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Time Warped: RIP, Rialto Theatre

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Somewhere inside the archives of my storage closet resides one of those relics of yesteryear--a recordable audiocassette that, on one Saturday night about fifteen years ago, I stuck in my "boom box" and pressed down the play and record buttons together to capture the KROQ DJ giving his shout-outs to all the folks who'd just called in, including me and one of my partners-in-crime.

"And Lindsay and Laurie in La Crescenta are going to Rocky Horror at the Rialto!"

We screamed in teenaged glee and then applied another coat of mascara. We lived for midnight showings of the cult-classic Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Rialto in the early to mid-90s; it was a Saturday night tradition. (I celebrated the film's 30th anniversary on LAist at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 with 17,000 of my closest fellow "Time Warp"-ers.) And this was just one of the many countless nights--and days--I would spend at the Rialto staring up at the screen, in a venue that has been home to movies for over eighty years.

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The Rialto closed for good yesterday, ushering in the end of an era. It is a loss that many of us will mourn. As LAist takes a look at the history of this historic movie house, I will also take this opportunity to say goodbye to one of the vital landmarks in my own personal history.

Photo by mattlogelin via Flickr

The Rialto Theatre opened in October of 1925, and the first show featured was What Happened to Jones? Construction had been initiated a year earlier, with well-known designer Lewis A. Smith at the helm (Smith also designed NoHo Arts' El Portal, the Highland Theatre Building in Highland Park, The Beverly Theatre in Beverly Hills, and many more theatres and private homes. The motif was a meld of Spanish Baroque and Egyptian, and many of the eerie decorative touches remain to this day, such as the half-woman half-vulture plaster sculptures, the Batchelder and picture tiles, and the legendary red-eyed gargoyle staring down at the audience. (It's no wonder that rumors of the Rialto being haunted abound, like as discussed on the Cinema Treasures website.)

But the theatre wasn't just a movie theatre. From its opening night and into its early years the Rialto featured specialty acts along with the film, and several novelty-type draws to bring in the crowds. According to South Pasadena Online by Castle Photo:

Vaudeville acts for the premiere included: trapeze artists The Aerial La Valle, Norma Gregg in an original novelty, The Stein Trio and Grant Gardner from the Canary Islands. Also included was The Dance Carnival, a terpsichorean creation with music. With no less than 10 dressing rooms, a scenic loft, a green room, an orchestra pit and a deep stage, the Rialto was ideal for a variety of entertainment's. Admission was 30 cents; Loge was 40 cents. As vaudeville waned in the 1930s, three-act prologues were presented prior to the feature film. The Depression led to other gimmicks. For a time, admission included a free pass to a local miniature golf course. Bank Night meant Keno for prizes, such as the coveted grand prize of $1.00. Dish Night offered a free dish for every patron -- usually a piece of colored glassware known today as Depression glass.

Although the theatre's organ survived two fires (one in the 1930s that led to the end of live performances, and another in the late 1960s) it was removed and then eventually sold. While during the 60s the Rialto featured many showings of silent films, by July 1976 the theatre was taken over by the Landmark corporation, who have retained ownership and control ever since. Shortly after they assumed operations, the threat of redevelopment hinted at the possibility of having to tear down the legendary movie house, and locals raised their voices in protest, leading to the Rialto being officially named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, which is what will keep it from being torn down now, as the fear of redevelopment or re-purposing once again sets in.


My own relationship with the Rialto began in the early 1990s, when the teenage-years' hallmark desire to "go out" constantly hit me hard, and friends with cars who could get us all the heck out of Dodge (AKA La Crescenta) were willing co-conspirators.

I'm not sure if I got turned on to seeing great movies at the Rialto by first going to check out the debauchery of RHPS and the accompanying live show put on at by the long-disbanded group "Voyeuristic Intention" or if going to see an indie film there alerted me to the RHPS midnight shows. It's a sort of "chicken-or-the-egg" type scenario, the conclusion of which might never be reached, but the analysis the same: There was a period in my life when I spent an awful lot of time in the fading velvet seats of the Rialto.

An added bonus was the thrill of knowing that one of my favorite movies about the darker side of Hollywood used the Rialto as both a plot point and an actual location--put The Player on your Netflix list if you haven't seen it yet, I insist.

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Sitting outside the theatre as the witching hour drew nearer was always an impatient exercise in "Antici......pation" (as Frankenfurter articulates in the film), wondering just what sort of antics the cast had in store, whether it be a de-virginization spectacle (something my dear friend was once subjected to) for an RHPS newbie, or if someone in the audience would get to step in as a castmember (which I did once, for a few numbers, in my dream role of Janet Weiss--pre sexual revolution). Soon the leaders of the cast would pull up in their hearse (of course) and unload their gear, and we in line, dressed in all manner of fishnet, lace, plunging necklines and excess makeup, would soon be permitted to hand over our tiny orange paper tickets in exchange for admittance to an unpredicatable night of shouting obscenities and dodging squirt guns. All the while those glaring red gargoyle eyes peer at us in all our ridiculous splendor. (And, yes, to the left is a page from my actual scrapbook, complete with a small sampling of torn orange ticket stubs from the Rialto--those that did not get mangled in pants pockets, purses, or lost in the squeaky velvet seats left to adhere to the floor with the spilled soda and popcorn.)

But even in the mid-nineties both the ritual of the audience participation midnight screening of Rocky Horror and the glory of the Rialto as a showy movie palace were on the wane. It wasn't too many years after that when the cast departed, and Rocky Horror Saturdays became a once-a month thing. Concurrently, the Rialto began to show more mainstream movies in the hopes of drawing in more box office bucks, but the theatre itself began to have less and less curb appeal. Driving along Fair Oaks and passing the theatre of late has left me with a bittersweet feeling for what once was, and the uncertainty about what will be. Reading yesterday's LA Times article about the theatre's last show has almost brought a tear to my eye

The seats were squeaky, carpets worn. The balcony was closed for repairs, the theater warmer than the covered lobby outside. It took the camera flashes of patrons -- allowed after the movie on Sunday only -- to brighten up the dimly lit theater, as many fixtures were broken and had not been replaced in years.

After one last screening of The Simpsons Movie (and without working air conditioning to boot) the theatre shut it doors for good.Because it is a landmark, the Rialto cannot be demolished, and may return in a few years as part of a yet-unapproved redevelopment plan. In the meanwhile, those of us, like myself, are left with just our memories of this once grand dame of the movie houses; it will take a "Time Warp" to get back to those days, I'm afraid.

Scrapbook image courtesy Lindsay William-Ross for LAist (with apologies to her dear friend for publishing the atrocious 14 year old photo of us dressed so horribly)