The Rialto Theater, which has survived the death of vaudeville, two fires and the threat of being replaced by a parking lot, appears to have lost its battle with new technology.
With a dwindling audience for its standard fare of classic American and foreign films, the offbeat and the bizarre, the 61-year-old theater in South Pasadena switched tactics last month and started showing first-run independent art films.
"We can't compete with people's living rooms," theater manager Mark Weber said of the growing videocassette and cable-television audience.
Won't Screen 'Rocky IV'
"Don't worry, we'll never show 'Rocky IV,' " Weber promised. But neither will the former revival house feature such staples as "Casablanca," "The Big Sleep," "Carmen," "Bananas," "Sleeper," "The 39 Steps" and "Pale Rider."
Unfortunately for the Rialto, the film fare it had featured for about 10 years has become readily available on videocassettes and on cable television. And on many nights the neighborhood theater has drawn fewer than two dozen viewers.
So the Rialto now will feature such films as "Death of a Soldier," starring James Coburn; "Twist and Shout," a Danish success; "A Man and a Woman--20 Years Later," directed by Claude Lelouch, and "My American Cousin," a Canadian film that recently won that country's equivalent of the Oscar.
The theater's owner, Los Angeles-based Landmark Corp., which specializes in art theaters and owns 30 movie houses scattered across the United States, said it decided to change the format after a survey of audiences showed that viewers who patronized its theaters preferred showings of new U.S. and foreign movies produced by independent film makers to revivals and major Hollywood productions.
Longtime Landmark in City
The Rialto has been a fixture in this city since it opened in 1925, featuring a mixture of silent films and vaudeville.
When vaudeville died in the 1930s, the theater began to offer the typical Hollywood fare shown by most neighborhood theaters at the time.
But the Rialto suffered setbacks in 1938, when a backstage fire burned its walls and floor, and again in 1969, when fire badly damaged the theater's 1920s Wurlitzer organ. The organ was restored and later was sold.
The biggest threat to the Rialto's survival came in 1977, when downtown business people wanted to raze the deteriorating theater to make way for a parking lot.
"Rescue the Rialto" became a rallying cry in South
Pasadena that year, and 3,274 petitioners prevented the demolition.
The change in format means that people who live in the San Gabriel Valley will have to travel outside the area to sample revival fare. Under Landmark's long-range plan, the theater's 500-seat balcony, which has been closed for 2 1/2 years, will be converted within the next five years to two small theaters, each with a 250-seat capacity. In the future, Landmark may designate one of the Rialto's balcony theaters as a revival house.
Weber, who has worked for Landmark for seven years, is among those who will miss the revival films.
"I just hate to see the oldies but goodies go," he said. "It makes me very sad."
Many others feel that the neighborhood theater will not be the same.
One regular, Mark Fisk, 17, a student at Blair High School in Pasadena, said he will miss most the opportunity to see several different movies each week. Under the revival policy, titles on the marquee changed every day or two. But now, the first-run movies will run for about a week at a time.
"It gave you somewhere to go every night," Fisk said.
Crazy About Classics
Another classic-film buff, Frank Bales, 29, figures that he has been to the Rialto more than 200 times over the past few years.
"My girlfriend is crazy about seeing those classics. Early Hitchcock, you know. But we'll still come," Bales said.
Two schoolteachers from Glendale admitted that despite their preference for revival fare, they will continue to patronize the Rialto because the current first-run films the theater will offer "are better than staying home and watching television."
Evelyn Hart, 66, of Pasadena, remembers that she "used to go to the Rialto on dates. The Rialto is the only place I go now. I can be sure 'Rambo' won't be playing."
Defeated by Numbers
While Weber likes to hear comments like that, he said that the size of the audience did not justify continuing revival films.
"You can't argue with audience trends," said Marc Mrakich, the Rialto's assistant manager.
But if the format of first-run movies does not draw a large enough audience, the Rialto may return to the classics or a combination of classics and first-run films.
Whatever the theater offers, Escott Norton, who heads the nonprofit Friends of the Rialto, an organization that worked with the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation to prevent the theater from being demolished in 1977, will continue his work to keep the Rialto standing.