Historic Theaters

The Rialto Theatre, South Pasadena, California, photographed in September 2009. Opened in 1925, this theater is now closed.

The Rialto Theatre, South Pasadena, California, photographed in September 2009. Opened in 1925, this theater is now closed.

It was love at first sight when I saw The Rialto Theatre.  I was introduced to this old beauty when I visited my friend Jan in South Pasadena, California, in the 1990’s. I’ve taken many photographs of “The Rialto” since then, but may not get the chance much longer if it isn’t saved.  This venerable theater opened in 1925 but it is now closed and in danger of demolition, as are many old theaters.  A scene in Robert Altman’s movie film “The Player” was filmed in The Rialto’s back alley.  “Scream 2” also featured The Rialto.

The Rialto is beautiful even in its decay.   Like so many old theaters, it was decorated grandly.  It has a fanciful Moorish, Egyptian and baroque motif. When I wrote an article for the Kansas City Star’s magazine about Orval Hixon, who photographed vaudeville stars from 1914 to 1930, I saw photographs of many glamorous theaters that have now fallen into ruin or are gone.

In the background is The Rialto Theatre, South Pasadena, California.

In the background is The Rialto Theatre, South Pasadena, California.

In the “old days,” an evening spent in the theater was a beautiful experience beyond what was being performed on the stage or shown on the screen. Some of the first movies I saw as a child was in The Orpheum, a gorgeously decorated old theater in Wichita, Kansas, which was originally built for vaudeville shows. Like many entertainment legends, these old theaters needs more than face lifts to keep them alive.  Sometimes only the marquee sign is all that’s saved from an old theater.

Some of the theaters, such as the ones in Hawaii that I photographed, might not be grand, but they have their own charm. Farm workers and U.S. servicemen were among their clientale.

It’s bittersweet seeing these old cinema relics, whether they are grand cinema palaces or more humble screens. I’m grateful many of these historic theaters are still standing, but who knows for how long? People watch films on their computers and even on their phones these days.  When people do go to the theater they want a great sound system, recliner seats, cup holders and even 3-D screens.

Jan and I and our husbands planned to see a movie at The Rialto in the early 2000s, when the theater was still open, but when we got to the box office we were told that the projector was broken.  So we walked across the street to a video store and rented a VHS movie to watch at home. Sadly, I never saw a movie at The Rialto before it closed.

Here’s a slide show of theaters I’ve photographed in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan and Missouri.  There is information about each theater when you click on the photo.  CLICK ON ANY THUMBNAIL PHOTO TO BEGIN THE SLIDESHOW AND SEE THE PHOTOS FULL SIZED.

Click on Cinema Treasures for a guide to more than 30,000 movie theaters from around the world, including theaters that are now closed.

Click on I’m Not Ready For My Close Up to read about my brief appearance on the Big Screen in the movie “fling.”

Here’s a blog that documents grand old theaters, many sadly in advanced decay.  After the Final Curtain

About the theaters featured in slide show:

The Rialto, South Pasadena, California

Friends of The Rialto

Friends of The Rialto Facebook Page.

Sebastiani Theatre, Sonoma, California.

Michigan Theatre, Escanaba, Michigan

Gem Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri

Aloha Theatre, Kainaliu, Big Island, Hawaii

Honoka’a People’s Theater, Honoka’a, Big Island, Hawaii

Honomu Theater, Honomu, Big Island, Hawaii

Na’alehu Theatre, Na’alehu, Big Island, Hawaii

Park Theatre, Estes Park, Colorado

Screenland Crossroads Sign from old Isis Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri.



Filed under Entertainment, History, Movies, Photography, Travel

20 responses to “Historic Theaters

  1. Some great images there, Catherine, and great sentiments too.
    I often pass by the suburb in which I grew up in Sydney. Happily the theartre remains in operation today just as did back then; perhaps with a few new coats of paint..! 😉
    I do appreciate your sentiments. Some of the old theatres here in Australia were ‘meeting places’ for friends where they could enjoy a little comraderie and fun; oh yes, and watch a movie.. 😉 Many have closed their doors due to ‘lack of trade’. We are very fortunate though; many theatres remain open in the area where we currently live, and many seats are full. Hopefully this means those particular theatres will remain open, at least for the foreseeable future. A lovely post…


  2. Old theaters do have a beautiful historical and majestic look. In New York City, Times Square, there were many old theaters, most of them now gone replaced by commercial buildings and new rebuilt theaters.


  3. Wonderful and fascinating! We need to preserve more of our iconic theaters and I love to see films in them whenever I can. It’s so rare that my good friends can find time to join me these days. Everyone is so busy! Beautiful photos and so well written! Thank you!


