For Laurie Allee’s montage of vintage as well as recent photos of the Rialto, click the video in the photo box above.
For more on the Rialto, including interior photographs by Jeffrey Burke: check out RialtoSouthPasadena.com.