By Mari Wadsworth
THERE ARE AT least two sides to every story. That's the common assumption. With some stories, as in that of an aging theater at the east end of Congress Street, at least a dozen versions of "the story" have been passed around, dismantled and reassembled everywhere from the street corner to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. After months of exhaustive investigation, it's time to lay the rumors to rest.
When The Weekly ran a cover story on the Rialto Theater two summers ago ("Rialto Redux," Tucson Weekly, August 31, 1995), we introduced the community to the vision of two unconventional visionaries, Paul "Bear" Barrington and Jeb Schoonover. Their dream was to renovate Tucson's "Queen of Theaters," a sister structure to the Hotel Congress built in 1919 to house traveling vaudeville acts. It was Tucson's premiere theater, and after its purchase in the early '20s by Arizona cinema mogul Henry Nace, it became Tucson's original movie palace.
Back then the floors were marble, the architectural details undamaged, and the interior dazzled with gold leaf and red velvet stage curtains with gold brocade. Back then, it was a special place because it had no rival.
The same holds true today, not because it's an exceptional example of the art deco of the era, but because it's a portal to a past, Tucson's past, otherwise closed to us. These historic opportunities are fast disappearing for our community. We can and will build new roads, new shopping malls and multiplexes. We cannot rebuild history once it has been destroyed.
This is not a story about individuals. It's a story about reclaiming something that belongs to all of us--a theater, long forgotten, staid in disrepair, that we must decide as a community whether to abandon or preserve. This is the only debate in which we are now involved. What follows, as the saying goes, is history.
THROUGH DECADES OF obscurity, including its sad decline into a '70s porno palace, only to have its last shot at glory threatened by a criminal investigation, the Rialto has its ghosts, in some sense of the word.
But back in May 1995, it was just a building. A building which had not been for sale before and now was; a building which Barrington and Schoonover had previously offered to buy or lease. This time the investors, represented by developer Rich Rogers, accepted.
"Nobody in their right mind would try to come in and renovate this building," Barrington recalls of the plan to purchase the theater for some $350,000. "It just doesn't make economic sense. So, not being in my right mind, we made them an offer they couldn't refuse."
An initial down payment of $65,000, borrowed from long-time friend Janet Silber, Zia Records owner Brad Singer and other friends and family members, secured their investment. The deal, made in Barrington's name, assumed a mortgage on the theater with a balloon payment of $265,000 to be paid in November of 1996; a date later extended to February of 1997.
Straight away, Barrington filed an application for a Heritage Fund acquisition grant. The application, approved by the Heritage Fund's historic preservation office in September 1996, was the largest award granted that year at $218,000. Things were looking good for the Queen of Theaters.
ENTER ERICH AVEDISIAN. A Detroit transplant who graduated from the UA in 1987 with a degree in psychology, Avedisian's future as an investor in real estate arose from the unfortunate circumstance of losing his mother in a plane crash.
"About 1991, I got a settlement with Northwest Airlines, with which I bought some real estate--apartments, things like that," Avedisian says. He adds he just happened to have some cash on hand, having sold an apartment building, when he heard about the Rialto project through a mutual acquaintance who'd done some architectural consulting for Barrington.
Avedisian never intended to be a partner in the theater. His interest was in opening the nightclub next to the theater, in the abandoned Trailways bus depot. The limited liability corporation (LLC) he and Barrington discussed at length and finally entered into was called the Rialto Cabaret Company. He estimates the date of his initial involvement to be June 1995; the first record of investment provided to The Weekly shows the amount of $75,000 dated September of 1995.
"As much as I liked the theater and thought it was a great thing, I didn't see it as a viable business. For one, it's non-profit. And two, it just looked to me like it was going to take a lot of money before it ever got opened. I just wanted to open a nightclub," he said.
When unfinished construction delayed the opening of the cabaret in September 1995, Avedisian grew nervous.
