1023 Fair Oaks Avenue,
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Located five blocks south of the 110 freeway, on Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena, the Rialto Theatre is now closed and endangered. The Rialto Theatre opened for vaudeville and movies on October 17, 1925, with Ray Metcalfe playing the 2 manual, 10 rank Wurlitzer pipe organ and with the Rialto Orchestra accompanying the world premiere of Universal’s “What Happened to Jones” starring Reginald Denny. A Franchon and Marco stage show included Trapeze artists and vaudeville acts. Admission was 30 cents. The Rialto Theatre was one of the last theatres to be designed by noted theatre architect Lewis A. Smith, who died the following year. It is decorated in a mix of several styles, mainly Moorish, but there are elements of Egyptian, Spanish Baroque and Classical features too, all contributing to the Jazz Age charm of this theatre.
The Rialto Theatre was built by local showman C.L. Langley, who had built and operated the Alexander (Alex) Theatre, Glendale in the previous month. South Pasadena had one other theatre, the Ritz Theatre (opened as the Colonial Theatre), nearby at 804 Fair Oaks Avenue, but demolished by the 1960’s.
Original seating for the Rialto Theatre was about 1,200 including a balcony. The auditorium has a colorful stenciling, plaster ornamentation, and organ chambers supported by mythical creatures called harpies. A gargoyle sits high above the proscenium with red glowing eyes that illuminate even during film shows.
The Jebbia family has owned the theatre since the 1930’s and it was operated by West Coast Theatres (Fox). Ticket buyers during the Great Depression could play the miniature golf course that was in the theatre. A back stage fire occurred in 1938. In 1941 it was operated by Circle Theatres Ltd. a subsidiary of Fox West Coast Theatres.
In the 1960’s it was leased to Mann Theatres and legendary organ concerts were given by George Wright during this time. The grille on the left organ chamber was damaged when the fire department aimed lots of water at it, to put out a fire that resulted in the removal of the pipe organ.
In 1977, South Pasadena citizens circulated petitions to save the Rialto Theatre from demolition to create a parking lot. The Rialto Theatre was designated a local listing of Historic Cultural Monument in 1977. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Succeeding Mann as movie operators, Landmark Theatres took over in 1976 and showed arthouse and classic movies here. In the 1990’s many moviegoers were alarmed at Landmark’s plan to multiplex the interior.
The Rialto Theatre, including its interior, has itself starred in many movies and commercials. The back alley of the Rialto was used in the Robert Altman film “The Player” (1992) during the murder scene. “Scream 2” (1997) also featured the theatre. The theatre has a display of historic memorabilia in the lobby. Gorgeous photographs of its auditorium are included in the 1997 book “The Last Remaining Seats, Movie Palaces of Tinseltown”.
Landmark celebrated the 75th Anniversary with a birthday bash on Friday, October 27, 2000, with a large cake, vaudeville, opera, Shakespeare and a showing of the Marx Bros. classic “Duck Soup”. Additional celebrations in October and November of that year included a new print of Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas”, a one week classic film festival (Casablanca", “The Wizard of Oz”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Citizen Kane”) and one week of ‘Los Angeles in the Movies’ (Sunset Boulevard", “Singing in the Rain”, “Double Indemnity” and “Shampoo”).
Landmark closed the Rialto Theatre with “The Simpson Movie” on August 19, 2007. Then, on December 29, 2007, a farewell performance of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was held, concluding three decades of the cult favorite being presented at the theatre as a midnight feature. It was ordered closed by the city in March 2010 because of code deficiencies.
Located near Mission Street, which has coffee houses, antique stores and restaurants, the Rialto Theatre has long been the heart of South Pasadena. Like all old theatres, this one now needs new seats and carpet, revamped heating and air conditioning, and repainting to its original paint scheme. In “Sunset Boulevard”, former silent movie star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, could not resurrect her career, but this Silent Era Hollywood gem can be refurbished and reopened like so many historic theatres that have been restored and reopened nationwide. For the Rialto Theatre to be demolished would be a heartbreaking loss for South Pasadena and for the Los Angeles region. Whether for movies, live events or both, the community must rally to save the theatre yet again.
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