1539 North 3rd Street,
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I don’t know who owned and operated the Rialto Theater. It never was grouped with other neighborhood houses in newspaper advertisements. Operating prior to 1922 as the Family Theater, it was then renamed Rialto Theater in the summer of 1922. The Rialto Theater was large at 900 seats and seemed to survive the onslaught of television quite well, until that fateful night in the summer of 1970 when changing times hit the Rialto Theater right in the face and closed its doors forever.
People in Harrisburg usually refer to anything north of Forster Street (pronounced ‘Foster’ in Harrisburgese) as ‘Uptown’. The street where the Rialto Theater, Star Theater and Broad Theater were located was ‘uptown’, but had nothing in common with the fine houses and green lawns where the Uptown Theater stood, and they were all on the same thoroughfare. The lower several blocks of 3rd Street just north of downtown were rough-and-tumble neighborhoods but had their own busy shopping areas that catered to the people who lived there. The Rialto Theater was one of those businesses.
While the Broad Theater closed and the Star Theater switched to adult movies, the Rialto Theater stayed just as it had always been, a second-run neighborhood movie house, complete with Saturday afternoon kiddie matinees.
Details on what happened that Saturday night are sketchy but straightforward. It rated only a few paragraphs in the newspaper. The Rialto Theater had a full house for a showing of a movie called “tick, tick, tick” starring Jim Brown and George Kennedy, a story of racial hostilities in a small southern town. During the showing the film broke once or twice, the showing was stopped and the crowd waited for it to resume. Projection problems occurred a third time, with the already agitated audience left waiting in the dark for close to a half an hour. People got bored, then restless, then angry when they asked for refunds and were denied. First a few, then a lot of people just went crazy and started ripping up the theater, tearing out seats and trashing everything in sight. Between the people directly involved and those trying to get out of harm’s way, chaos ensued that spilled out of the Rialto Theater onto 3rd Street. Storefront windows at neighboring businesses were smashed, the stores looted and some fires set before the riot was brought under control. Fortunately, injuries were few and minor.
Harrisburg had just come off a couple of summers of sporadic race riots and perhaps the movie’s emotional theme contributed to the incident, but more likely it was just the result of a few troublemakers seizing an opportunity to make a scene.
The Rialto Theater never re-opened nor did many of the other businesses affected, a serious loss to the community and another nail in the coffin of a declining city neighborhood.
I saw the Rialto Theater only a few times on the way uptown. Before the riot it was an attractive building. Afterwards it was a pathetic-looking place, its marquee shattered, the glass smashed out of the poster showcases, and cast-off appliances sitting in the doorways. A number of years later the Rialto Theater was demolished in the name of urban renewal, and forgotten. Now known as ‘Midtown’, North 3rd Street has become a trendy residential area for young professionals.
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