Sad news: The Rialto, one of the Los Angeles area’s most venerable theatres, will be closing its doors this week. A neighborhood institution in South Pasadena, the theatre has been in operation some eighty years, offering numerous opportunities for genre fans to enjoy their favorite films.
The theatre’s screening policy has changed numerous times over the decades, but I first became aware of it when it was a revival theatre or “calendar house” (so-called because its schedule, in which titles changed every few days, was printed on a calendar and mailed to patrons). In fact, the Rialto was the very first revival theatre I ever attended, for a double bill of the 1950s science-fiction classic FORBIDDEN PLANET and horror-director Tod Browning’s infamous 1932 melodrama FREAKS (the one that used real circus freaks in a terrifying tale of revenge).
Since then, I’ve visted the theatre on many occasions. Before the advent of home video, the Rialto was one of the best venues for viewing classic movies on the big screen. Later they shifted into “second run” features, showing films that had finished playing in first run theatres. So, if you were curious about a film but didn’t want to pay full price, you could wait and watch it for less, often on a double bill with another recent release.
Many were the hours I spent there in the dark, discovering some strange film I had only ever read about in cinema books. They weren’t all horror, fantasy, and science-fiction, of course, but they usually had touches of the macabre and/or the surreal: Fellini, Bunuel, Bergman. And I also took advantage of the opportunity to revisit old favorites again on the big screen: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, John Carpenter’s THE THING.
Unlike other revival houses, the Rialto didn’t seem run-down, despite its age. It had a wonderful, old-fashioned ambience that was perfectly conducive to good cinema viewing. And that weird face or mask above the screen, lit in a garish, almost demonic red light, certainly set the mood for a horror film.
Most recently part of the Landmark Theatre group, the Rialto’s regular programming for the last several years featured art house and foreign fare, but they also ran a series of midnight movies – called Midnight Madness – that offered an increasing rare opportunity for fans to enjoy old cult flicks on the big screen: perennially popular sci-fi, fantasy, and horror titles like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, GHOSTBUSTERS, and E.T. were frequently featured.
The theatre itself, with its distinctive marquee, was occasionally featured in films. The most famous example is THE PLAYER (it’s the theatre where Tim Robbins’ characters sees THE BICYCLE THIEF before his confrontation with the angry would-be screenwriter). But genre fans will remember it from SCREAM 2, and director John Landis used it in both SCHLOCK and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (in both cases, the fictional film SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY was on the marquee).
The theatres owners say the single-screen cannot compete in today’s economy, where multi-screen theatres rule. However, there is some hope that an investor will buy the theatre and re-open it before too long.