Throwback Thursday | South Pasadena’s Beloved Rialto Theater

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | | Rialto Theater, South Pasadena (2007)

The once thriving Blockbuster Video is today a Blaze Pizza and its kitty-corner neighbor – the city’s historic centerpiece Rialto Theater – is now occupied by the Mosaic Church. South Pasadena resides in the backyard of “La La Land,” and everyone knows the scene from the movie filmed at the Rialto. Times have changed, but our love for the Rialto has never wavered.

The Rialto Theater was built in 1925 and is one of the last remaining single-screen movie palaces in the Los Angeles area. The Rialto was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 when it narrowly escaped the wrecking ball that same year.

Ray Metcalf (Pasadena’s finest) played the Wurlitzer pipe organ on opening night at the Rialto Theater on October 17, 1925. When the world-famous organist George Wright played the mighty two-manual ten-rank Style 216 Wurlitzer at the Rialto Theater it fulfilled his dream and produced a record album.

The Rialto Theater is also known for showing the cult favorite The Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Tim Curry as the “transsexual from Transylvania.” The Rocky Horror Players’ live stage performance before every showing made it the longest continuously running live performance in California history.

The Rialto Theater: Public Access, Use, and Restoration

Historic property restoration is a costly proposition, but there are only two historic properties in our city that justify making that public expenditure combined with private funding sources to protect them for future generations to enjoy. They are the Adobe Flores and the Rialto Theater.

Other relatively small communities with limited city resources have rallied public favor to assure their historic theater restoration project receives the highest budget priority. Indeed, the Rialto is an essential life force every bit as important as our tree-lined streets and craftsman neighborhoods, library, police and fire departments, city services, schools, and churches. We fight the 710 freeway extension and support our schools. We love our Norman Rockwell small town. The Rialto Theater and Adobe Flores should be a part of that discussion.

Escott O. Norton and his Friends of the Rialto are doing their part. Although the Mosaic Church owns the lease to operate the Rialto Theater for the next 20 years, I’m sure they would entertain a joint venture for its restoration and maintenance expenses for shared community access and use for special events.

Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.


  1. Rick, Thank you for the mention! Friends of the Rialto has been around for 35 years now, and we are not going away! I am consulting with the owners and the folks at Mosaic Church about all things Rialto, and also contributed to the Historic Building Report. As renovations move forward I will work closely with them.

    And yes, if a major donor were to approach me wanting to fund a renovation project, I am sure the church would be open to working together in some way. Friends of the Rialto is a 501(c)3 and can accept tax deductible donations as allowed by law. For more information please visit our website:


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