Rialto Theater

2616 S. Calhoun Street,
Fort Wayne, IN 46807-1308

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Current exterior of the Rialto Theatre, just south of downtown Fort Wayne, IN

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Here is a brief history of the Rialto Theater:

*1924: The 700-seat theater opens at 2616 S. Calhoun St.

*1940s: Remodeling adds 300-seat balcony.

*1952: Marquee sign goes up.

*1967: Theater sold by James Heliotes family to partnership consisting of the local Mallers-Spirou Management Inc. and Alliance Theatre Corp. of Chicago.

*1979: Mallers-Spirou closes the theater and puts it up for sale.

*1980: Theater sold to Taso Promotions of Chicago, which briefly shows Spanish-language films.

*1982: New local owners buy theater and reopen it as a pornographic movie house.

*1986: Allen County Prosecutor’s Office sues to seize the Rialto, claiming the owners violated state racketeering and corrupt organization law. Owners later plead guilty to distributing obscene material and promoting prostitution, but do not lose the building.

*1989: The Rialto closes.

*1990: Historic-preservation group ARCH Inc. places the Rialto on its Endangered Structures List.

*1993: The city names the Rialto a locally designated historic district.

*2003: Local group The Reclamation Project buys the theater. Members will make it a center for theater, the arts and urban ministry.

Source: The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel archives

Contributed by Kristie Jacobson

Recent comments (view all 11 comments)

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on March 27, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Here is a 1951 view of the marquee:
http://tinyurl.com/2vw24t

Jack Dold
Jack Dold on June 19, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Rialto Reminisce

The people –

In 1950, an offer of 40¢ per hour, as an usher at the Rialto Theatre sounded pretty good to a 14 year-old. What began as a weekend job turned out to be a fantastic learning experience. The interpersonal development proved valuable in a lifetime of jobs.

The concession “girls” were paid 50¢ an hour and the cashier who sold the tickets earned 65¢. The rationale was that the girls had to be responsible for handling money. Regardless of the pay, all of these jobs instilled remarkable skills in the kids.

In 1950, the Rialto Theatre was one of Ft. Wayne ’s most popular neighborhood movie houses. It was built by Greek Immigrant, James Heliotes, who began his business career in the United States as owner of the Columbia Candy Kitchen, a restaurant and sweet-shop in downtown Ft. Wayne .

James, “the Mister,” as he was commonly referred to, had owned the Broadway Theatre and later sold it to open the Rialto . He also purchased the building north of the Rialto to house the Rialto Furniture Company.

James made his home at 1840 Florida Drive and raised two sons, the eldest being George, who was Business Manager of the theatre. George had no children so his tolerance level was quite low in dealing with the teenage “help.” The younger son, John took care of the furniture store. John and his wife Violet had one daughter, Jan.

Also prominent at the Rialto was John Gater. John was a long-time employee, having worked at the Broadway. John was Theatre Manager and was responsible for operations. John opened and closed the theatre every day, usually working seven days a week. He would come in around 9 or 10 a.m., open the theatre at Noon and would take some time off in the afternoon, returning around 4 p.m. and working to closing.

Another individual who bears remembering was Nickolas Pouletsis. Nick just kind of “hung around,” sometimes cashiering or taking tickets and trying to be useful. Nick also went by his pen-name, Nick Penn. He was the artist who designed and drew the cartoon strip, “Little Lulu.” He sold his cartoon creation and left Chicago to come to Ft. Wayne. Nick’s wife, Laura worked for an engineering firm on West Main St. Find the newest electrical panel in the Rialto switch room and you’ll see the labeling on the switches in cartoon lettering style. That was Nick’s handiwork.

The Theatre –

The present marquee was a replacement for the original one, which I do not remember. The Rialto was a very successful movie house and once had an organ to accompany the silent films that were so popular before “talkies” were invented. The old pipe organ was abandoned and left under the stage when “loudspeakers” took its place.

