Rialto Theatre Restoration | A Cinema Treasure’s Major Facelift

As a consultant, Escott O. Norton, founder of the Friends of the Rialto is watching closely the restoration efforts at the city landmark

PHOTO: Anna Fratto | SouthPasadenan.com News | Newly restored exterior of the Rialto movie theatre on Fair Oaks Ave

A cinema treasure rich in history, South Pasadena’s once dilapidated Rialto Theatre, after years of neglect leading to its closure, has finally been given a lavish exterior makeover.

One individual delighted by the facelift is Escott O. Norton, the 57-year-old founding director of Friends of the Rialto, committed to preserving and restoring the structure that opened in 1925, showing Universal Pictures’ silent film “What Happened to Jones?” to sold out audiences.

It was highly regarded as one of the premiere entertainment palaces of its day. Over the years, a Wurlitzer pipe organ provided the backdrop to silent movies. Vaudeville acts in the 1930s along with feature films were viewed by the thousands, as it became one of the finest single-screen movie theaters in Southern California.

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When it debuted, C.L. Langley owned the Rialto, along with the Alex Theatre in Glendale, as he built a theater empire that was later acquired by West Coast Theatres. Fox West Coast would take the Rialto over next, followed by others, including the National General Corporation, Mann and Landmark Theatres. The theater was designed by famed architect Lewis Arthur Smith, also known for his work on the Highland Theater in Highland Park and the Vista in Los Felix.

Since 1978, the Rialto has been on the National Register, recognized for its Egyptian/Moroccan architecture and beauty.

In the 1930s, the Dominic Jebbia family-trust owned the Rialto until it was sold to Los Angeles developer Izek Shomof, who closed escrow in January 2015, before allowing the Friends of the Rialto to produce multiple events for about the next two years.  Mosaic Church leased it in January 2017 and held its first service inside the 1,200-seat theater 10 months later.

Luxurious the day it opened, over the years it fell into disrepair and was finally closed in 2007, with “The Simpsons Movie” shown to about 200 people as its final public screening.

In January, before embarking on the massive outdoor restoration effort, Shomof told the South Pasadenan: “We’re going to bring livelihood back into that space.”

For a brief period last fall Mosaic Church was in negotiations with the South Pasadena Unified School District to use the city’s middle school for Sunday services but the proposal was never consummated. “There was a period when Mosaic Church was exploring options at other locations, but with the revision of the lease agreement it appears they are intending to stay,” explained Norton, noting,  “Due to the (coronavirus) pandemic as well as interior construction work, my understanding is that there are no services being conducted in the Rialto at this time. Pre-pandemic, there were no other groups using the Rialto that I was aware of.”

Norton said the Friends of the Rialto submitted a rental template to Mosaic over a year ago offering to facilitate rentals to outside groups to generate revenue for restoration. “While we have had many good interactions with Mosaic, they have not yet implemented our plan,” he said.

Recent changes in the lease, noted Norton, means the owners control the exterior and retail spaces, and the tenants, Mosaic, are responsible for the theater’s interior. Within weeks of the owners taking control of the exterior, Norton said they started pulling permits and began the long-awaited restoration process last January.

PHOTO: Anna Fratto | SouthPasadenan.com News | New restored exterior of the Rialto movie theatre on Mission street

“The owners committed to me and to the city to bring the exterior back to the way it looked originally, and to use proper restoration techniques,” Norton said, a consultant for the project. “There is a lot of oversight on the part of the Cultural Heritage Commission and other departments in the city. The exterior work is close to finished, with the majority of the work still to be done on the retail storefronts. The original blade sign still has some detail painting to do including the gold border. Currently, I am helping the owner find a solution for the original Batchelder tiles that were under the windows, most of which had been removed years ago.”

The exterior restoration includes remodeling retail stores at the entrance level, stripping and repainting two marquees. Contractors working for Mosaic Church are reconstructing the interior. “They are taking the original lobby level bathrooms that were converted into storage for the concession stands sometime in the 1940s or 50s, and transforming them into new accessible bathrooms,” Norton said. “The adaptation was well designed to not change the appearance of the lobby, using the ladies restroom entrance from the 1940s remodel. The tenants have future plans for more work, but to my knowledge no additional permits have been pulled.”

He hopes once coronavirus concerns ease, allowing for a safe activation of the theater, Mosaic officials will be more receptive to outside organizations renting the Rialto Theatre when not in use for church events. “I’ve gotten regular requests from people and organizations wanting to hold both public and private events at the Rialto, including movie screenings, live performance, concerts, film shoots, operas, ballets,” Norton said. “Our mission includes activating the Rialto which we think will be a benefit for the community and the tenants. Friends of the Rialto believes the Rialto Theatre should not sit empty most of the week when there are groups ready and willing to rent it and bring in audiences.”

“I am aware that this is an uphill battle to get my vision for the Rialto fully realized,” he said. “There are perceptions that need to change, habits that need to be altered, and a generation of the community that need to be engaged who has never experienced the Rialto. I have seen theaters across the country, in towns less fortunate than South Pasadena, take theaters in worse shape than the Rialto and bring them back to life. I know it is not going to be easy. I have spent more than half my life advocating for the Rialto and I know I am not alone. The exterior restoration is a great step in making the Rialto visible to the community again. My hope is that when we start programming the theater, the community will really support our efforts and get involved. The best way to save a theater is by buying tickets to shows.”

As its founding director, Norton formed the Friends of the Rialto in 1985, originally as a subcommittee of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. The organization is a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit advocating for the preservation, restoration and activation of the 95-year-old structure. With a genuine love for the stage, Norton is past executive director and a current member of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the League of Historic American Theatres, a nationwide advocacy group. His consultation business, EON Design, focuses on older theaters and character homes, those with a special personality, charm, and distinctive history behind them.

If it appears Norton has a real passion for old theaters, especially the one in South Pasadena, it’s true. His interest in the Rialto started at a young age when his mother took him to the local movie house for his first silent movie when he was only 8 years old.

“I fell in love with the Rialto that day and I am determined to see her used and loved by the community as it was for decades before I was born,” he acknowledged. “As society becomes more and more fractured, we need things to bring us together. The shared experience that can happen in a theater, and especially a community theater, can bond people and create lifelong memories. South Pasadena is a special town, and the Rialto Theatre has the potential to be the social and cultural center for the city, like it was in the past. Inspired by my love of the Rialto, I have traveled all over the world visiting historic theaters. I have chosen a career path that is focused on historic theaters and historic buildings. I know that the Rialto is unique in many ways, and I am driven to see it used to its fullest potential once again.”