Rialto Theater

1539 North 3rd Street,
Harrisburg, PA 17102

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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.

Contributed by John Simmers

Recent comments (view all 8 comments)

JohnMessick on March 22, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Another one of your top-notched write ups John. I am trying to think where it was located at. Have you ever been inside?

1posterfan4sure on March 22, 2010 at 4:33 pm

No, at that time I would not have been welcome on North 3rd Street, certainly not at night when the theater was operating. I’m curious what the Rialto may have looked like inside. It was probably the largest of the city’s neighborhood houses. No pictures exist, I’m sure.

JohnMessick on March 22, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Several years ago I contacted the Dauphin County Historical Society. Looking for pictures of Harrisburg theaters I have several of the Senate. One of the Colonial. No interior shots. None of the other area theaters.

carolgrau on March 22, 2010 at 8:31 pm

The Rialto was at third and Harris Street right on the corner…Projectors were held together with rubber bands and wedged toothpicks, Real old Simplex Standards, Brenkart Enarc Lamps RCA sound… Terrible place to work,, You had to go into the Theatre and out a door and up a ladder and go up over the roof to get to the booth.. If you had to use the bathroom you had to use trashbags and bring them down at end of your shift.Was a challange when the winter came and the walkway was icy,

1posterfan4sure on March 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Norelco, I love your stories, the “reel” dirt on some of these places. From the way you tell it, no wonder they had projection troubles. Sounds like the riot was an event waiting to happen. Tell us, who owned and operated the Rialto? Did it ever have any connection with any other Harrisburg theaters or was it on its own?

carolgrau on March 22, 2010 at 9:37 pm

It was with the Uptown, I don’t remember the owners name he never came around.. Being we were up in the booth we never had much contact with the Manager also..The night of the riot I heard the projectionist got sprayed in the face with mace, Was a projection problem that caused it.. Projectors were junk untill I got there,, I don’t remember the regular guys name but before he retired he left them go to hell. I at least got them usable, but if you did'nt know what you were doing look out,, Most guys with any sense refused to go there, so the business agent would send the new people up there.I used to do it for him, but would go out of my way to find an excuss not to go there.

Bruce Calvert
Bruce Calvert on July 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm

I have a program from 1917 for the “Family Theatre” at 3rd and Harris Streets. Do you think that it could be the same theater? It was printed in Philadelphia, but the city for the theater is unnamed.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on October 10, 2014 at 8:32 pm

The New Rialto Theatre at 3rd and Harris Streets first appears in advertisements in the Harrisburg Evening News in the summer of 1922. The Rialto is not listed in the 1922 city directory, but a house called the Family Theatre is listed at 3rd and Harris Streets. Ads for the Family Theatre end in 1922. I suspect that Bruce Calvert (previous comment) was on the right track, and the Family was the same house that was later the Rialto.

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