Before “air-conditioning,” as it is now known, cooling the theatre was done with two, huge exhaust fans backstage. The smaller one was used in warm weather. The larger fan moved more air for hot weather and if it was very hot, both fans could be turned on. They really made a “draft” in the house and the suction they could create would make the doors slam closed. The fans were not used much after the theatre installed “Air Conditioned by Refrigeration,” as the banners under the marquee proclaimed.

The Box Office, a free-standing cubicle of carved terra-cotta, had glass all around. The quarters were somewhat cramped and the cashiers would often leave the entrance door slightly open for ventilation. Precautions with the money were never considered. It was in plain sight, in a wooden cash box, and would have been an easy grab for a robber. The windows of the box office had venetian blinds. How those girls hated to wash them.

A small store room on the north housed Heider’s Men’s Wear and later, a coin shop. On the south side, there was a smaller room offering soft ice-cream, popcorn and candy.

Above the theatre was the office of Dr. T. F. Amy, Dentist, The Rialto Beauty Shop, the Rialto office and the projection booth. There was also a men’s and a ladies' restroom.

Inside the theatre was a spacious lobby and concession stand. Behind the concession stand, on the south wall, there was a huge, hand painted tapestry mural depicting a unicorn. Later, when the outside concession stand was closed, the lobby was enlarged and another mural was purchased to hang on the east wall. It was so garishly ugly, that it completely detracted attention from the unicorn. But George had paid $2,500 for it and it was going to hang!

Off the lobby was a stairway to the balcony. The balcony was not a part of the original theatre. It was added later in an attempt to handle the movie-going crowds. Because the balcony was an add-on, its ceiling height was not really adequate and whenever someone would stand up in front of the projector beam, their silhouette would appear on the big screen. The machine noise from the projection booth was noticeable in the balcony, too.

The “dome” in the theatres ceiling contained many light bulbs. Since they were burned at very low voltage most of the time, they lasted a long time. When the number of burned-out bulbs became noticeable, John Gater would get a very long extension ladder and set it up in the middle of the auditorium. He would climb to the top with a newspaper carrier’s canvas bag full of light bulbs. He would replace all of the bulbs, pulling the ladder along the rim of the dome from one bulb to the next. Scary, just to think about it!

Lighting was a part of the “show.” A lot of colored bulbs were used in the wall sconces on both sides of the house. The brightness of the lights was controlled by rheostats in the “switch-room,” right off the lobby. The rheostats controlled all the house lights so that they could be “brought-up” during intermissions or between feature shows.

The stage also had colored lights to enhance the curtain. The curtain was closed when no picture was being shown. It was poor taste to show a blank screen. The screen itself had a masking of black cloth, which provided a frame for the picture. Fuzzy picture edges were not good, either. The black masking gave the picture a sharp frame.

In the mid fifties, wide screen movies were becoming popular. Cinemascope with stereo surround sound was the latest technology. The Rialto had to upgrade to be able to show the latest movies. That meant widen the stage, buy new lenses for the projectors, buy a new screen, install new speakers, wiring and amplifiers and get a new, wider curtain. All of this remodeling work was done without missing a show. The contractors all worked at night, from midnight to 8 a.m. The job went so smoothly that many people were unaware that anything was going on. Most everybody noticed the new curtain, however, with the new, colored lighting effects.

The basement was quite neglected. The boiler room included a large coal-bin. The stoker had to be filled with coal every day, in the cool months. Usually the janitor would take care of it but sometimes, if the weather was really cold, the ushers would have to “stoke the fires” to keep from running out of heat. The basement always smelled of coal, even if the steel boiler-room door was shut.

Another basement room served as storage for the concessions. Popcorn seasoning was kept backstage in 55 gallon barrels. Five gallon cans would have to be filled with the solid coconut oil, taken to the basement and preheated on a hot plate so that it could be melted, then carried back upstairs and poured into the popcorn machine What a chore!

