A Century in the Making: A Brief History of Tucson’s Historic Rialto Theatre

October 22, 2015

Situated just across from Tucson's famed Hotel Congress, the Rialto Theatre stands open for business.

Situated just across from Tucson’s famed Hotel Congress, the Rialto Theatre stands open for business.

By Kai Parmenter

The Rialto Theatre has long been an essential landmark in Tucson—in fact, the historic venue is soon to celebrate its one-hundred-year anniversary. 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-five year existence.

Curtis McCrary, Executive Director of the Rialto Theatre, spoke about the theatre’s history, and of upcoming plans, including renovation and expansion in preparation for the approaching centennial.

“It was built by the same company that built the Hotel Congress,” notes McCrary. He explains how 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. “[In] the forties and fifties, it was just regular movies,” says McCrary. “By the time the fifties rolled around they were showing mostly b-movies.”

Located on east Congress Street, the Rialto Theatre has been a prominent venue for music and performance in Tucson for nearly a century.

Located on east Congress Street, the Rialto Theatre has been a prominent venue for music and performance in Tucson for nearly a century.

The theatre was temporarily shut down in 1963. “For awhile it sat empty,” notes McCrary. “It was used for a courthouse, it was furniture storage [for Mitchell’s Furniture Gallery].” Then, in 1971, Edward Jacobs reopened the theatre as El Cine Plaza, a Spanish-language movie house.

Yet in 1973 the theatre changed hands yet again, thus beginning arguably the Rialto’s most controversial period: as a pornographic theater. “There was a couple interesting things about that,” says McCrary. “There was a court case involving the transportation of obscenity across state lines…the other thing that happened was that a woman attempted to burn the theater down because the operators were advertising their screenings of Deep Throat,” one of the first adult films to receive a cinematic release.

Spanish-language movies returned to the Rialto in the late seventies and early eighties, until a boiler explosion occurred during a movie screening in 1984, which led to the condemnation of the theatre. “The plan was to tear it down in 1985,” notes McCrary. Investors had planned to demolish the theatre to make way for a parking structure for a planned high-rise complex in east Downtown.

“In the mid-nineties the previous owners came along and brought it back to life as a concert venue, but…it was in pretty rough shape for really that whole period of time.” The Rialto resumed operations in late 1995, and in 2004 Rio Nuevo purchased the theatre and leased it to the Rialto Theatre Foundation, which is when McCrary got involved. After a period of planning and renovation, the Rialto reopened under the current stewardship in April 2005.

The main entrance includes an authentic box office, currently decorated for Halloween, complete with gold trim.

The main entrance includes an authentic box office, currently decorated for Halloween, complete with gold trim.

“We try to be a resource for the community,” says McCrary. “We like the theatre to be available for people to use, especially nonprofits.” In addition to concerts centered on music, the Rialto plays host to standup comedy, including upcoming shows from Bianca Del Rio and Steven Wright, respectively.

“Sometimes we’ll host private events. People have gotten married here, or private parties, things like that,” notes McCrary. “Ninety percent of the time it’s live music or comedy of some form,” as demonstrated in the upcoming lineup: big name acts such as Clutch, Mastodon, Marilyn Manson and Johnny Lang will be performing at the Rialto—all this month, with other artists including King Diamond and Patty Griffin in following weeks.

Regarding the upcoming centennial of the theatre, McCrary says he’s broached the idea of a joint celebration with Hotel Congress, which seems fitting given their historic connection. So what’s the next step? “We want to do some capital improvements to the theatre,” says McCrary. “As of July of this year we own the theatre…prior to that it had been owned by Rio Nuevo.” McCrary plans to hold a capital campaign to raise funds for construction of an office green room, followed by renovation of the venue’s bathrooms and reconfiguration of the auditorium space, including a potential tiering of the floor. “[Our] goal would be to try to get that done in time for the hundredth anniversary.”

McCrary sounds confident, and rightly so. In recent decades, the Rialto has become one of Tucson’s premier venues for music and other performance events. It seems a given that Tucsonans will rally to support the Rialto Theatre leading up to the centennial celebration. One thing’s for certain: they won’t have long to wait.

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