Rialto Theatre

1023 Fair Oaks Avenue,
South Pasadena, CA 91030

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Rialto Theatre, balcony view

Viewing: Photo | Street View

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 Arthur Smith. 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.

Contributed by Howard B. Haas

Recent comments (view all 236 comments)

William
William on September 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Villemin Pipe Organ Company of Porterville, CA removed what remained in 1972.

Scott Feldmann
Scott Feldmann on September 20, 2011 at 6:18 pm

The console was purchased and returned to the City by Mark and Marinel Robinson. It can be seen at the Meridian Iron Works Museum at the Farmers' Market on Thursday’s, 4 to 8pm. Docent Bill Hilliard talks it up and shows it off. I do not know where the other pieces and parts are.

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on December 21, 2011 at 11:52 am

Hi All! Great to see all of the interest and information being shared here! There is momentum in the community to restore the Rialto and reopen it! I’m forming a non-profit advocacy group: http://www.FriendsoftheRialto.org to open a dialogue with all interested parties with the ultimate goal of bringing the old girl back to LIFE! Whether it is working with the current owners, or future buyers, or gaining a controlling interest as a non-profit, our goal is to restore and open the Rialto up once again, AND respect and preserve the historic theatre. If you want to stay informed, join us on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/FriendsoftheRialto

Scott Feldmann
Scott Feldmann on April 7, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Looking for photos of the Rialto and/or its connection to Route 66. The Chamber is applying for grant funding to help refurb the original blade sign, which is undergoing stabilization and structural repairs right now. Route 66 – the original alignment – passed the Rialto. Anyone with stories or photos to help connect the two, please email

Homeboy
Homeboy on May 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm

From “Signs of the Times,” May 2012:

Rialto Theater’s 85-Year-Old Sign Saved: Efforts underway to preserve South Pasadena landmark

The iconic blade sign at South Pasadena, CA’s historic Rialto Theatre, which was opened in 1925 but is currently shuttered, has avoided a date with the wrecking ball. Local police expressed concern that a February windstorm that swept through the area had damaged the building and sign, and rendered it unsafe. The sidewalk in front of the building was closed as a precaution.

However, structural engineer Michael Krakower, a historic-building specialist, determined the Rialto’s sign posed no imminent structural danger. Landmark Theatres, which holds a lease on the property until 2024, has decided to repair the sign and is currently seeking a contractor.

Escott O. Norton, a spokesman for Friends of the Rialto, said, “The blade sign dates to the building’s original construction, and the lower marquee was replaced in the ’30s and ’40s. There is visible rust around the blade sign, and the paint around the marquee is peeling.”

He said both signs are protected by a National Register of Historic Places designation, which requires more approvals to tear it down, but doesn’t guarantee the sign’s preservation. Dominick Jebbia acquired the Rialto in the 1930s, and placed it in a family trust in 1950, which still endures.

Dramatrauma
Dramatrauma on June 11, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Thanks to the local groups spurring on the sign restoration and preservation of the Rialto. But, Jebbia Family Trust and Landmark Cinema shouldnt it be you taking the lead to make sure this fantastic facility can once again be a growing concern for the both of you? Lets hope the new sign lights the way to these two entities giving the Rialto the attention it needs to bring them income they need. Why spend the next 12 years just sitting on it?

ejones880
ejones880 on July 14, 2013 at 6:58 pm

I lived in South Pasadena\Alhambra in 1992. I remember I was driving around the area when the “The Player” was being filmed and the actors in my way in the street on Mission. I saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Much Ado About Nothing and Life is Beautiful here. Sad that’s its closed now, If I won the lottery I would open it and show silent and classic films.

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on July 14, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Thanks ejones! If you win that lottery, give us a call! If and when we are able to restore and reopen the Rialto Theatre I also want to see silents and classics as a part of the programming!

Since you mentioned seeing the filming, you might be interested in the stills I’ve posted on our Facebook page from The Player as well as some other films that have been shot at the Rialto. Go to our Facebook page, click on Photos, then look for an album titled: “The Rialto Theatre in the Movies”

www.FriendsoftheRialto.org
www.facebook.com/FriendsoftheRialto

HowardBHaas
HowardBHaas on August 21, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Article http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/government-and-politics/20130820/south-pasadena-weighs-plans-for-decaying-rialto-theatre

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on August 5, 2014 at 11:29 am

Very exciting news for the Rialto, in June the owners decided to put the Rialto up for sale! After working for 27 years on getting the Rialto restored, there is FINALLY some movement! The owner’s representative announced that they were accepting bid proposals, deadline was July 16th. As an advocate for the Rialto I consulted with many potential buyers, and heard some very intriguing proposals.
The owners have been deliberating for a few weeks now, I have been told that the majority of offers were proposing to restore the theatre as a THEATRE, but until the owners go public with their choice, we do not know for sure who will be the new owner and what they are planning to do with this beautiful theatre.
I have been reporting what I can on the process at my Facebook page, and have some beautiful new photos there by my friend Hunter Kerhart. Please check there for the latest info and discussions: www.facebook.oom/FriendfsoftheRialto

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