The ushers had a cardboard “wardrobe” to store the uniforms – sometimes called “monkey suits.” The main requirement for being an usher was that you had to fit one of the three uniforms! They were blue with gold piping and epaulets. Eventually, they were replaced with brown ones of the same design. They were quite expensive as I recall, being all wool and very durable.

The basement also served as a workroom for reupholstering the seats, which were a target of vandal’s knives. About ten seats a month had to be recovered. The ushers would pull tacks and take off the old covering and John would put the new covers on.

The marquee letters were also kept neatly shelved in the basement. George would write up the billing for the marquee and John would change the sign. After a couple of years, John paid me $5 to do it for him. As I took on more and more of John’s “chores,” he began paying me additional money as a bonus. The hourly rate never went above 45¢ but he was very fair with the weekly “bonus.”

In the late 50’s, the marquee lights became dim because of the deteriorated paint behind the white glass. John determined that the backing would have to be painted. A contractor was hired but refused to do any more than spray the paint. John bought hundreds of thermos bottle corks, took out all of the glass and light bulbs and inserted a cork in each socket to keep the paint out. Then, the painter did his thing and John replaced all the corks with new light bulbs and washed and replaced all the glass. From that point on, with the newfound brightness, George only wanted to burn half of the lights! (Remember, George paid the bills!)

The work –

Weekend hours were long and tiring. Starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Saturdays were “kids day” and an hour of cartoons introduced the double-feature. Many parents used the theatres as “baby-sitters.” They would drop off the kids, see them inside, then return at 5 p.m. to pick them up.

After the matinee, people would start coming in for the early-evening show. This show would be over at around 9 p.m. Those who came in for the last show of the day got a bonus – a midnight show. The midnight show would be an advance showing of the main feature of Sundays double-bill. The midnight show would end at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. The two ushers would take turns working the midnight shows. John would either drive the usher home or pay for cab fare, since there were no buses running that late.

Sundays were the biggest day of the week. Nearly every Sunday brought “standing room only” crowds. Many times, people would arrive just after the show had started, and would have to wait three hours for the next show, before a seat was available. Remember, these were the days before TV, so entertainment options were limited. Sometimes there were disgruntled customers because the cashier was forbidden to tell people there were no seats.

Working weekdays was a different experience. Only one usher worked and the hours were 4 p.m. ‘till 9. The pace was slower and adults were a pleasure to deal with. Sometimes it was downright boring. How many times can you watch a movie? Chatting and joking with the “girls” (concession clerks) was the only break in the routine, but you had better not get caught!

The nostalgia –

Wednesday was “Bank Night” at the Rialto . A giveaway program left over from the depression days when the theatre first opened. In order to win, attendance was required. Patrons could attend on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday and sign a proxy card. That proxy would stand for their attendance during the Wednesday night drawing. Prize money was increased by $50 each week that there was no winner. The maximum prize for a drawing was $500 so when the limit was reached, another drawing was added. There were usually three or four drawings every Wednesday night.

It wasn’t easy, drawing a winner. The barrel with all the names had never been purged. Many of the names drawn as winners were either dead or had moved away. There was no incentive to purge the old names and start over because weekday attendance was on the decline. In the summertime, much business was lost to drive-ins. In the winter, the comforts of home kept people inside.

The MC for the drawings was “Little Joe” Roehling. A well-known square dance teacher and caller. Joe and his wife would come to the theatre on their way to a dance. All dressed up in western clothes and she in her bright square dance dress.

Joe would spin the barrel and invite a child in the audience to pick a ticket for each drawing. Sometimes there weren’t many children in the audience because the drawing was always around 8: 30 or 9:00 p.m.

Some of Joe’s activities began to conflict with his appearance at the Rialto so he arranged for his good friend, Bob Sievers, of WOWO to sub for him. Since Bob lived nearby on W. Sherwood Terrace, he was willing to take over the job and continued to MC the drawings for several years. If he was unable to be there, then John or I would fill in. Bank Night was finally discontinued- in 1960 I believe. It proved to no longer be a drawing card, although some of the regulars were sad at its passing.

