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A Centennial Celebration Worth Waiting For

The Rialto Celebrates 100+2 Years of Community in Loveland

Article by Katie Dremont and Steve Lemmon

Photography by Provided by Cultural Services | City of Loveland

Originally published in Loveland & South Lifestyle

Many know the Rialto Theater Center (RTC) as the beautifully restored venue located in the heart of downtown Loveland. Situated among picturesque boutiques, restaurants, and robust downtown life, the Rialto Theater is a pillar in the community. The 102-year history of the theater has been one of ups, downs, and a series of transformations.

On May 26, 1920, the Rialto celebrated its grand opening in an effort to rival the modern showcase theaters in Denver. The theater was built by William C. Vorreiter, a local businessman and former president of the Bank of Loveland. Vorreiter commissioned the talented and ambitious Denver architect Robert K. Fuller to design this brand-new theater for Loveland. Loveland contractor A. Danielson was hired to construct it.

The Rialto’s grand opening featured the western premier showing of Zane Grey’s Desert of Wheat and, as second billing, the comedy The Dew Drop Inn. Admission prices were inflated for this special night: 55 cents for adults, 25 cents for children, and a whopping 85 cents for a special reserved loge section. However, subsequent ticket prices better reflected the times, coming in at a modest 10 to 35 cents.

Built primarily as a silent movie theater, the Rialto featured music from a theater orchestra or piano in the orchestra pit. In 1928, a Wurlitzer organ was installed, which not only provided music for the films but also created sound effects like automobile horns, horse hoofbeats, and train whistles, greatly enhancing the movie-going experience for the patrons. In addition to a movie theater, the Rialto provided Loveland with a seating area and stage large enough to host traveling vaudeville shows. The theater also functioned as a gathering place for town meetings, recitals, and graduations.

To date, other than the marquee that was constructed and removed years later, not much has changed about the Rialto’s facade. The restoration prioritized a return to the theater’s original 1920s aesthetic, whereas the marquee was not an original design element. As with anything that has lived for a century, the RTC has had a life filled with transformations, renovations, and restorations. Many of the theater’s early elements have been restored or uncovered, such as the front stained-glass window and the large murals painted on each side of the stage, two of which are complete originals.

Loveland’s Downtown Development Authority purchased the building in 1987. Renovations began in 1989, mainly through the help of volunteers who labored for months to gut and uncover the building’s original details. In 1995, the city of Loveland provided for the final steps of the process by purchasing the theater for $500,000. This purchase allowed for renovations to be finished in time for the Rialto’s 75th anniversary. While it was important to preserve and restore the theater to its original beauty, there was also a need for additional space, which came about with the purchase and renovation of building to the west of the theater in 2012. This addition allowed for a large green room, lecture and meeting areas, and much needed backstage space. “Whenever we add anything, we want to maintain the historic structure of the theater,” Susan Ison, Loveland Cultural Services Director, explains. “The addition was a big deal because the use of the theater changed to accommodate more and more traveling performers.” The addition was necessary because there wasn’t enough green room space in the building. Before the addition, performers that wanted to utilize a green room would have to rent the buildings behind the Rialto and run up and down the alley between sets. “It was not ideal-- especially when it was snowing or raining,” Susan recalls.

Loveland went through a recession that left downtown with many empty storefronts. Once the renovations were completed on the theater, other businesses and restaurants began to pop up nearby. While the RTC does a lot to honor and maintain the history of the venue, it has evolved primarily into serving as a performing arts theater. Susan shared, “We get artists who play all over the world. They really like our theater because it’s an intimate size and the acoustics are incredible… The Rialto has really brought a sense of community to downtown Loveland again.”  

Today, the Rialto is alive with music, comedy, dance, film, and community events. It boasts 478 seats, ADA-accessible seating, state-of-the-art sound, video wall, and lighting equipment, and a strong volunteer corps. Steve Lemmon, the Rialto Theater Manager shared, “I have had the opportunity to work in many theaters, but the level of technical capability at the Rialto is unmatched for a venue of this size. Couple that with our highly competent staff, and you have a theater that provides a world-class experience for our patrons, performers, and rental partners.”

The Rialto hosts nationally and internationally touring artists via two new concert series titled “Rialto Presents” and “Trailhead Sessions.” Local performing arts organizations and children’s theater groups continue to call the theater their performance home. With the addition of the Rialto Theater Center, area businesses, nonprofit groups, the school district, and many others, use the flexible space for their meetings and lectures. In keeping with tradition, the Rialto shows children’s films in the summer and movies of all styles throughout the year. Lastly, Backstage Rialto is a non-profit partner tasked with fundraising and grant-writing while also playing a crucial advisory role for the theater and its staff.

Centennial Celebration Schedule:

May 17 – Rialto Open House 12 – 7 p.m.

* Includes tours and a historical overview of the theater (starts on the hour)

May 20 – Silent Films 

* The Kid featuring Charlie Chaplain

* Dew Drop Inn (the first film shown at the Rialto Theater in 1920)

May 21 – Centennial Celebration

* The street opens at 4 p.m. to the public

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