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 1915 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 10 comments)

JohnMessick on March 22, 2010 at 5:32 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 6:33 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 7:06 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 10:31 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 10:52 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 11:37 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 10:21 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 10:32 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.

HarrisburgHarry on November 9, 2015 at 5:41 am

I’m a little late on this contribution, but better late than never. I grew up in this neighborhood in the mid to late 50’s. I knew this theater well. I was about 10-12 years of age at this time…yeah…I’m an old guy for sure. Maybe I can help fill in some of the gaps for those who may be interested. While I don’t have any photos to share of this gem of a movie house, I have lots of memories of attending it’s regular Saturday matinees. Every Saturday there was a different episode, to keep you funneling money back into their coffers. It had a balcony, which was really surprising for such a small theater. I know this because the older kids would sit up there and toss/throw candy down at the younger kids, when they weren’t “necking” with the girlfriends. It had a small lobby with candy/popcorn snackbar. As I recall, it was open on weekends and perhaps one, or two weeknights. Admission was only 10 cents. Popcorn 5 cents, candy 5 cents, and soda 5 cents. Once a month, on a Saturday, my dad would give me 50 cents on a Saturday to go get a haircut at Abe’s barbershop, adjacent to The Rialto. The haircut cost 25 cents. Afterwards, a quick dart to the right and you were in front of the ticket booth. It had a little marquee area, beyond the ticket booth, with windows showing the “Coming Attractions”. After entering into the lobby, you could either go upstairs to the balcony, or straight ahead into the main theater. It had a very small stage in front of the movie screen. I never saw, or heard of anyone staging a play there, but I could imagine it would have been possible. There were “exit doors” opening onto Harris Street, which the kids that were not able to pay would use to enter the theater after “pooling” their money together to send in one patron. After the lights went down, the doors would be opened by some “unknown” patron, and the bad element would come in. You didn’t squeal on those kids, because they would beat your _ss after the show, if they got kicked out. So, I’m pretty certain this impacted The Rialto’s revenue, long before the rioting, aforementioned. This was a gritty part of the city, and it was predominantly caucasian. Our family moved out of the area by 1961, so I can’t provide any further information about the demise of The Rialto theater. Thanks for allowing me to share some very fond memories.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 9, 2015 at 3:24 pm

The Family Theatre was advertised at Third and Harris as early as February, 1916. There were at least two earlier houses called the Family Theatre in Harrisburg. One operated on Third near Locust Street at least as early as 1892, and the October 26, 1912, issue of the Harrisburg Daily Independent said that the new Family Theatre on Market Street would open that evening.

A May 9, 1915, item in The Courier described the Family Theatre as “…a large airy room having thirteen exits.” The Market Street house that opened in 1912 had seated only 250, so thirteen exits would have been more likely in the larger, 900-seat Third Street house. That could be an indication that the Third and Harris Family was open by 1915.

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