Rialto’s last picture show
Tina Tsoutsas blew a kiss as she said goodbye to the Rialto theater, a longtime South Pasadena fixture that has showcased cinema from silent movies to this summer’s hit, “The Simpsons Movie.”
The beloved jazz-age institution, one of Southern California’s remaining single-screen theaters, closed Sunday evening after 81 years.
“Ask anybody who knows South Pasadena and they’ll know about the Rialto,” said Tsoutsas, 46.
The Arcadia native first came to the Rialto as a teenager in the 1980s to see a movie marathon on the Beatles. She liked the theater so much that she asked for a job there, working from 1984 to 1996 in various roles, including manning the ticket booth, doling out snacks at concession stands and ushering patrons to their seats.
One of her fondest memories, she said, was working the weekly midnight showing of the cult classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which had a three-decade run at the theater.
“It really is beautiful and historic,” Tsoutsas said in the lobby after a final tour of the theater with her boyfriend, Gary. “It’s just always been here.”
The Rialto opened its doors to the public Oct. 17, 1925, with organist Ray Metcalfe at the Wurlitzer and the Rialto orchestra accompanying the world premiere of Universal Pictures’ “What Happened to Jones?” Trapeze artists performed on a bill shared with vaudeville acts. Admission was 30 cents and searchlights sent from Hollywood shone outside, alerting people to the opening.
With 10 dressing rooms, a loft, a green room, an orchestra pit and a deep stage, the Rialto’s Spanish Baroque architecture and Egyptian-accented interior design bestowed a regal atmosphere that went beyond just catching a flick for those perched in its 1,200 seats.
But on Sunday, about 30 people showed up for the first showing at 12:30 p.m. of “The Simpsons Movie,” with the discounted matinee price of $6 for adults. About 200 people attended the last show. Among them: a group of 15 who graduated from South Pasadena High school in 1960. For them, the theater had been a hangout during their teen years. They had returned to it every few years for periodic reunions and had made a point of being there for the last screening.
“No one is here to see the Simpsons, they’re here to see the Rialto Theater,” said Andrew Noice, a manager. The Rialto’s operator, Landmark Theatres, shifted in recent years from showing more independent art-house films to mainstream movies to boost ticket sales, he said.
Noice reminisced throughout the day with nostalgic Rialto customers. “Business has been up since people found out it was shutting down,” he said.
The low-key closing seemed appropriately somber for the aging beauty’s last day. 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.
“What I really loved about the Rialto is how it’s all original and has the feeling like you’ve just walked into a place frozen in time,” said Maryam Hosseinzadeh, 29, a South Pasadena native and graduate student studying historical preservation at USC’s School of Architecture. “But it’s a Catch-22 because it’s dilapidated, and I can see where there’s water damage, paint chipping away and how it’s become a faded glory.”
The theater has survived through the death of vaudeville, two fires and threats of being converted into a parking lot or five-screen multiplex, finally succumbing to consistently low ticket sales that Landmark officials said couldn’t sustain its operation.
“I remember my mom bringing me here to see “Romeo and Juliet” in the 1970s,” said David Wolf, 42, a South Pasadena resident. “South Pasadena is starting to look too generic, and this theater is part of the cultural landscape that I worry is dying here. The Rialto was never mainstream and that’s probably why it’s fading out.”
The theater on Fair Oaks Avenue at Oxley Street may come back to life as part of a proposed development project, but that plan, which would take three years, has not been approved. “It was worth the trip to see it,” said Ralph Ramirez, 56, who traveled from Torrance with his wife, Deborah, to visit and photograph the structure. “This was my first time, and I’m sad that it’ll be the last.”
Landmark controls the theater under a long-term lease, but has said it couldn’t commit the $1 million needed for restoration and ticket sales aren’t enough to keep it open. Landmark has declined to release the Rialto’s ticket sales figures, but Noice said that in the seven years he’s worked there, there have been days with not one person showing up to watch a film.
“It’s a heartbreaking ending for the theater,” Noice said. “I’m more sad that it’s closing down than losing my job. I can find another, but there’s only one Rialto.”