Rialto Theatre Restoration | Catching up on Progress Made in Face of Coronavirus

The South Pasadenan News spent some time with Friends of the Rialto Founder Escott O. Norton, who says the theatre is finally getting the attention she deserves

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | The Rialto Theatre on Fair Oaks Ave. has had a storied past. Now, at almost a century old, significant steps have been made in its restoration

Exterior restoration work on the Rialto Theatre is going strong.

“After many decades of neglect, the Rialto is finally getting the attention she deserves!” Escott O. Norton, founder and president of the Friends of the Rialto, wrote on Facebook.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Norton made a presentation to the Cultural Heritage Commission, which included a photographic timeline of the theatre starting with the earliest known photographs to the present. His underlying message was the Rialto Theatre is in good hands.

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“When I was made aware that the owners were starting the restoration I offered my services as a consultant and historian,” explained Norton. “Their original plan was to repair and repaint using the same colors, I showed them vintage photos to prove that the existing colors did not represent the ‘period of significance’ and suggested that a microscopic paint analysis be done. With the owner’s support, I brought in KC Restoration, they took chip samples for five different areas on the facade, and from those samples determined the original colors, as well as documented the dozens of colors that parts of the Rialto had been painted over the last 95 years. The blade sign alone has over 17 layers of paint!”

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | The Rialto Theatre on Fair Oaks Ave. has had a storied past. Now, at almost a century old, significant steps have been made in its restoration

The presentation before the Cultural Heritage Commission then detailed the steps the owner’s team of contractors are “taking to restore the exterior, including casting molds of ornamentation to replicate areas that have been damaged, and patching and repairing original materials on site,” continued Norton. “They have also replaced the leaking and damaged rain gutters with new custom one-piece gutters and caps to prevent future water damage to the walls. I closed the presentation with the next area of research, trying to determine the original color scheme for the lower marquee that was added in 1940. This involved taking more paint chip samples and further microscopic analysis. This work is ongoing and I offered to come back and present an update later.”

It’s suspected he will, but not until the COVID-19 situation that has run rampant around the world has ceased.

In the meantime, however, the Schomof Group, owners of the property, recently gave an update to South Pasadena city officials on the progress of the restoration work, saying: “This past week the cast mold company completed all their work. All details are casted and installed back on the building. All the storefronts have also been completed (glass to be reinstalled next week). This upcoming week the window contractor will be installing all the new sashes on the existing second floor windows. Once all complete, the painter will be able to come back and continue prepping all areas (new cast molds, windows, and storefronts) for paint.”

In other words a lot of work in the revitalization effort has been completed on the theater that opened back on October 17, 1925 with the screening of “What Happened To Jones” featuring Reginald Denny. 

Mosaic Church, the tenant since 2017, had been struggling in performing exterior repairs mandated by their conditional use permit, as outlined by the South Pasadenan News last December in an article written by Ben Tansey. The Schomof Group has taken over those obligations and is currently making major improvements to the façade. Mosaic will now be responsible for interior work.

“Friends of the Rialto is working to ensure the original colors are brought back for the exterior, and working with both owners and tenants to make sure all historic elements are protected, preserved, and restored,” explained Norton. “Thanks to the Shomofs and Mosaic Church for working with Friends of the Rialto to accomplish a successful restoration!”

Norton serves as the executive director of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, a nationally recognized advocacy group, consulting with successful historic theatre operators all over the country. He says South Pasadena is the perfect location for a historic theatre like the Rialto to be restored, noting the city treasures its long history and supports the arts.

The South Pasadenan asked Norton to share his thoughts on the theatre’s past and present, and what it means to be at the heart of a successful rehabilitation project while talking about the Rialto – the centerpiece of South Pasadena.

Q: What’s happening in terms of construction at the theater. What is your involvement? What is your title with Friends of the Rialto? How long has the organization been around?

A: “There are currently two permitted areas of construction. The owners are doing the exterior restoration which includes paint and plaster work, and will also include stripping and repainting both marquees. That is what I am involved with as consultant.

The other project is on the interior and is being done by contractors working for the tenant, Mosaic Church. They are taking the original lobby level bathrooms that were converted into storage for the concessions stand sometime in the 1940s or 50s, and transforming them into new accessible bathrooms. 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 according to the city, at this time no additional permits have been pulled.   

I formed Friends of the Rialto in 1985, originally as a sub-committee of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation.  Friends of the Rialto is now a 501(c)3 not-for-profit, advocating for the preservation, restoration and activation of the Rialto Theatre. I am the founding director.”

Q: What can we expect when it’s completed and what’s the expected completion date?

A: “The current owners are the Shomof family, Izek Shomof and his sons own and manage many different properties in the Los Angeles County area, including many historic properties in Downtown Los Angeles. While I am not privy to the terms of the lease with Mosaic Church, I do know that the lease was revised recently. Originally, the church had control over the entire building and was responsible for renovations.

The recent change in the lease means that the owners control the exterior and retail spaces, and the tenants control the interior of the theatre. Within weeks of the owners taking back control of the exterior, they pulled permits and started the long awaited restoration process. The owners have committed to me and to the city to bring the exterior back to the way it looked originally, and to use proper restoration techniques. There is a lot of oversight on the part of the Cultural Heritage Commission and other departments in the city, an arrangement has been made to monitor and document the process. Friends of the Rialto is helping in that documentation and monitoring. No date has been set for completion.

The exterior work is right now waiting on the casting process to finish some of the details, the priming is mostly done and colors have been approved, so once the details are reinstalled the painting of the facade can start. The rest of the building has already been painted the final color, which is similar to what has been on the building, but with less of a yellow hue.” 

Q: Is Mosaic Church still conducting Sunday services at the Rialto? Are they still looking for a new home. What other groups are using the Rialto for events?

A: “Mosaic Church is still conducting Sunday services and I think they hold occasional church events on other days, either at the Rialto or at their nearby storefront location. My understanding is that they are not looking for a new home, that was happening before the lease was renegotiated. At this point there are no other groups using the Rialto that I am aware of. Friends of the Rialto submitted a rental template to Mosaic over a year ago, and offered 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.  We hope that after the restroom project is complete that they will be more receptive to outside organizations renting the Rialto Theatre when they are not using it for church events. I get requests regularly from people wanting to hold both public and private events at the Rialto, including movie screenings, live performance, concerts, film shoots, operas, ballets.

We think it is a shame that the Rialto Theatre sits empty most of the week when there are groups ready and willing to rent it and bring in audiences.”

Q: Why are you so passionate about seeing that improvements be made at the Rialto?

A: “The Rialto Theatre has been a huge part of my life since I was 8 years old and my mom took me to see some silent movies. 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.

As society becomes more and more fractured we need things to bring us together. The shared experience that can happen in a theatre, and especially a community theatre, can bond people and create life-long memories. South Pasadena is a special town, and the Rialto Theatre has the potential to be the social and cultural center for South Pasadena, like it was in the past. Inspired by my love of the Rialto I have traveled all over the world visiting historic theatres.

I have chosen a career path that is focused on historic theatres 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.” 

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: “I am aware that this is an uphill battle to get my vision for the Rialto fully realized. There are perceptions that need to change, habits that need to be altered, and a generation of the community who has never experienced the Rialto that need to be engaged.  

I have seen theatres across the country, in towns less fortunate than South Pasadena, take theatres 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 theatre, the community will really support our efforts and get involved. The best way to save a theatre is by buying tickets to shows.

Please stay tuned and come out and be apart of the resurgence of the Rialto!”