We’ve all noticed the accelerated decay of since the theater’s doors closed in 2007. Even before the marquee was permanently darkened, the theater was in desperate need of care.
The fixtures were already rusty. The paint had been peeling for years. The once sparkling interior was coated with layers of dust and a faint scent of mildew lingered, even during dry seasons. Heavy winter rains a few years ago caused a large chunk of the theater’s exterior to break off and crash to the sidewalk. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but the building was red-tagged as a public safety precaution.
With each passing month, the Rialto suffers more ravaging effects of time and neglect. Petrea Burchard of Pasadena Daily Photo calls it “a beautiful entropy.” Yes, it is still lovely cloaked in rust and noir-like shadows. But decay is decay, and unless efforts are made to preserve, repair and restore this historic South Pasadena movie palace, at some point it will be too far gone to save.
How did the Rialto end up like this? Blame a complicated trust ownership of at least 20 combined beneficiaries and a long-term master lease that leaseholder Landmark Theatres appears content to let run out. While the Rialto has been the pride of South Pasadena for almost a century, it’s not actually owned by the city. In fact, it appears to be just another line item on a corporate balance sheet.
When I talk to people about the Rialto, I often hear the mistaken notion that the structure is protected by its historic status.
“They’ll never let the Rialto get torn down,” San Marino resident John Ivey told me recently while waiting for a train at Mission Station. “It’s on every historic register in the country. Right?”
The Rialto is listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. This is the nation’s official list of structures, places and things worthy of preservation due to significance in American history, architecture, culture, archaeology and engineering. But worthy of preservation doesn’t necessarily mean protected from demolition.
In order to achieve true protection, the Rialto would have to be named a National Historic Landmark—a place determined to be significant to American history and culture. Think Alcatraz. Or the Alamo. Pasadena’s Rose Bowl and Gamble House are on the list, but the Rialto is not.
The Los Angeles region has far too many examples of remarkable buildings that have met their end despite public outcry, artistic merit and historical significance. Countless downtown art deco buildings have been razed. The Brown Derby was torn down. Hollywood’s Garden of Allah—where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived and worked—is now a nondescript strip mall.
Recently, the famous Ambassador Hotel was demolished despite loud disapproval from the public. Even the iconic Hollywood sign has been on the chopping block. Last year, Hugh Hefner donated $900,000 for a land purchase to stop it from being spoiled by development.
But just because the Rialto is in limbo, doesn’t mean there aren’t options for its rescue and rebirth. Even in its disheveled condition, the theater is in surprisingly good shape. The original murals, sconces, pillars, carvings and tiles are still there.
Not only that, the Rialto can also be used for both a motion picture theater as well as a live theater. It has 1,200 seats, a full stage and working fly space, an orchestra pit and 10 dressing rooms—not to mention the 5,500 square feet of office and retail space above and around the theater lobby.
What it doesn’t have is designated parking. This problem has been a stumbling block for past attempts to bring back the theater. But I always like to point out that the Rialto operated for its entire history in its current configuration—through the population booms of the '40s, '50s and '60s, the '70s gas crisis, the congested '80s and '90s—right up to 2007.
If you count up the amount of street parking in and directly around the South Pasadena business district right now, you’ll find enough spaces to accommodate even a blockbuster event at the Rialto. It’s not ideal by any means, but it was the model that was used for decades.
“Wait just a minute!” I can already hear someone shout. “I don’t want theater parking in front of my house or business!”
Neither do I. Future spaces from the downtown redevelopment project as well as proximity to the Metro Gold Line will certainly help alleviate the problem if the Rialto is restored without a parking structure. Spaces could also be leased from current business owners in the evening hours—a model used by many theaters around the country. A dedicated structure could also be factored into a large, privately funded project.
And remember, neighborhood theaters are often frequented by people in the neighborhood. South Pasadena already walks to the every week. Think about how great it would be to walk to the movies.
Bringing the Rialto back to its former glory and taking it into this new century is definitely not out of the question. Just take a look at some of the other successful theaters that have been saved from demolition and transformed into thriving community showplaces.
