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ROUTE 66

Rialto Theatre
South Pasadena, California

 

Rialto Theatre
courtesy of Joe Schumacher

The Rialto Theatre is one of a dwindling handful of Pasadena’s grand theatres from the early 20th century.  Fortunately, it is also one of the best preserved.  Completed in 1925 and trimmed with Spanish tile, the Rialto building’s design included spaces for the grandiose theatre, retail shops, and apartments.  Despite minor modifications to the street-level shop frontage, the original Moorish motif is still intact and the building remains largely unaltered.

The building’s façade is symmetrical with a central projecting bay containing a recessed entrance and the marquee. Sometime in the 1930s, a larger, three-line, three-face, neon Art Moderne marquee replaced the original marquee, which was a two-line reader board featuring white glass and tin changeable letters. Above the marquee, Moorish-style paired arched windows combine with vertical elements to mix historical fantasy with the latest Art Deco influences. On each side of the central bay is a storefront.

The interior of the theatre seats 1,300 people and is a lavish example of flamboyant eclecticism.  Multiple rows of crown molding surround the first level of seating, and below the massive balcony, also finished with extensive molding, hang chandeliers mounted in Moroccan-influenced ceiling fixtures.  Gilded niches protrude from the walls; patterned, swirling finishes surround openings; and at points of emphasis are Egyptian-influenced sphinxes and Romanesque winged torsos.  The entire effect conjures fantasies of opulent African and Middle Eastern cultures to create a setting removed from the cares of daily living, a place of escape where audiences could revel in glamorous surroundings and immerse themselves in the stories presented on the stage or screen.  During the 1930s, general admission was 30 cents and children under 12 paid only a dime.  Going to the theatre was worth it.  No matter what the audience watched—whether it was Vaudeville or a motion picture—the Rialto interior was part of the show.

About 30 feet deep, the stage was designed for live productions.  Dressing rooms and an orchestra pit are underneath the stage.  The scenery loft remains intact, although the theatre has not mounted a stage production since the 1950s. Today, it hosts events and screenings on special occasions. The National Park Service listed the theatre in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Plan your visit

The Rialto Theatre is at 1019-1023 Fair Oaks Ave. in South Pasadena, CA.  It ceased regular movie showings some years ago, and now hosts only special events or screenings.

 
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