He’s been described as a preservationist, historic theater aficionado and, perhaps most proudly, the founder of the non-profit Friends of the Rialto.
They’re all fitting narratives when recognizing the accomplishments of Escott O. Norton, the man with a distinguished name who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes over the years in bringing a once dilapidated exterior of a South Pasadena landmark back to life.
From its earliest beginnings, the beloved city treasure, home to vaudeville when it first opened, is known as one of the last single screen theaters in Southern California where silent films and a mighty Wurlitzer organ once entertained crowds.
Its presence and impact on the community has consumed the life of 58-year-old Norton who says, “As far as I am concerned, the Rialto Theatre is the cultural and social center of South Pasadena, and has been since 1925,” talking about the year the 1200-seat Spanish Baroque and Egyptian kitsch-style structure first opened it doors to rave reviews, located in the 1000 block of Fair Oaks Avenue.
On Wednesday, March 10, at 7 p.m., Norton will share the Rialto’s long history and the Shomof Group’s recent work in restoring the theater’s exterior during a free online event presented by the South Pasadena Public Library. Izek Shomof, a developer of older, historic Los Angeles buildings, purchased the Rialto eight years ago and is now making renovations to the storied venue that has been cast in some on-screen favorites, among them “Scream 2,” “The Player,” and “La La Land.”
“I look forward to sharing stories of the Rialto with everyone, and giving people a glimpse behind the curtain, literally!” explained Norton. “The Rialto is such a rare and special place, South Pasadena is truly lucky to have it.”
Outside of its limited use of Mosaic holding Sunday church services at the site prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the Rialto has not been highly active since 2007, and was purchased by the Shomof Group in 2014.
“Having it closed and shuttered for so long was a huge shame,” noted Norton. “There was a whole generation of kids who grew up never stepping foot in the Rialto, and adults who basically forgot it was there. I am thrilled that it is now on the radar again, and hopefully when it is safe to start attending theaters, the church will allow more programming in the Rialto.”
He has worked with the Shomof Group from the moment of the sale, giving Izek his first detailed tour of the theater in the days following the purchase. The owners, said Norton, “very generously” allowed the Friends of the Rialto to schedule fundraising events over a span of nearly two years before Shomof’s company reached a lease agreement with Mosaic.
“When they renegotiated the lease and the owners took on the exterior restoration, I offered to consult to help make sure the color scheme was historically accurate,” Norton explained.
The Shomofs took him up on his offer, and soon KC Restoration was recommended by Norton to do the color analysis of the theater’s exterior, opening the door for what Norton calls “a good working relationship” between the two parties toward completion of the project.
“The Rialto has been a focus of my life since I was a little kid,” he said, talking about his early attraction to the theater. “My mom took me to see some old silent movies and I fell in love with the Rialto, an affair that has lasted almost 50 years! Even as a young kid I was caught up in the mystery of the old building, the ‘ghosts’ as I like to call it. Only later did I find out from others that there actually are Rialto ghosts!”
Most of the renovation of the theater’s exterior took place over a six-month span after the scaffolding went up in January 2020. The portion Norton consulted on included prepping and painting of the stucco, rehabilitation of the metal marquees, and work on the storefronts. “There are still some details to be done, but the majority of the work was finished last June when the scaffolding came down,” he said, adding that outside minor touch ups to the building continue.
Norton was recently contacted by Cathy Billings, South Pasadena Library’s director, and Olivia Radbill, the local history librarian, about creating the March 10 presentation, “and, of course, I was happy to do it!” said Norton. “I will go through some of the fascinating history of the theater, share some old photos and memories I’ve collected of the last 30 years. I will also be sharing some behind the scenes photos of areas that the public never gets to see, and finally, discuss the exterior restoration. I will share close-up photos from the top of the vertical marquee to the basement that most people don’t even know exists, and discuss the process we went through to determine the historic colors you see today.”
While he agrees with the descriptive phases, recognizing him as a supporter of preservation, a fan of theatre, and for spearheading the Friends of the Rialto, an advocacy group dedicated to the revitalization of the building, Norton is quick to point out, “I am all of those things, but none of them pay the bills! My day job is as a designer. My company, EON Design, consults on rehabilitation and restoration of historic buildings and homes, although my favorite jobs are still historic theaters.”
Like the one that has become the centerpiece of South Pasadena, a town he cherishes. “I have chosen a career path that is focused on historic theaters and historic buildings,” he said. “I know that the Rialto is unique in many ways, and I am driven to see it used to its fullest potential once again.”
“To live stream “The Rialto Revealed,” on March 10, go to www.crowdcast.io/e/rialto and register.