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Dire projections for Rialto

The South Pasadena institution, eclipsed by multiplexes, will close soon, though a revival is possible.

August 10, 2007|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

The jazz-age Rialto Theater in South Pasadena, one of the few remaining single-screen cinemas in Southern California, will roll its last film Aug. 19. The operator, Landmark Theatres, has run out of patience with the money-losing movie palace built in the 1920s.

But plans are in the works for a major real estate project surrounding the theater on Fair Oaks Avenue, and the theater may come back to life as part of the new development. For the foreseeable future, however, it's curtains for the Rialto.

"It's too expensive to operate," said Ted Mundorff of Landmark Theatres. "It can't compete against the new modern theaters that people prefer."

The stately, 1,200-seat theater that opened with the Universal release "What Happened to Jones?" in 1925 will close with "The Simpsons Movie." It also hosted the cult favorite "Rocky Horror Picture Show" as a midnight feature for three decades.

"We love the theater. We love South Pasadena," said Mundorff, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles-based Landmark theater chain. "The economics just don't work."

Mundorff declined to disclose box office or concession counter revenues but said the Rialto was rarely more than half full. Although Landmark installed a new sound system last year, it would cost at least $1 million more to properly restore the theater, Mundorff said.

The seats are in particular need of repair, but the carpets are also frayed, paint is chipped and the place sometimes has a musty odor. In short, the Rialto is the kind of weary aging moviehouse that many people remember fondly but few think to patronize on a night out.

"Very few old theaters can make it," said Jim Rosenfield, owner of the single-screen Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, which dates to 1938. American Cinematheque operates the Aero primarily as a revival house.

"I get calls all the time from people who want to save their neighborhood theaters," said Rosenfield, who restored the Aero in 2005. "Unless they have someone behind them who is a patron of the arts or an angel landlord," the theaters usually can't be saved, he said.

Modern multiplexes have several advantages for moviegoers over traditional single-screen venues, including more choices of movies, more screening times and stadium-style seating offering better sightlines. Like many other old theaters, the Rialto doesn't have a parking lot.

Landmark controls the theater under a long-term lease. Eventually it will revert to a trust held by the Jebbia family, which has owned it since the 1930s, said trustee Philip Jebbia, who has an investment business in South Pasadena.

In the meantime, Landmark would need a white knight to help pay for restoration.

"If we can develop an economically viable plan to restore the theater, that would be our preference," said Bill Banowsky, chief executive of Landmark. "If we are unable to do so we will make the space available for other uses that are compatible with the neighborhood."

One potential suitor is Decoma Developers Inc. Decoma is working on a revitalization project intended to create a more pedestrian-friendly retail, residential and leisure district in the core of South Pasadena, including blocks around the Rialto.

"The theater is a treasure and we are all working on the possibility of keeping the Rialto a single-screen theater," said Marinel Robinson, principal of Torrance-based Decoma. "One day the theater will be renovated. Everybody needs to be patient."

If Decoma's project is approved by the city, it would start work next summer and complete the development in three years, Robinson said. "We will work with whoever ends up controlling the theater."

The Rialto was one of the great luxurious theaters of its day, built to feature both movies and live performances. It had 10 dressing rooms, a green room, an orchestra pit and a deep stage for vaudeville performances.

A backstage fire damaged the theater in 1938, about the time the vaudeville era ended. Another fire in 1969 burned the organ loft, though the large Wurlitzer that once was used to accompany silent films was saved and later sold.

Plans to raze the theater to make way for a parking lot in 1977 were successfully resisted by local residents and Landmark backed off a proposal to divide the theater into a multiplex in the 1990s.

It has been featured in many films and commercials, most notably Robert Altman's "The Player" and more recently "Scream 2," Landmark said.

"Its a very special theater for our town," said nearby merchant Lucia Wiltrout. "It's got lots of good memories."

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roger.vincent@latimes.com

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