I have long been a fan of the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet, a wondrous Rapp & Rapp vaudeville movie palace from 1926. I have brought tour groups to see its hall of mirrors, rotunda with oversized chandelier, and ornate and exuberant auditorium for more than a quarter of a century. When I left my first job in 1985, they actually threw a party for me in the rotunda, which amazes me in retrospect.
But theaters have always been a challenge economically, even in the best times. In the late 1980s I was involved, as a staffer at Landmarks Illinois, in the unsuccessful effort to save the Granada Theater in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. I had actually seen a show in the theater in 1980 (The Rocky Horror Show – the London-based stage show, not the movie) and it was another 1920s extravagance of architectural ornament. But it had no parking, no viable use for its large size, and as we looked into its history since its construction in 1929, it quickly became apparent that this building had NEVER been financially viable.
Granada Theater interior, Historic American Buildings Survey photo
Presentism biases our perspective in many areas, and economics is no exception. There has been a lot of discussion about the failure of the house museum model in recent decades, how the economics have changed. Similarly, in the world of theaters, movie economics changed in the 1970s and 1980s so that only multiplex theaters can survive economically. Thus, we see old house museums and old theaters as beautiful, wondrous reminders of a time when society in some respects was richer.
“Hall of mirrors” entrance lobby, Rialto Square Theatre, Joliet
And they are beautiful. And wondrous. And they epitomize a richness that society felt in that time that it arguably does not (can not?) feel today. And yes, the economics of movie consumption changed during my lifetime. But vaudeville movie palaces were not built for movies, as our friends at the Uptown Theater pointed out – they were built for shows, of which movies constituted a minority portion.
Ringling Theater, Baraboo Wisconsin
The real historical fact of the matter is this: the Granada Theater was built with a 1929 presentism and never made a dollar in its 60 year life. House museums that were saved in the 20th century never made sense economically unless they had an endowment. The Rialto Square Theater made the news yesterday because it is missing a $2.2 million renovations upgrade promised from the state of Illinois and the City of Joliet is questioning the $700,000 operating subsidy they provide the theater each year. The theater was saved in the 1970s through the creation of a county exposition authority which was effectively another unit of government that could raise the renovation funds through bonds. And the theater continually does fundraising, like public radio and television and all sorts of non-profits.
Rialto Square Theater, Rotunda
This does not mean the decision to save the Rialto – or the Uptown – is wrong, These buildings are worth the extra money, the extra effort, and thankfully they can be creatively programmed – the Uptown can be a profitable venue once the massive rehabilitation cost is complete. The Rialto has managed for 30 years now and it is truly a community center in a downtown which lost many of its historic buildings to parking structures, casinos and suspicious fires. Art galleries have cropped up in the storefronts that surround it – storefronts that were built in 1926 by developers who knew THEN that a theater by itself was an economically risky proposition. The same was true of many other such buildings of the period. These buildings of course have an enormous nostalgic sway over people, and as community places they witnessed significant social interactions over time. They are arguably among those sites – along with conservatories, parks, libraries and schools – that deserve a public subsidy in the increasingly diminished commons of American society. But don’t go into it with the illusion that the economics of viability are easily secured – or ever, ever were.