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.

In January 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Rialto Theatre was purchased by well-known LA developer Izek Shamof who hopes to reopened the Rialto Theatre as an entertainment venue, perhaps including a bar and showing classic films.

Contributed by Howard B. Haas

Recent comments (view all 247 comments)

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on January 10, 2015 at 8:28 am

I am working to set up a meeting with Mr. Shomof to discuss his plans, and push for a proper and careful restoration and reactivation. Check in with my Facebook page: www.facebook.oom/FriendfsoftheRialto or sign up on my website: www.FriendsoftheRialto.org for updates.

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on March 1, 2015 at 11:49 am

I have now met with the Owners of the Rialto a few times. They plan to start restoring the exterior and the storefronts as soon as possible, and will wait on restoring the theatre itself until a suitable tenant is found. Friends of the Rialto is working to bring in a quality theatre operator or a coalition of theater users. If anyone would like to be a potential user of the theatre, please contact me at .

Hockey Dude
Hockey Dude on March 1, 2015 at 9:13 pm

The last first-run, original full length movie to be shown at the Rialto was “The Subhuman”, on May 8th,2009.
It was an indy film by R.Hall. I cant wait to see its renovation.

silver on March 2, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Is Landmark Theatres still involved at this theater anymore?
A comment above said that Landmark’s long term lease runs to 2024. Did the new owner let them out of it, or are they still on the hook?

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on March 2, 2015 at 3:36 pm

Landmark Theatres singed over the remainder of the lease. I am not sure what the terms were, but they had made it clear to me that they would be happy to let go of it. They were not interested in continuing operations at the Rialto.

Hockey Dude
Hockey Dude on March 2, 2015 at 8:38 pm

I wouldnt mind renting out some of the upper office space for an animation studio. South Pasadena is home to many significant and talented artists, filmmakers and animators.

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on March 2, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Hockey Dude, please contact me at if you would be interested in using the theatre or other spaces within the building. Thanks!

Keith on May 17, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Featured in a episode of Modern Family.

surf_digby on June 9, 2015 at 5:24 pm


Looks like the filming of Modern Family caught the locals by surprise.

Escott O. Norton
Escott O. Norton on June 9, 2015 at 10:21 pm

Actually, that was LA Magazine’s “spin” on it! I posted the pictures on my Facebook site and Chris Nichols asked to use them in exchange for giving Friends of the Rialto credit. He made most of the details up. There was no “panic” or “racing to the scene”, I was the one who was originally contacted by Modern Family and I put them in touch with the owners! The TV crew was very friendly and loved the Rialto, and I think the show was sweet. Here is a link to watch the epson online: http://abc.go.com/shows/modern-family/episode-guide/season-06/623-crying-out-loud

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