A Taste of Film Nostalgia May Whet Appetites for Rococo, as Featured at the Rialto

Sixty years ago tonight the Rialto Theater opened in South Pasadena with vaudeville acts, the silent film "What Happened to Jones" starring Reginald Denny, a parade of 1925 Hollywood bigwigs, and "huge searchlights playing on the heavens," as one opening-night reviewer wrote.

On Saturday the aging beauty will be on display again. A special program of its early fare--"The Phantom of the Opera," complete with organ music, and some shorts of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd--will help raise funds for its hoped-for restoration.

Today at the Rialto, where people come to see old classics, foreign films, the offbeat and occasionally the bizarre, a few dim bulbs still burn over the ornate proscenium arch and in heavy chandeliers. They shed barely enough light to reveal plaster eagles, cornices, filigree, gilt and swirls.

A few early gaslight fixtures remain, along with some threadbare original carpeting and a balcony filled with 1925 leather-upholstered iron folding seats and loges.

Unseen, and familiar to only a few insiders, are a big proscenium stage complete with a lighting dimmer board, backdrops and the ropes and weights to raise and lower them. There are basement dressing and rehearsal rooms and an organ loft, charred and empty, none of them used for decades.

Perhaps the Rialto's greatest asset is its location--in South Pasadena, a town noted for its resistance to change, and on Fair Oaks Avenue, a main street lacking other significant landmarks.

The Rialto also has Escott Norton, a theater buff with a sense of history that belies his 23 years. He considers the rococo landmark an artwork of great nostalgic, if not monetary, value.

Norton, a free-lance film maker, and Rialto manager Mark Weber have explored the possibility of restoring the theater to something like its original grandeur. Diminishing audiences forced a revision of that costly dream, and now the young men hope only that the theater can be brought up to code requirements for live performances--a more realistic goal, Norton said, but for which there is no money.

For starters, they arranged Saturday's benefit program. Viewers will pay $5 for tickets in advance and $6 at the box office.

More support will come from the South Pasadena Historic Preservation Foundation and its Friends of the Rialto Committee. The committee chairman, Kay Bowers, said it plans to apply for government and foundation grants that will be used for restoration. "I have no idea how much we'll need," Norton said.

Norton said he's studied city records that show the Rialto is structurally sound. Although roof leaks have been repaired, the ornate ceiling remains stained and cracked. The balcony has been closed to save maintenance costs, Weber said, but if it was open the theater would seat 1,200.

According to Norton's research, the Rialto opened with a mixture of silent films and vaudeville. Then vaudeville died in the 1930s, there was a backstage fire in 1938 and another in 1969 burned the organ loft, although the Wurlitzer organ was saved and later sold.

The biggest threat to the Rialto's survival came in 1977 when downtown business people wanted to raze it to make way for a parking lot. "Rescue the Rialto" became South Pasadena's rallying cry that year, and 3,274 petitioners prevented the demolition. Apparently many of the signers were the same people who for 20 years resisted routing the Long Beach Freeway through town, and succeeded in stopping it at the city limits.

Simultaneously, however, the theater had opponents who protested the movie fare, particularly "Reefer Madness," now considered a classic put-on about marijuana smokers, and "Last Tango in Paris." At one time there was an uproar over "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which has been playing at midnight almost every Saturday night for six years.

"The Rialto is a much more interesting experience than the standard shoe box, which most theaters are now," Norton said. "The shoe boxes simply don't measure up to the enriching kind of experience you get with a big, interesting building, big sound, big stage--all the wonderful things that make theater."

Even worse than the shoe box, Norton believes, is the video cassette recorder at home--the phenomenon that has kept increasing numbers of former moviegoers in their living rooms.

"The future (for theaters) is in doing things that you can't do in your living room," he said. "The only solution for the Rialto is to do special things--live acts, plays, community theater. If it doesn't do something special it may have to go . . . and that would be awful."

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