Rialto Theatre

223 E. Main Street,
Ottumwa, IA 52501

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The Ottumwa Courier noted on October 24, 1931, that the Rialto Theatre was Ottumwa’s oldest continuously operated movie house and first operated from June 1907 as the Nickelodeon Theatre and then the Empire Theatre. The Empire Theatre was mentioned in the Ottumwa Daily Review as early as 1913 and listed in Film Daily Year Book through 1929. The Rialto Theatre was first listed in Film Daily Year Book 1930.

On September 2, 1931, the Ottumwa Daily Courier announced the Strand Amusement Co. would be merged with Publix Theatres. Thus the Rialto Theatre, Strand Theatre, Capitol Theatre, and Ottumwa Theatre, would be under the management of Jake Cohen, city manager. By 1938 all of Ottumwa’s theatres were under the control of A.H. Blank Theatres, a subsidiary of Paramount Theatres.

The Rialto Theatre dropped out of the local listings after April 15, 1951 leaving the Capitol Theatre, Ottumwa Theatre and Zephyr Theatre still open.

Film Daily Year Book 1951 lists the Rialto Theatre with 680 seats.

Contributed by Ron Pierce

Recent comments (view all 2 comments)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on May 29, 2018 at 2:49 pm

There are some puzzles around this theater. One of them stems from this item from the February 22, 1919 issue of The Moving Picture World:


“Morris and J. B. Lince Will Be the Promoters of Proposed Forty Thousand Dollar Structure

“By J. L. Shipley.

“A NEW motion picture theatre that will involve the expenditure of $40,000 has been projected at Ottumwa, Iowa. Morris Lince, owner of the present Empire in Ottumwa, in conjunction with J. B. Lince of Des Moines, is the promoter. A corner location with exits on two streets is planned, taking up the building that now houses the Empire. It is thought work will be begun early in the spring and that the house will be ready for dedication by fall. Mr. Lince has made a great success of the Empire and believes that he will do equally well with the more pretentious theatre planned.”

A major problem arises from the fact that the Empire’s address of 223 E. Main Street is nowhere near a corner. I don’t see how an exapnded theater at a corner location could be “taking up the Empire Building” if the Empire was at 223, nearly mid-block.

Another puzzle is the photo on this page of Arcadia Publishing’s picture book about Ottumwa, which shows a view of the 200 block of Main Street around 1927. The Capitol and Square Theatre are clearly visible, but 223 would be in between the vertical sign saying “Pianos” and the one saying “Cafe” but that building shows no sign of having a theater in it. Literally, there is no visible sign for a theater, no marquee, no vertical, no readable flat sign. The 1926 FDY has the 456-seat EMPIRE Theatre listed in all capitals, indicating a first-run house. Would one of Ottumwa’s two first run houses have no signage?

While the Nickelodeon Theatre was listed at 223 E. Main in issues of The Billboard in 1908, but with only 150 seats, and the Empire is listed at that address in both a 1914 Polk directory and the 1914-1915 American Motion Picture Directory (no seating capacity given, alas) the question I have to ask, despite the claims of the 1931 Courier article, is did the Empire move to a different location sometime between 1914 and 1919, when the planned expansion was announced?

And I certainly can’t see how the 680-seat Rialto could have been shoehorned into this narrow building that doesn’t even reach all the way to the alley behind it. Perhaps the back part of the conjoined building at 221 could have been incorporated to provide a larger footprint, but it would have been expensive.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on May 30, 2018 at 2:52 pm

The Sounds of Early Cinema, edited by Richard Abel and Rick R. Altman, mentions the Nickelodeon Theatre and its competitor, The Electric Theatre, saying the two opened almost simultaneously in June, 1907.

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