Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Rialto -- Louisville's lost movie palace

University of Louisville Ekstrom Library collection.

The Rialto had a relatively short lifespan -- just fifty-seven years.  It was torn down during that unfortunate time in the middle of the last century when most American cities were destroying their history with gleeful abandon.  It wasn't even the only movie palace in Louisville to be razed.  Even before the Rialto, the National and the Strand disappeared.  To this day, over sixty years later, the site of the National is a parking lot. The Loew's and United Artists (a joint effort, it was initially advertised as such, but after a few years the United Artists portion was dropped from the ads only to return in the mid 1950s. At any rate, it enjoyed a much happier fate -- it is still in use as The Louisville Palace.  The Rialto -- based on the Capitol Theatre in New York -- might well have been saved if it had been allowed to survive for another ten or twenty years and been used as a performing arts or concert venue.  When it opened, it had the largest stage in Louisville, but when B.F. Keith began using it for its Vaudeville circuit, its stage was expanded to thirty-five feet in depth. 

Step back now through the yearly posts and see what was playing at the Rialto from 1921 through 1968.  Nearly all of the ads are now preserved for a quick scroll down memory lane. You'll see the Rialto begin as a movie palace, expand to include Vaudeville and then when the talkies came in,  revert back to a movie palace. In the early 50s it widened its screen for CinemaScope and in the early 60s enlarged it even more for Cinerama and 70mm engagements.  Towards the end it was a great reserved seat roadshow house, hosting such hugely successful films as How the West Was Won, Dr. Zhivago its biggest hit of all, The Sound of Music.  The Rialto has been gone for nearly fifty years, but at least here you can begin to imagine what once was, when Louisville's downtown was vital and bustling.

November 16, 1919:

Initially there were plans to build a new 3,000 seat Majestic Theatre even as the equally large Rialto was under construction, but this never happened. The Majestic was ultimately bulldozed at the end of the silent era and a few years later, the Loew's and United Artists was built nearby instead.

The Rialto under construction.

In October 1920 a lawsuit arose:

On April 24, 1921 the first bit of publicity for the Rialto surfaced when the organist was announced. Much more would soon follow.

The Rialto shortly after opening, 1921.

May 1, 1921:

The entrance to the Rialto, 1936.

In this article, it's mentioned that the Rialto was patterned 'very much after the recently erected and widely-famed Capitol Theater of New York.' 
I distinctly recall that in the 1960s the windows in the lobby were painted over and were peeling from old age.

Box offices. When I went to the Rialto it was usually to a reserved seat engagement, so we already had our tickets by mail order.
 The grand marble staircase to the balcony.
Compare these shots to the staircase of the Capitol's in New York:

The original projection booth at the Rialto.  When Cinerama was installed, a new projection booth was built on the ground floor.  The Rialto, however, did not build three separate booths; there was just one, akin to the similar CineMiracle setup.
 The murals.  As I recall these were quite faded by the time I saw movies at the Rialto in the 1960s.

The mezzazine. In the 1960s there was an additional refreshment stand here to serve the big crowds seated in the balcony.

Here's a view of the New York Capitol Theatre. While the Rialto was not an exact copy -- the Capitol was much bigger at 5,200 seats to the Rialto's 3,000, you can certainly see some similarities -- the white marble balistrade, down to the curved ends to the open lobby below appears to be identical.

Compare this shot of the Capitol with the Rialto, below.  The curtained alcoves are quite similar to the murals in the Rialto.
Eventually a Cinerama screen and curtains would cover the side panels of the proscenium.  
Above, the Rialto and below, the Capitol.
Another view of the Capitol, New York City.
While no views to the rear of the house exist of the Rialto, here's one of the Capitol.  It may have been quite similar.

Another view of the Capitol, New York.
 Like the Rialto, the Capitol was converted to a Cinerama house, at which point it was 'modernized.'
Like the Rialto, because of the diminished sight lines when the Cinerama screen was installed, it was necessary to curtain off the back part of the balcony.

Looking north on 4th Street, mid 1920s.  Next door to the Rialto was the Mary Anderson -- at this point overwhelmed by B.F. Keith, which also managed to Rialto for several years, dominated most of Louisville's downtown entertainment.  Vaudeville eventually located solely to the National where it remained well into the 1940s. In the 1960s, the Mary Anderson was remodeled and rebranded the Mary Anderson Towne Cinema.  It outlasted the Rialto by several years. I saw several movies there.  the building remains but the Mary Anderson itself was gutted and became office space.  All photos above of the Rialto are from the University of Louisville Ekstrom Library collection.
Early 1969. What a tragedy. Interestingly, the Capitol in New York was also demolished around the same time.  Courier-Journal archive photograph.

May 8, 1921:

May 10, 1921:

May 11, 1921:

May 12, 1921:

May 13, 1921:
The above article was written by Boyd Martin, the resident Courier-Journal critic through the 1950s.

May 15, 1921:
An extravagant, special Rialto section appeared.  Here it is in its entirety:

All advertisements and articles appeared in The Courier-Journal in 1921.