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Wayne's Words: Bailing Out the Rialto

Wayne Horne | 12/29/2016, 6 a.m.
Can the Rialto Square Theatre survive without a bailout from the City of Joliet? We are all patiently waiting to ...

Can the Rialto Square Theatre survive without a bailout from the City of Joliet? We are all patiently waiting to see what the outcome of the Rialto board’s request for $500,000 from the City of Joliet will be. Are you curious how the Rialto Theatre survived in the first 50 years of its existence? Since the current crisis began, the emphasis has been on the status of the theater since its renovation beginning in 1978 and the grand reopening in 1981.

Prior to the 1970’s the Rialto was a “vaudeville movie palace”; an undertaking owned by six brothers named Ruben, according to a booklet published about the Rialto in 2004. When the Rialto Square Theatre opened in 1926, the Royal Theatre Company was formed by the Ruben’s to guarantee $2 million to build the project. The actual operation of the theatre was then leased to the Great States Theatre, Inc. The Ruben brothers still owned the property.

Most of the structure that houses the theater portion is surrounded by commercial space. The street level space at one time contained various retail establishments and the upper street side levels housed office space. There was also a restaurant located in the lower level of the Rialto building. Maintenance of the building was supported by the rents charged for the commercial space. There were no government subsidies supporting the operation.

While there were many live entertainment acts that played the Rialto, it was the movies shown there that made it profitable. Vaudeville had already declined by the time the Rialto was opened in 1926. Movies, first silent films, then “talkies”, replaced much of the live entertainment because it was cheap. The decline of the movie palaces occurred because of television. Live entertainment is expensive.

The last of the original six Ruben brothers died in 1973. Most businessmen in the community doubted the theatre could be operated profitably. In fact, there was consideration to convert it into three smaller theaters, according to historian Robert Sterling ‘s “Joliet, A Pictorial History.” In 1977 the current governing authority was granted $500,000 from the State of Illinois to buy the Rialto Square Theatre.

When the Rialto Square Theatre was revived in 1981 much of the commercial support in the building had declined because business was leaving downtown Joliet. Joliet’s downtown business district has been replaced with a government campus and the services located there that support the various government units, such as attorneys and other professional services.

If the Rialto is to survive it needs to find its own way. For all of those who see its survival as essential to Joliet, there needs to be an effort to find resources other than government subsidies and grants. The financial dilemma facing the downtown resurrection has been an ongoing task of revival for the last 30 years. The City of Joliet will not rise or fall on the success of the Theatre.

Joliet is the center of a major transportation hub with one of the largest inland ports in the country. It is bordered by two of the busiest interstate highways in the country. A major waterway that connects to all the other major waterways in the U.S. runs down the middle of the city. Industrial expansion is occurring in and around Joliet. This is what defines Joliet to the outside world.

A lot of time and energy has been spent trying to revive the Rialto. It is worth saving, but the answer to its struggles does not rest with the municipal government of the City of Joliet. It’s time to move on to more important issues of development.

Stay tuned…