By Michael Petitti
CASSIE TOMLIN/Arizona Summer Wildcat
The historic Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., recently reopened after undergoing renovations, including the installation of a new $100,000 marquee. Singer-songwriters Marc Cohn and Suzanne Vega will perform there Aug. 2.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Tucson's favorite ex-porn house, The Rialto Theatre, is back in business, sans the porn. Originally built in 1919, the historical theater reopened its doors for business this past April. According to programming director Curtis McCrary, The Rialto expects to offer plenty of interesting and exciting shows tailored for incoming students.
"We're eager for school to be back in," McCrary said. "It makes a huge difference when school's back in session in terms of attendance. We'll definitely be looking to bring in talent that will be attractive to students."
Before students start hitting the books, perhaps a quick history lesson on The Rialto is in order. When The Rialto first started up in 1920, concerts and movies were far from the norm, so the theater relied mainly on vaudeville (dance, comedy and singing), the most popular form of entertainment at the time, as the main attraction.
The following decades were action-packed if a bit unkind to The Rialto. There were highlights to be sure, like Ginger Rogers' trek through town to perform the Charleston on the hallowed Rialto stage. But the lowlights seemed to outweigh such moments of glory.
One of those crushing blows came in the early '70s after the once-famed movie house (it was bought out around 1948 and renamed The Paramount to reflect its new ownership) began showing pornography, an ever-expanding film genre at the time. A disgruntled woman attempted to torch El Cine Plaza (yes, it was renamed again, this time to reflect its status as a first-run Spanish-language porno theater), which resulted in the balcony closing until 1993.
The Plaza kept undergoing changes, serving as a furniture gallery from 1963 to 1971, until it received its most crushing blow in 1984 when the theater's boiler exploded. Fortunately, only one person was injured in the explosion; however, the theater sustained extensive structural damage and as a consequence was condemned and shut down. Once closed, El Plaza found itself on the chopping block during the '80s - it was once slated for demolition to make room for a parking complex.
Thankfully, the theater avoided demolition when an adjacent building project fell through. New owners Paul Bear and Jeb Schoonover (KXCI radio founder and promotions director, respectively) eventually took the theater over, restoring it as the Rialto, and slowly began helping it regain its luster by putting on shows featuring noteworthy artists, including college favorites Modest Mouse and the White Stripes. However, the two men could not afford to do all the necessary renovations and again The Rialto closed in June of 2004.
However, with new executive director and former Tucson Weekly publisher Doug Biggers at the helm, The Rialto Theatre is back on track. Biggers' partnership, Congress Street Investors LLC, bought the theater and has begun renovating it to its former glory. With the backing of the Rio Nuevo revitalization project (a multi-million dollar project to rejuvenate downtown Tucson), Biggers and McCrary, along with Integrated Design and Construction and an all-volunteer board of directors, has already done extensive work, including much-needed sound adjustments.
"The Rialto was never intended as an amplified music venue," McCrary said. "We had to put acoustic tiles on all the walls, we put cotton batting in the stage house ... we also hung PA speakers so that they aim at the audience because in any given performance space, the best sound-absorbing material available is the human body."
Other renovations include a new $100,000 marquee (a towering modern tribute to the marquee of old), extensive work on the previously shoddy electrical systems and an overall aesthetic retooling (including a newly painted lobby ceiling mural). While McCrary and crew are pleased with the renovations, the theatre can still be improved.
"We still want to replace and reupholster the permanent seating in the balcony," McCrary said. "We also want to do some kind of exterior treatment to the building and hopefully by next summer we're going to figure out a way to air-condition the place."
The heat has been noticeable during the summer months, which have already featured premiere shows like Memphis bluesman John Hiatt, ultra-cool rockers Spoon and the skewered metal of Queens of the Stone Age; however, The Rialto has brought in giant cooling fans to keep audiences cool. McCrary is optimistic about the theatre being air-conditioned by next summer due to its unique financial situation.
"The bottom line is since we're non-profit, every penny that we make beyond operating expenses is just going to go right back into improving the theatre and making it better and better," McCrary said.
McCrary stresses the importance of the Rialto for newer generations of students who may not fully understand the facility's significance.
"The Rialto just reopened in April," McCrary said. "But previously it brought hundreds of thousands of people downtown for shows and I see that as a very important function, in that we serve almost as an ambassador to the rest of the city."
Upcoming fall shows at The Rialto, including Lucinda Williams on Sept. 9, will serve as a springboard for the facelift Rio Nuevo is giving downtown. McCrary hopes the theatre will bring people downtown for dinner before the show and possibly drinks or dancing afterwards. For students, The Rialto's reopening also means possible employment opportunities as well as discount ticket prices.
"I would not hesitate to encourage students to reach out," McCrary said. "There are plenty of ways students can get involved perhaps for school credit and we're looking into something like 20- or 30-percent discounts on tickets."
If all this is not reason enough to check out The Rialto Theatre, McCrary and Biggers plan on making the theatre the premiere downtown venue by offering more than just concerts in the future.
"We want to have as many varieties as we can," McCrary said. "Spoken word, poetry, just really any kind of performance you can think of we're open to."