June 09, 2015

Photo Essay: Upon the Revitalization of the Red-Tagged Rialto Theatre (Updated for 2021)

[Last updated 8/31/21 9:08 PM PT—added info about renovation/reopening throughout]

Update 8/31/21: The Rialto has been drastically renovated at the behest of its current tenant, Mosaic Church, with the cooperation of the building owner. Its interior is practically unrecognizable—much to the dismay of preservationists and nostalgic locals. 

Below is my report from 2015, with some annotations as to what I understand has been changed/removed etc. thanks to an update from Friends of the Rialto, a non-profit that was not allowed to be part of the process of the interior renovation. 

From 2015, with minor edits and a few circa 2015 photos added:

It's not often you get the opportunity to pay a sanctioned visit to a rundown, closed theater.

Sure, vandals break in and cause mayhem. Vagrants spend the night. Thieves strip the place of copper pipes and anything else valuable.

Me? I just want to look.

As of 2021, the marquee is no longer using the historic letters, but has been repainted (and vertical sign restored)

I'd heard that the vacant Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena was going to be open for a South Pasadena Preservation Foundation meeting, but I found out about it too late to reserve a spot.

2021: Original entrance doors remain.

I thought maybe I'd show up anyway to see if I could get in. I figured I'd go a couple hours early and get some daylight photos of the exterior without crowds of people.

2021: Box office, repainted and renovated (not pictured).
The Rialto has been in the news a lot lately, particularly when it was reported that Quentin Tarantino might buy it and reopen it as a cinema, as he did with the New Beverly. That deal fell through, but the Rialto was purchased by a developer from Downtown Los Angeles.

Since no one is exactly sure what the future plans are, this might've been my last chance to see the Rialto anywhere near its original condition. Lucky for me, the door was open, and when I asked to come in and look around, my fellow preservationists welcomed me.

2021: Non-original lobby mural has been painted over

Miraculously, many of the lobby murals are intact...

2021: Non-original lobby mural has been painted over

...and in pretty good condition.

2021: Tile fountain has been preserved.

There's even a fountain made of Batchelder tile

2021: Auditorium floor has been leveled, with only the side aisles retaining the original rake

Actually, the whole theater is remarkably preserved...

2021: Orchestral seats have been removed and replaced with folding chairs hope that whatever revitalization happens will retain much of the Rialto's original features...

2021: Bare breasts have been plastered over and harpies have been painted off-white. the harpies that look over the orchestra pit from both sides of the proscenium. 

2021: Ceiling and walls have been repainted white/off-white with pastel accent colors

After all, other theaters have been revived from far worse condition.

2021: Ceiling fixtures remain.

Built in 1925 by theater impresario C. L. Langley (also responsible for the Alex Theatre)...

2021: Some stenciling has been painted over entirely or reproduced in a new color scheme. Plasterwork has been removed or altered. retains a lot of original plaster ornamentation in the auditorium as well.

2021: Original sconces remain

It was a combo movie and vaudeville theater pretty much from the beginning...

...and has the rigging and footlights for stage shows, as well as films.

2021: Detailed plasterwork behind sconces remains, but textured walls have been smoothed out

The Rocky Horror Picture Show screened here for 30 years.

2021: Balcony is now open, with seats removed in the lower loge section and replaced by folding chairs

Since its closure in 2007, the entire building has been red-tagged – deemed "unsafe and uninhabitable."

Particularly the balcony.

 2021: Upper balcony retains original built-in seating

 Of course, I went up there anyway to check it out.

It violates several California Fire Code Sections even now, which means a fire marshal must be present at any public gathering inside.

This theater has already survived two fires (one which soaked the Wurlitzer organ, which had to be subsequently removed)...

...and previous threats to turn it into a parking lot.

South Pasadena celebrated its centennial at the Rialto in 1988. In 10 years, let's hope we're celebrating the Rialto's centennial at the Rialto.

circa 2017

In the meantime, it opens occasionally for special, one-off events. [Update for 2021: It's now occupied by Mosaic Church, which is hosting its services there. TBD on non-religious events.]

circa 2017

Update 2021: I've been meaning to swing by and photograph the restored exterior, which was done sensitively with the help of Friends of the Rialto. Stay tuned for some updated photos of the marquee—but I don't expect to be inside anytime soon. 

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