There was something about the place that immediately grabbed the interest of Escott O. Norton when he first set eyes on it.
Perhaps it was its Moorish-style, designed by famed movie theater architect Lewis A. Smith. Or, was it the large movie screen showcasing Saturday matinee silent movies? Maybe just maybe it was the giant exterior sign that lit up nightly, or the interior murals and unique a Batchelder tile drinking fountain that distinguished itself inside.
Whatever it was, it’s safe to say the 57-year-old Norton couldn’t get enough of South Pasadena’s treasure – the Rialto theatre – while growing up.
“I’ve been coming to the Rialto since I was a little kid,” he recalled as he talked about the restoration of the theater currently underway. “From the very first time, I knew something was special about it.”
Work on the theater is being completed in stages, the exterior and retail storefronts handled by the owners while contractors working for Mosaic Church, the main tenant, are reconstructing the interior.
“I am consulting with the owners on the exterior, and it is getting pretty close to complete,” said Norton. “There are some details to be finished, like the replica Batchelder tiles to be installed, and the store front interiors will need finishing, based on what tenants are found for those spaces. Personally, I hope we can find other tenants that would be good fits with the theater use, so I am working on my own to find good potential tenants.
As a consultant, Escott O. Norton, founder of the Friends of the Rialto, is watching closely the refurbishment at the city landmark. He said the theater’s renovation has won the hearts of those passing by, watching as reconstruction efforts have transformed the aging structure that opened 95 years ago to sellout performances of Universal Pictures’ silent film “What Happened to Jones?”
“So far, the people I have spoken to have been thrilled to see restoration work on the exterior after decades of neglect,” explained Norton. “While I loved the Rialto even in its most rough shape, there were definitely those who called it an eyesore. Some over the years even promoted tearing it down. So to see the layers of flaking paint stripped off and new, accurate colors used, and windows and doors restored or replaced after all these years, the reactions I have gotten have all been positive.”
In 1983, Norton formed Friends of the Rialto as a committee of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation and produced a 60th anniversary gala two years later. A local student filmmaker, Miranda Gontz, made a short documentary about the Rialto in 2011 that inspired Norton to reactivate the Friends of the Rialto as a standalone non-profit organization. “I became the founding director of the new organization,” he noted. “When the family trust that owned the Rialto was convinced to put it up for sale, I helped the realtor with tours for prospective buyers.”
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, demonstrating the wide range of programming possible.
“We did a live Broadway musical with an orchestra in the pit, move screenings, a big band concert, we even brought in a live organ to accompany a silent classic,” recalled Norton.
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 in 1925, over the years the theater fell into disrepair and was finally closed in 2007, “The Simpsons Movie” shown to about 200 people as its final public screening.
Now, Norton looks to the day when the excitement returns to a revitalized theater, garnering daily praise for its new look. “I will be thrilled when the Rialto is once again and able to present movies and live entertainment to the community!” he said. “For me it won’t be about any one day. Our goal is to see the Rialto open regularly and often. The best way for a theater to be a success is to present regular programming that the community wants. We need to not only renovate the theater. We need to rebuild the audience! Mosaic has said they eventually want to open the Rialto to the community, and we want to help make that happen. There are so many people who want to put on events at the Rialto when this pandemic is over. Friends of the Rialto wants to help Mosaic to activate the Rialto for the community, and when that starts happening it will be well worth the decades of effort!
Back 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.”
When the owner closed escrow on the theater purchase, Norton was contacted and gave him a detailed tour of the Rialto, “and that started our connection,” he said. “I gave Mosaic their first tour of the Rialto, and when they signed the lease continued to represent the owner for film shoots at the theatre.”
Once finished, Norton will definitely look at the Rialto Theatre in the 1000 block of Fair Oaks Boulevard as the “crown jewel” of South Pasadena. “That is not just because it was my first historic movie theater,” he said. “I have traveled the entire world looking at historic theatres, I am a member of national and international historic theatre organizations and speak to people who know if the Rialto without ever even seeing it in person. The Rialto is truly world famous, partly because it was essentially untouched for decades, and partly because it was featured in some pretty famous movies.”
Site for a number of movies being filmed at the location, including Robert Altman’s “The Player,” a 1992 thriller, and “La La Land,” a 2016 American musical drama with a romantic twist, the theater will seemingly forever be a part of Norton’s existence.
“I think the reason that historic theatres like the Rialto strike such a chord with so many people is that they are one of the only forms of architecture that exist to create memories,” said Norton. “People go to theaters to share an experience with others, to be moved or enlightened, and a historic theatre adds to that fantasy through the wonderfully detailed design and decoration. Almost everyone I speak to about the Rialto has some story to tell me about an experience they had! I have been going to the Rialto for about 49 years, and officially advocating for it for 37 years!”
Norton says proudly the Rialto, a site he’ll forever come back to, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It brings back childhood memories that instilled a thirst for knowledge. His mother took him for his first visit when he was 8 years old and the experience has never left him.
“There was a mystery about the place, and I wanted to learn all about it,” he remembered. “I fell in love with the Rialto that day and I am determined to see it used and loved by the community as it was for decades before I was born.”