The ending –

By the mid sixties, I had married and was raising a family with my high-school sweetheart, Nancy Herber, who also had been a popcorn girl at the Rialto . I lost track of the Rialto gang.

The theatre (notice the spelling) was sold and the new owners began running ethnic films. Then, I think it changed hands again and ran X-rated films. As the clientele deteriorated, crime and vandalism increased. I know that the beautiful box-office was removed to make the entrance more visible. That structure in itself would be a treasure.

Maybe someday, the building will come to life again. It was my favorite place for a long time.

tarantex
tarantex on June 20, 2007 at 12:07 am

Jack, wonderful story, I have had the same experience as you did only in larger theatres mainly FOX theatres mostly history in California.

AndrewBarrett
AndrewBarrett on February 1, 2008 at 2:42 am

RIGHT NOW (February 1st 2008) on Ebay are parts from the Rialto Theatre’s “organ”, actually an American Fotoplayer brand photoplayer. (search Ebay for “photoplayer”). If the rest of this organ is still there then these parts will be needed to restore it. I will try to alert the high bidder (an automatic musical instrument collector) of the parts to this. Is the rest of the photoplayer still in the theatre?

memorylane
memorylane on February 6, 2008 at 9:44 pm

Very nice Story Jack. I just purchased the Original Candy Machine from the Theatre. I own a company, Memory Lane Restorations and today, I found the paper work inside the candy machine, pined to the side. So i looked up the history, hoping to find some inside photos of the theatre, with the Candy Machine in it. Any help, would be great. 301-991-3532 My name is Curtis.

Jack Dold
Jack Dold on February 7, 2008 at 6:26 pm

Dear Curtis,

It’s nice to hear from you. The Rialto had three of these wooden candy machines. It appears that yours has since been modified to handle larger items. In my day, they had nickel and dime coin slots and, if I remember correctly, each machine could dispense eight items. Of course, the bigger selling items would occupy two columns. The best sellers were Milk Duds, Dots and Good and Plenty.
These machines were in use before the Rialto had a concession stand. Even after the concession stand was put in, the candy machines did a brisk business because they sold all the boxed candy. The concession stand sold only bagged candy. The Rialto bought bulk candy from Huser-Paul, a local distributor and the “concession girls” would count candy pieces and bag candy between “rushes” at the counter. (No plastic gloves either in those days, just bag candy, sell popcorn, make change and bag candy!)
Unfortuantely, Curtis, I don’t have any pictures showing the machines. There were two machines on the main floor, one on either side of the drinking fountain. If yours has water stains on one side, it was one of those two. The third machine was in the balcony. It had much less use since the balcony was only open when the main floor was nearly filled on weekends. If your machine has no water stains, it was probably the one from the balcony.
I’d be interested in knowing where you’re located and how you came to possess the machine. I probably filled it many times. They were extremely reliable vendors, probably because everything was in uniformly sized boxes.

Kindest regards and best wishes.

AndrewBarrett
AndrewBarrett on February 20, 2008 at 1:19 am

I have obtained the pertinent info regarding the photoplayer and apparently not much is left… I have already purchased part of it. The other remaining parts have all been sold to other buyers via Ebay.

MimiFKIA
MimiFKIA on October 22, 2008 at 8:14 pm

Thanks for the trivia on my Great Uncle Nick and Great Aunt Laura. Laura was a wonderful letter writer who died Nick’s undershirts red long before men wore colored underwear. She was a woman of great verve and imagination, and he was equally inventive. I think you mean “Bessie,” not Little Lulu, though. There’s an framed, autographed copy in my parents' den.

Jack Dold
Jack Dold on October 31, 2008 at 2:01 pm

Mimi, you’re so rightâ€"it was “Bessie.”

spectrum
spectrum on February 10, 2009 at 1:44 pm

According to the Reclamation Project website (link in the description at top), the first phaser of their restoration has been completed.

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