In 1920, when the Rialto opened, motion pictures or “photoplays” didn’t predominate the theater business as they would a decade later with the arrival of “talkies” (The Rialto itself sported a lighted mini-marquee in 1930 that read “Our Screen Talks!”).
The fare in most theaters at the time was vaudeville – dance, comedy, and singing – interspersed with newsreels, cartoons, and short-subject silent films, as well as the occasional feature. The Rialto had vaudeville shows every Wednesday that consisted of five different acts for the same price. The first full-length film to play on the Rialto’s screen was The Toll Gate, on August 29th, 1920. Written by and starring William Hart, the film was a precursor to the type of Westerns that were frequently filmed in Tucson. Arizona movie theater mogul Harry Nace acquired a majority interest in the Theatre in the mid-1920s, which set the stage for its later sale to the Paramount-Publix chain, with which he had financial ties. Paramount-Publix invested heavily in improvements to the Rialto. It brought in new plush seating, repainted the interior (including the gaudy murals, remnants of which are still visible despite being painted over), and added swamp cooling, a new and comparatively rare treat in the scorching desert Southwest. In 1948, Harry Nace divested himself from any stake in the Theatre, and the Rialto name was changed to reflect the corporate ownership. The Theatre would be thereafter known as the Paramount for the next two decades. The old Rialto marquee came down in favor of a more modern Paramount marquee. The first film shown in the Paramount era was Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, which was portentous in that second-run movies were later blamed for the ultimate failure of the Paramount.
The Paramount closed for good as a studio motion-picture house in 1963. According to regional ABC-Paramount (the firms had merged in the interim) supervisor Robert Reeves, who had the Theatre in his charge from 1955, there were significant problems that led to the closure – the Paramount didn’t get good, first-run films, the population core of the city was sprawling away from downtown, leaving downtown with a “graveyard feeling,” and the Theatre sat at the wrong end of a one-way street.
Lessors William B. Stidham and Marion Jennings, along with Theatre manager John A. Jacobs, reopened the Theatre yet again in 1973, keeping the Plaza nomenclature. But the group had no truck with Spanish-language films. They were interested in a new business model, one that would eventually become the multi-billion dollar entity it is today: pornography. Jacobs and his group began showing the infamous film Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace. Naturally, great controversy was thusly engendered.
*** Perhaps the most controversial show in the Theatre’s history was the “All New Gay Paree” Revue in 1928. The touring company, consisting of a veritable army of 150 performers, staged a grand and for the times, bawdy showcase of singing, dancing and performance that sent ripples of titillation throughout Tucson. Posters for the revue featured a risque’ half-naked woman (read: legs and back exposed) to which community leader Reverend R.S. Beal strenuously objected, appealing to the police department to have the posters removed.
There was a minor fire in 1981 in El Cine Plaza, but the most cataclysmic event in the Theatre’s history didn’t come until January 7th, 1984. On that day, just after the start of the 6:30 screening, there was a tremendous explosion underneath the stage that could be felt blocks away. Fortunately, only one person was injured, with minor cuts. The boiler for the old Theatre had last been inspected in 1976. At some point between then and that fateful January day, someone had replaced the valve on the boiler, which was rated for 30 PSI max, with a 150 PSI max valve. The buildup in pressure was what led to the explosion.
Enter Paul Bear and Jeb Schoonover. Bear, who had founded of KXCI community radio, and Schoonover, the station’s promotions director (who also managed bands and promoted other concerts) began to make inquiries about the property. By late 1995 the pair had started renovation work, repaired the boiler explosion damage, and were able to open for business as a concert venue, hanging one of many different iterations of the Rialto marquee. After temporary shutdowns in early ’96 and ’97, Schoonover and Bear kept the Rialto in continuous operation until 2004, hosting over 700 shows from some of the best-known artists of popular music, including The Band, Black Crowes, Maroon 5, Dave Chapelle, String Cheese Incident, White Stripes, Modest Mouse, Merle Haggard, and The Roots. It’s safe to say that without their intervention, there is little chance that the Rialto would still be the entertainment hub it became during their stewardship.
The current Rialto era began in 2002 when former Tucson Weekly publisher Doug Biggers, along with his partnership Congress Street Investors, purchased the entirety of the Rialto block excepting the Theatre itself, which remained in Bear and Schoonover’s hands until the summer of 2004. Biggers ultimately negotiated a deal in which the city of Tucson, under the auspices of the Rio Nuevo revitalization project, purchased the Theatre and allowed funds for more extensive renovation, in turn leasing it to Biggers’ Rialto Theatre Foundation, the Rialto’s operator today.