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 the 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 across the United States, said it decided to change the format after a survey of audiences showed that viewers who patronize its theaters prefer showings of new U. S. and foreign movies produced by independent film makers to revivals and major Hollywood productions.
Last year, Landmark sold the Vista Theater in Silver Lake-East Hollywood. The Vista, where Weber also was manager, had the same fare of offbeat and classic movies as the Rialto and suffered the same economic problems. The Vista's new owners show second-run commercial movies at bargain prices. The Rialto has been a fixture in South Pasadena 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 former patrons 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 five years to two small theaters, each with a 250-seat capacity. Landmark may later designate one of the Rialto's balcony theaters a revival house.
Weber, who has worked for Landmark 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. With the revivals, each movie played for only a day or two. But now, the first-run movies will run for about a week.
"It gave you somewhere to go every night," the youth said.
Crazy About Classics
Another classic-film buff, Frank Bales, 29, figures that he has been to the Rialto more than 200 times in the last 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 said that, despite their preference for revival fare, they will continue to patronize the Rialto because the 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
Although Weber likes to hear comments like that, he said 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.