What’s in Store for the Rialto Theatre with Mosaic Church as its Operator?

Home to sprawling craftsman homes, jacaranda-lined streets and musters of wild peacocks, South Pasadena is an affluent suburb where overgrown lawns look out of place, much less rundown buildings. But, the Rialto Theatre on Fair Oaks Avenue — arguably the neighborhood’s most famous landmark — has stood in disrepair for years now.

Rialto Theatre | Dean Terry/Flickr/Creative Commons
Rialto Theatre | Dean Terry/Flickr/Creative Commons

Since a piece of plaster fell from its facade in 2010 and the city found several code violations, the Rialto has largely been off limits to the public. Yet, a change in ownership three years ago, the occasional special event there, and the theater’s depiction in hit film “La La Land” has renewed public interest in the Rialto, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

In April, news broke that Los Angeles church Mosaic will lease the 92-year-old building. That development has raised both fears and hopes from Rialto supporters about the theater’s future. Community members say they’d like the theater to thrive but still want access to the venue they patronized for decades.

Behind the scenes of filming La La Land at the Rialto Theatre | David Wasco Friends of the Rialto
Behind the scenes of filming La La Land at the Rialto Theatre | David Wasco Friends of the Rialto


Growing Up With the Rialto

Gretchen Robinette, a 70-year resident of South Pasadena, has visited the Rialto during every stage of her life. As a little girl, she took advantage of the free children’s events the theater offered during the summers.

“There were cartoons and kids-related shows,” she recalled. But the highlight came when theater workers would auction off a bicycle for one of the children, she said.

In her teens, Robinette, now 72, would spend her Friday nights at the Rialto. Once, she and a group of girlfriends giggled so loudly during a film that the manager threatened to call their parents. That sort of supervision put parents at ease, she said. “It was a very good community hangout place for the kids. It was a safe place.”

Rialto 1933 | Courtesy of Friends of the Rialto Archives
Rialto 1933 | Courtesy of Friends of the Rialto Archives

Robinette last visited the theater about 15 years ago to attend the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which ran there for three decades. Little has changed since. Mesh wire envelops the exterior of the theater — built in 1925 by C.L. Langley and designed by Lewis Arthur Smith — to keep more plaster from plunging to the sidewalk. With Spanish Baroque, North African and oriental design elements, the building is so unchanged from its early days that visitors have likened entering the theater to stepping into a time capsule. The first dimmer lighting system, stage rigging and orchestra pit remain, and the outline of a trapdoor can be seen from the stage. It harkens back to the days when the Rialto hosted vaudeville acts, among them magicians and acrobats. The original tile by California Art Tile was made in Richmond, California and adorns the lavish drinking fountain and plaster ornaments, including mythological creatures, embellish the walls.  

“It’s Hollywood fantasy style,” Escott Norton, founder of Friends of the Rialto, said of the theater’s majestic appearance. “It’s capitalizing on what the general public thought of as exotic.”

Established in 1983, Friends of the Rialto advocates for the preservation and revitalization of the theater. Since it opened with 1,200 seats, the Rialto has endured fires and threats to convert it into a parking lot or multiplex. Today, it is one of the last single screen theaters still standing in Southern California.

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An Uncertain Future

The Landmark Corporation began operating the Rialto under a long-term lease in 1976. During its tenure, the aging theater fell increasingly into disrepair. By 2007, Landmark said that low ticket sales didn’t justify keeping the movie palace open and the company lacked the $1 million needed for renovations. After bidding farewell to the theater, Rialto fans were relieved in 2014 when real estate developer Izek Shomof bought the venue from Wells Fargo Private Bank's Real Estate Asset Management group — corporate trustee for then owner, Jebbia Family Trust. Shomof’s history of redeveloping old buildings, including the Hotel Alexandria in downtown Los Angeles, raised hopes that the historic venue might see new life as an entertainment destination where patrons could watch classic films and enjoy drinks. Two years ago, South Pasadena’s Cultural Heritage Commission reviewed new plans for the theater, based on a design concept by Vintage Cinemas, owner of the Vista and Los Feliz cinemas. Then, Shomof and Vintage Cinemas appeared to be working on an agreement to convert the Rialto into a fourplex. Now that Mosaic has leased the building, however, it’s unclear what will happen.

Rialto Theatre Plate 2 | Thomas Hawk
Rialto Theatre Plate 2 | Thomas Hawk

Shomof did not respond to calls for comment on this story. Lawrence Fudge, executive pastor of Mosaic, said that the church will make a public statement about its plans for the Rialto once it “gets a few things in order.” He said to expect a statement in the coming weeks but declined to elaborate. On June 3 and July 8, Mosaic held what it called an “Interest Night” at the theater.

Friends of the Rialto would like to consult with Mosaic about renovations and help program events at the theater when the church isn’t using it. “My hope is that the Rialto is used seven days a week,” Norton said.

News that a church would operate the theater sparked a backlash of sorts, with South Pasadena residents expressing disappointment on Facebook and other sites that the Rialto would not be used primarily as an entertainment venue. Norton, who first began patronizing the theater as a youth in the late 1960s and early ’70s, said that the reaction from community members isn’t surprising. With roughly 25,000 residents, South Pasadena is a small town.

“People are going to be concerned,” he said. “They feel a sense of ownership of the Rialto. This is where they grew up. They feel the Rialto is part of their lives. Their specific concern is that only church members will be able to go.”