In 1989, the Walt Disney Co. partnered with Pacific Theatres for a massive restoration of Hollywood’s legendary El Capitan Theatre. With supervision from the National Park Service’s Department of the Interior, along with advice from many preservationists and conservators, the project resulted in a museum-quality restoration. El Capitan reopened to great fanfare in 1991, and led the way for more Hollywood revitalization.
Another example is the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Just last month, the theater celebrated its centennial with a $1 million restoration by developer Ezat Delijani. Delijani, who owns three other Los Angeles movie palaces, saved the theater from destruction in 1989. The Palace has been brought back to its former glory with gleaming marble and plush red velvet seats. The original wainscoting, wallpaper and paint has been restored and replicated in exact detail. Regular programming begins at the Palace later this month and will include films, stage shows and even a live-circus burlesque.
The El Capitan and the Palace are excellent examples of what can be done if the pockets are deep enough for extensive funding. But a corporate or private knight in shining armor is not the only way to bring back a movie palace.
The Alex Theatre in Glendale was purchased in 1992 by the City of Glendale Redevelopment Agency and has since been transformed into the jewel of a revitalized Brand Boulevard. The operating company for the Alex is Glendale Arts, a 501(c)3 organization with $500,000 supplemented annually from the CRA fund. (This fund was guaranteed until 2015 when the Alex expects to have solvency without the tax subsidy.)
The Alex is a multi-purpose entertainment complex showing both films and live shows. In addition, it serves as an artistic home to many groups, including the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, the Glendale Symphony Orchestra and the Alex Film Society. (And all without corporate sponsorship.)
Sure, multi-purpose theater centers are one thing—keep in mind, the Rialto was designed for both film and live shows—but what about a good, old-fashioned neighborhood movie theater? Are there any success stories? Absolutely.
The Vista in Los Feliz is a single-screen, first-run theater that is raking in the rave reviews. Vintage Cinemas is responsible for the gorgeous restoration of this Egyptian-themed movie house that was once part of the Babylon set of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic film Intolerance. About $1 million went into the project, which includes top-of-the-line projection and sound.
For those of you who say old theaters are never comfortable, the Vista proves you wrong. Every other row was removed to provide ample room to stretch your legs. The Vista is a great example of keeping everything good about an old theater but modifying it with modern technology and amenities.
Vintage Cinemas must be on to something, because it recently restored the in Coronado. Closed for 10 years during its $3 million renovation, the art deco movie palace reopened last month to great fanfare. Like the Vista, this theater offers first-rate sound and projection in a setting that harkens back to the golden age of Hollywood.
There are even more success stories: the Crest in Westwood; the Aero in Santa Monica; the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City; the Paramount in Austin, Texas; the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH; the Mayan in Denver. Each has a unique story, but all share a common trait: They are loved by their communities.
In an age of 46-inch high-definition TVs, a theater must offer more than the average cramped and sticky multiplex. In an era of virtual everything—email, social networking, online gaming, streaming video and entertainment on demand—our generation is already showing signs of digital burnout. Whole movements are now dedicated to “unplugging” and connecting in “the real world.” If ever there was a time for shared experiences in a grand setting like the Rialto, it’s now.
Can the Rialto join this list of thriving theaters? I think it can, but not if we let it fall apart. A revitalized Rialto Theatre would be good for South Pasadena's business district, but there's a bigger issue here. We must take care of our city treasures. We must make sure that beautiful, important parts of our history don’t just become pictures we look up on the Internet.
Clicking on a Facebook viral cat video can’t come close to replicating what it’s like to join with friends and neighbors in a beautiful community center and watch together as a story unfolds on the screen or stage.
Why do you think some of the oldest existing structures on earth are the former settings for performances? Because we are a species that love to share our spectacles and join together as we laugh or cry or just think. And if the setting is beautiful and the popcorn is good, so much the better.
For a detailed analysis of the Rialto, as well as many case studies of other theaters, see the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce Vision Rialto report.
See what others have to say about the Rialto in Laurie Allee’s attached video The Rialto: Remembered and Imagined.