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Mar 8, 2012

Yesterday afternoon I tweeted this:

Rumor:historic South #Pasadena #Rialto Theatre sign being removed for safety. Is there hope for #restoration now?

I had it on fairly good authority that our beloved Rialto sign was going to be removed due to safety issues — structural damage that occurred during the recent windstorm. Not long after my tweet, the story was confirmed by my editor at Patch. You can read the story here, including all kinds of optimistic yet obtuse quotes from powers-that-be about finding the right business model for the place and being uncertain if removal of the sign would reduce the possibility of reopening…
To which I say, bah. I’m sorry, I wish I could smile and nod and be optimistic but I just feel like this is yet another nail in the Rialto’s coffin.
Let’s be honest, here. The state of the Rialto has gotten so bad that it is literally falling into the street. First, heavy rains a few years ago caused huge chunks of plaster to fall off. Shortly after, the entire place was red-tagged. Now, we’ve got a situation so dire that the iconic, historical sign of one of the greatest movie palaces in Los Angeles has to be taken down. Of course these safety and structural issues have to be addressed, but why were they ever allowed to get to this point? And why are still hearing about searching for a business model? Where, exactly, is this search taking place?
There’s a great line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — a film that was probably once shown at the Rialto. “There is nothing more powerful,” said Big Daddy Pollitt, “than the odor of mendacity!”
For years the Rialto — a city treasure and historical masterpiece of architecture — has been allowed to fall into this tragic, unsafe condition. It’s not like it is in a war zone, it is not located in the south section of Bogota, in Grozny, Chechnya or in the middle of cholera-infected swamp. It is a building listed on various historical registers, loved by its community. It has owners and a leaseholder. It also happens to be in a city that prides itself on a reputation of preservation.

Sure, it would cost more money to transform it into a multiuse entertainment complex than it would to produce an all-star film about its history. But it’s abhorrent condition came purely from neglect. And that neglect is reprehensible. This is not a cookie cutter strip mall losing a few bricks. It’s a priceless treasure, entrusted to people who have let it rot. So, you’ll forgive me if I shake my head and start channeling my inner Big Daddy when I see yet another sign of disaster. Actually, when I don’t see the sign — because it’s being taken down.

There are people working tirelessly to keep alive the dream of a revitalized Rialto Theatre. Chamber of Commerce president Scott Feldmann should win a special award for his efforts. Escott Norton saved the theater once, back in the 80s, and I’m certain would be delighted to try to do it again — if the people in charge would join in. Miranda Gontz is a brilliant high school student who, by all rights, should have been more interested in her SAT scores but what did she do last year? Made a documentary about the history of the Rialto Theatre. Why? Because she thought it was important.

It is.

I’ve contributed a few things toward the fight to save the Rialto. You can go back and look at my Patch columns and videos here and here. I have many more hours of video interviews that I have not yet edited together featuring dozens of people expressing how much the Rialto means to them.

Over and over again my video subjects asked, “Why has nothing been done to save this?” In my search for that answer, I kept coming up against another line that really should have been growled by Big Daddy at some point. “It takes time,” I kept hearing. “It just takes time to find a Rialto solution.”

Well, you know what else happens with time? Decay. And ultimately? Destruction.

So, I’d like to offer my own heartfelt open letter to Landmark Theaters, the leaseholders of the Rialto:

Dear Cool and Powerful People of Landmark Theaters,

You are a company that transformed moviegoing during an era of popcorn blockbusters. You brought people independent films, art house classics and foreign cinema. Your theaters gave film lovers a chance to be not only entertained but enriched, shocked and amazed. Bottom line? You took a chance on substance during an era of fluff. And for many years it paid off.

I was personally transformed in your theaters. I still remember sitting in a daze after seeing Requiem for a Dream not knowing exactly what I felt, but knowing that I needed to talk about it. So I started talking about it right there in the theater, with the others who were still sitting in a daze.

Now, I know times are tough. I know that nobody can figure out how to keep people in movie seats anymore when we live in an era of 46″ flatscreen televisions, Hulu and On Demand. I get it. You’ve got mortgages and bottom lines.

But you, Landmark, have done great, miraculous things before. You once brought another moldering, forgotten cinema treasure back to its glory. Remember? The historic Mayan in Denver would not have been saved if it weren’t for your brilliant intervention, and willingness to take a chance on a tarnished yet valuable cinema.

I know it would be easy to let the Rialto fall apart. After all, it’s just another line item on your company balance sheet. I’m sure many of you don’t even know where South Pasadena is. (Don’t feel bad, I lived in Los Angeles for several years before I did.) And anyway, who cares if some old theater ends up at the wrong end of the wrecking ball?

We do. The people of South Pas and Los Angeles. We film geeks and art lovers and fans of architecture and history buffs realize that landmarks like the Rialto are our country’s very own great pyramids and palaces of Versailles. They might not be listed as wonders of the world, but they create wonder in our world. We care because we don’t want to see yet another part of art and history carted off, piece by piece, until nothing remains but the memory.

We care because the Rialto is, like Bogart said in The Maltese Falcon, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” If we could, this community would march over to the Rialto right now and start fixing it with our own hands. The problem is, we just don’t have the legal right, or the power, or the money.

Can you help us?

Letting the Rialto fail is more than crossing off a property on your roster, it’s like throwing out a pile of old celluloid not realizing that it contained an original print of Citizen Kane. Please, dear people at Landmark. Please don’t just show up with walls are caving in. Help us put those walls back together again.

In Martin Scorcese’s recent Academy Award winning film Hugo, the genius film director Georges Méliès had been forgotten, relegated to a broken-down version of himself, surrounded by other broken things. The one remaining symbol of his glory was a mechanical man, an automaton from a lost era that could not work because of a missing key.

Most might have thought that the automaton was useless — a relic of the past, just like the old filmmaker and his forgotten movies. But look what happened in the film. (If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending for you. But I’m sure you know, dear people at Landmark, because Hugo is exactly the kind of movie that plays at your theaters.)

I don’t have all the answers to the problems of the Rialto. I just have one question: Will you please help us save it? It will be difficult and expensive and filled with all matter of sturm und drang. But it will be worth it. And the next time someone talks about searching for the right business model, we can say, hey, Landmark found it.


Laurie Allee

For updates on the Rialto, make sure to join Escott O. Norton’s Friends of the Rialto:



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