  4. Thanks for the mention and nice photos! My group is rallying people together who care about the Rialto Theatre. We are working with all parties to find the best way to restore the Rialto. If you or any of your readers are interested in more info, as well as lots of pictures both historic and recent, check out my website and facebook page: http://www.FriendsoftheRialto.org
    http://www.facebook.com/FriendsoftheRialto Thanks!


  5. Great photos and stories about those magical movie places from the past that still live on today. It’s stories like these Cathy that help them continue on into the future. Well done!


  6. Those are really gems Cathy!


  7. Beautiful photos! We have the Paramount here and it is still awe inspiring to look up at the ceiling. The architecture in these old theaters was indeed amazing~ Sad story, but thanks for bringing their fate to light. I wish we would think about what it would cost to rebuild something like that, not what it takes to maintain it. It’s history and worth preserving, but it seems like no one cares about history.


  8. Hi C,
    We have some marvelous old theaters spread around Florida. Art-Deco from the east coast, etc. The Ringling’s Asolo Theater in Sarasota is particularly interesting. Made a note to get the Geezer to snap a few shots for you as we move around the state on our next book signing tour to add to your collection,


  9. A most interesting post, thanks for compiling all these beautiful relics of old theatres. It’s great that they are restored and renovated to keep from decaying. We have a few here in Calgary, but they’re so run down and the seats very uncomfortable. Some older ones had been long gone. Sorry to see a piece of history disappear just like that. But your collection here looks great. Thanks for sharing them in a post.


  10. Vintage theaters are so captivating…I could look at them all day.


  11. There was a recent update on the status of the Rialto in the local paper. I’m afraid it’s in limbo. A family trust owns the property and leased it to the Landmark chain and Landmark can’t legally get out of the lease. The city is now pondering what to do. In the meantime, there is wire covering much of the theatre to prevent chunks of stucco from falling onto the street. When Richard and I were first married we saw so many wonderful art films at the Rialto. At this point, it needs an angel who can see that it’s a diamond in the rough. Hey, whose great looking dog is that you’re with in the photo?


    • Hi alwaysjan, Yes, the Rialto needs an “angel” with a big checkbook! But the money is only part of the issue. I have communicated with many city officials, and while supportive of the Rialto being restored and reopened, they are not in the position to take responsibility for the project. It will need to be a private venture. Yes, for the next few years Landmark is in control because of the lease, but their business model has changed, they no longer play revival movies in old theaters, so the Rialto is not much good to them. If someone came in who wanted to restore the Rialto, I think Landmark would be willing to work with them. The biggest issue is the family trust that owns the Rialto and has since the 1930’s. If you have seen the movie “The Descendants” with George Clooney, you get a glimpse into what it might be like for a large family to make a decision! My hope is that Friends of the Rialto can be a bridge between the owners, investors, historians, the current leaseholder, the city, and the residents of South Pasadena. It will not be easy but this kind of thing has been done successfully in towns all over the country!


      • Hi,
        Yes, my husband went to a meeting at the library. He thought the Rialto would make a wonderful venue to showcase not just movies, since it was built as a legitimate theater, but all sorts of performing arts. He was surprised to see how many people went to the meeting about its status The Rialto is near and dear to our heart as it’s only two blocks from my house. One angel needed with vision and checkbook! 🙂 The Rialto could be the cornerstone for all cultural events in South Pasadena.


    • Thanks for all of the comments. Let’s hope that The Rialto can be saved, as well as so many of these other old fine theaters.

      Thanks for letting me walk Wily, Jan. He was so gorgeous, sweet and a real character.


  12. Jerry

    I love old nostalgic theaters especially those that caused the windows to fog up to where you couldn’t see what was playing…if you wanted to. ;). Not many of those around any more.


    • I do remember Drive-in Theaters. My parents took us a few times. We fell asleep in the back of the station wagon…I missed out on days of the fogged up windows…By my teen years the outdoor theater was gone, replaced by a shopping mall. And now big shopping malls are dying out.


  13. RMW

    Thanks for posting the link here from my blog… this is a great article… I was an architectural walking tour docent with the Los Angeles Conservancy for 15 years and the first couple of years I did the Broadway Theaters tour in downtown LA. There is a good Wikipedia article at this link regarding those theaters. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadway_Theater_District_(Los_Angeles) I just heard some good news about the Los Angeles Theatre, but now I can’t remember what it is!!!! But here is a link to the website http://www.losangelestheatre.com/. Really gorgeous! Cheers, r


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