After World War I, Tucson started to draw more people in due to the city's favorable climate. As more people people came to love the heat and the dry climate of the southwest, the economy grew and so did the town of Tucson. The Rialto was built by a California based firm known as William Curlett and Son. The Rialto known to Tucson is one of many across the world. Back in the 1920s, the word "Rialto" was known for a place where people could gather. It was a plaza where anyone could go for entertainment as opposed to the theatre's and operas of the time, which were solely reserved for the nobility and wealthy. The Rialto has since created an outlet for Tucson's entertainment to grow and thrive in the way it does today.
The Rialto Theatre has long been an essential landmark in Tucson — in fact, the historic venue is set to celebrate its one-hundred-year anniversary in 2020. First built in 1920 as one of two East Congress Street projects (the other being the famed Hotel Congress, constructed in 1919), the Rialto has endured numerous iterations throughout its storied—and to an extent, tumultuous—ninety-eight year existence. The theatre was built in the silent film era, and featured vaudeville and variety shows before transitioning to “talkies,” or movies with sound, beginning in 1929. That same year, theater mogul Harry Nace leased the Rialto to Paramount-Publix, which obtained corporate ownership of the theatre in 1948. The theatre was temporarily shut down in 1963. Yet in 1973 the theatre changed hands yet again, thus beginning arguably the Rialto’s most controversial period: as a pornographic theater.
As time went on and the Rialto continued to be an outlet for the art of Tucson, corporations wanted to become involved with the improvement and the renovation of the theatre. Corporations started to gain control of many theaters already in existence across the country to create standards and expectations that could be expected in other theaters that are unique to other cities. Paramount-Publix invested heavily on the renovation of the theatre, adding new high end seating, artwork (some of which is still visible today), and a new cooling unit in the theatre (which was much appreciated during the summer months). For a few decades following 1948, the Rialto Theatre was known as the Paramount to reflect its corporate ownership. It was expected to do well known as the Paramount, but going corporate was not something that local Tucson residents were a fan of. Most of the time, the shows at the Paramount were not high in demand and usually sub-par, causing ticket sale and attendance to plummet. The classic charm that was known to the public seemed dead. People started to move away from the downtown center and it's recognition as being a "hub" for entertainment was fading.
As transportation into downtown Tucson started to change, so did the amount of visitors to the landmarks like Hotel Congress and formerly known Rialto. The Paramount sits on a one-way road and many foreign visitors were confused on how to access it properly, though some people say that this had nothing to do with the closing of the theatre.
Between 1963-1971, the Paramount served as nothing but a storage facility for Mitchell’s Furniture Gallery. The people who loved the theatre were not happy that the Paramount was just being used to hold furniture. However, in 1971, businessman Edward Jacobs re-opened the theatre as El Cine Plaza. The Plaza served as a Spanish first-run movie house. Since there was already another first-run Spanish theatre downtown, it didn't last very long due to the loyalty of the other theatre.
The Ghost of the Rialto
From witnessing the birth of a baby in his own office to someone dropping dead on the job, the manager at the Rialto until 1933 evidently saw it all during his time as an employee. And whats an old landmark without a ghost, anyway? During a performance, a piano player was playing in the orchestra pit when he fell backward against the concrete part of the pit. This caused his piano bench collapse along with the piano and fall on top of him. With the lack of medical advances in the 40s, he died later or head injuries. People to this day say that his ghost still lingers in some parts of the theatre.
The Rialto pairs with many big sponsors and they give their community opportunities to become a sponsor and help bring high-demand talent to our town. They offer volunteer and internship opportunities as well.
The theatre remained closed until 1995, when it was purchased by Paul Bear and Jeb Schoonover. The enterprising duo re-opened the theatre as a concert venue under the original name. The Rialto soon garnered a reputation as Tucson's preeminent music venue, as Bear and Schoonover hosted over 700 shows featuring a diverse range of acts such as The Black Crowes, Linkin Park, The White Stripes, Maroon 5, Dave Chappelle, Morrissey, Fugazi, Government Mule, Sam Butera, The Afro-Cuban Allstars, King Sunny Ade, Cesaria Evora, Arturo Sandoval, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, The Vagina Monologues, Quest for Fire and even the Jim Rose Side Show. In 2004, Bear and Schoonover sold the theatre to the City of Tucson, as part of Rio Nuevo, a downtown revitalization project. The Rialto Theatre is now operated by a nonprofit organization, the Rialto Theatre Foundation, which has leased the theater from the Rio Nuevo District for 50 years. The foundation also oversees show operations for another local nonprofit concert venue, 191 Toole. The executive director of the foundation is Curtis McCrary who continues the tradition of producing the finest concerts in Tucson. The Rialto Theatre is one of several historic theater and concert venues built along Congress Street, the others being Club Congress (directly across the street) and the newly renovated Fox Theatre several blocks to the west. Both structures were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003
Becoming a member at the Rialto can save you money if you are a regular attendee. Certain benefits even carry over to 191 Toole shows. Seehttps://www.rialtotheatre.com/memberships/ for more details.
The Rialto Theatre Today
Today, The Rialto has indeed broadened their horizons and host various types of shows and events ranging from concerts, dance, performances, comedy shows, and more. In total, around 150 events take place at the downtown Tucson venue each year, attracting over 100,000 people annually! From Tucson locals to seasonal snowbirds, The Rialto offers events that all types of crowds can enjoy. From performances by GroupLove and Waka Flocka Flame to magazine launch parties and local love funk festivals. The Rialto remains a cornerstone among entertainment in downtown Tucson, bring a diverse range of high quality artistic expression to a city that appreciates it most.