Robinette’s primary hope is that the theater remains intact and is used for a variety of purposes.

“I’d really like it to be an entertainment center of some sort,” she said. “It has the ability to showcase live entertainment. I would hope it would be used for a much broader purpose than religion because this is a very artistic community. We have film producers, musicians and visual artists. I think it would be successful in terms of attendance if it became a venue showcasing the arts.”

South Pasadena resident Alexander Moon has a similar perspective. A Boston native, he enjoys historic buildings and said the sight of the dilapidated theater saddens him. He doesn’t object to a church operating the venue, which he first visited in the 1990s. But he does think the theater could serve multiple purposes.

“I just feel as long as they maintain it, as long as it’s kept in a good state of functioning, it’s fine,” he said of Mosaic. “What I would like to see is the Rialto used as more than just a church. Maybe it can have art openings, special screenings.”

A Church for the Arts

Mosaic may be a church, but it’s one with an arts focus. The multisite religious community, with a main campus in Hollywood, has long featured dance, theater and even graffiti art during worship services. Senior Pastor Erwin McManus has owned a film production company, record label and luxury menswear line. Well-known entertainers, such as “apl.de.ap” of the Black Eyed Peas, have attended services.

For about 50 years, the church met in a sanctuary on Brady Avenue in East Los Angeles. But in the 1990s, when McManus became lead pastor, the church began to spread out. In 1999, Mosaic made headlines for holding Sunday evening services in a downtown Los Angeles nightspot, Club Soho — formerly Prince’s Glam Slam. The church has also held worship services in high schools and universities across the Los Angeles area.

Meeting in a historic movie theater such as the Rialto isn’t new to Mosaic. For years, the church’s Sunday night services took place at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. The church has also rented out Glendale’s The Alex Theatre, built by the same man responsible for the Rialto, for Easter services. That theater has undergone more than $11.5 million in renovations since the 1990s and now thrives as a venue that hosts film screenings, concerts, dance performances and other events.

Scott Cougill, CEO of Portable Church Industries, said that churches across the country have been meeting outside of traditional sanctuaries for several years. His Michigan-based company, which opened more than 20 years ago, provides equipment and other services to multisite churches.

“Theaters can be a really good location to meet in because they already have very comfortable seats and very large screens,” he said. Over the decades, Los Angeles-area churches have used the Million Dollar Theatre, Academy Cathedral, and the Vision Theatre, among others, to hold worship services.

Current Interior | Hunter Kerhart | Friends of the Rialto
Current Interior | Hunter Kerhart | Friends of the Rialto

Cougill noted that the theater trend has proven so popular among churches across the country that Regal Entertainment Group has a division solely devoted to renting out theaters to religious organizations. For churches that can’t afford to buy real estate or want to reach a broad cross-section of people in their communities, meeting in more than one location is an attractive option, according to Cougill. These unconventional meeting places also appeal to young adults.

“Millennials especially are more open to going to a church that meets in a public space, like in a theater, community center or school, than going to a traditional church structure,” Cougill said.  

He added that churches that meet in public spaces typically try to connect with the surrounding community in some way. They may fundraise for community events, help with neighborhood cleanups or meet other needs. Mosaic, for example, recently joined the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.

“The best churches that do meet in these meeting spaces intentionally engage the community in the space,” Cougill said.

This tendency may alleviate the fears of Rialto supporters who fear Mosaic will reserve the theater for church members only. In addition, Cougill said that churches that rent movie theaters typically do not use them on a daily basis. Instead, other activities take place throughout the week.

The Benefits of Historic Theaters

The hopes community members and Mosaic may have for the Rialto aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, said Mark Gallatin, vice chair of South Pasadena’s Cultural Heritage Commission. The Rialto can play a number of roles in the community, he argued.

“The community members who would like to see it repurposed and reopened as a multipurpose space are not incompatible with what the church wants do with it,” he said.

Gallatin has not reviewed any plans Mosaic has for the Rialto but said he looks forward to learning what the church and Shomof have in store for it. Since the Rialto is a historic landmark, the Cultural Heritage Commission would have to approve any alterations or renovations to the venue, said Gallatin, a former city planner.  

To call the Rialto “iconic” would be an understatement, Gallatin said, as the theater made a trip to the movies “a real experience.” Tourists as far away as Germany and Japan have visited the theater in recent months because “La La Land” featured the venue. It has also been featured in films such as “The Player” and “Scream 2” as well as the TV show “Modern Family.”

Rialto Theatre Plate 3 | Thomas Hawk
Rialto Theatre Plate 3 | Thomas Hawk

Hundreds of aging theaters like the Rialto have been refurbished and reopened nationwide, said Ken Stein, president and CEO of the League of Historic American Theatres. They often serve as nonprofit arts organizations.

Refurbishing these theaters can yield economic benefits for the cities that house them, Stein pointed out. The South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce refused to comment on this story, but LHAT’s 2016 report, “The Power of the Historic Theatre,” found that a single historic theater in a city with a population of fewer than 50,000, like South Pasadena, has the potential to sustain 32 full-time jobs, create $1.1 million in total expenditures and generate $96,000 in revenue for state and local governments.

The historic nature of the buildings truly can galvanize a community for years and years,” Stein said. “When they’re fully restored, they actually do so well. These theaters represent a kinder, gentler time. If the choice is seeing a movie in a gray box down the street or driving five miles to a historic theater, I’m going to choose the Rialto.”

Top Image: Rialto Theatre | Thomas Hawk

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