"When the work wasn't really going on and things were going slow...I already had $50,000 in it," Avedisian says. "Every time I gave Bear extra money, we'd sit down and talk and I'd ask, 'What would it take to open this bar, Paul? I've got enough into it now, and I've gotta get this thing open. Let's hire some contractors.' We'd sit down and make phone calls, make a budget, a business plan, and I'd give him more money, and nothing would happen."
In fact, there was a lot of work going on. A mesquite bar and custom cabinetry were being built. A new floor was being put in. An entire addition was being planned to provide backstage space for the musicians. Bar equipment was being purchased at auctions. Anyone who's been in the bar can see the work has been done. Whether it was done to Avedisian's satisfaction, in the time he expected, with all the money he invested, remains a subject of bitter dispute between the former partners.
Avedisian and his wife Kristl filed charges of fraud, embezzlement and theft with the Tucson Police Department in May 1996. For reasons that are still unclear, TPD swooped in with an armed tactical squad, forcefully isolated Barrington, and confiscated all of the Rialto companies' financial records, including their computer, all while TV cameras were rolling for the evening news. This was the first time Barrington says he was contacted by TPD, and investigating officer Det. Brad Hunt.
"They could have handled it a lot differently," Barrington reflects. "They could have asked me about it. I had never spoken to the detective before then. They just swooped in and grabbed everything. Had they come to me and said, 'Your partner's made this allegation that you're doing this or that,' I would have told them it wasn't true and let them see all the records. There was nothing to hide. We had complete documentation of all the expenses. But they didn't ask...It's the American justice system. It doesn't matter if you're guilty or not, the footage on the TV station determines public opinion. It didn't look good."
With the criminal investigation ongoing, Barrington, Schoonover and Avedisian reached an out-of-court settlement in August 1996, the terms of which remain confidential, except for two things: Barrington and Schoonover walked away from the Cabaret deal and all it entailed, including the liquor license; and each side agreed, under court order, not to interfere in the others' business.
It was after that settlement had been reached that Avedisian again contacted The Weekly to tell his side of the story. Our initial phone interview occurred on September 20, 1996. At that time, Avedisian made a number of claims that would have prophetic implications over the coming year.
While none of Avedisian's allegations have held up in any court of law, throughout three lengthy interview sessions, between September 1996 and April 1997, both Erich and Kristl Avedisian continued to allege they'd been robbed, and that justice had not been served. When Erich Avedisian contacted The Weekly in September 1996, he said it was as "a concerned citizen."
"On an intuitive level, (Barrington) is a crook, and it was his plan from the beginning not to open the nightclub," Avedisian claims. "What he wanted to do was create a vehicle to siphon money, not only to the theater, but to pay his own personal bills. I guess he saw me as too nice a guy, with too much money. A sucker he could string along, and pay his theater mortgage to keep it going." That's the crux of Avedisian's argument.
But an eight-month investigation by TPD and an independent investigation by the state Attorney General cleared Barrington and Schoonover of all allegations of wrongdoing. In a letter dated February 19, 1997, Assistant Attorney General Scott Rash declared the Rialto Cabaret case closed. In a brief interview with The Weekly, Hunt stated he was satisfied with the outcome of the investigation. He also stated plainly that "the Rialto Theater was not under investigation."
What's more, neither Barrington nor Schoonover have profited from their involvement in any of the Rialto endeavors. Barrington's had no personal income for 1996, the first full year of operation. He's borrowed family money for living expenses, and "hawked everything he has." Meanwhile, Schoonover's income was less than $14,000, only $1,000 of which is from the Rialto. The figures were self-reported, from 1099s and other tax forms.
In February of this year, as a direct result of the litigation proceedings and lost income from shows either canceled or presented without the benefit of liquor sales, Barrington filed a Chapter 11 request for reorganization in federal Bankruptcy Court. Schoonover says he has no choice but to file for personal bankruptcy as well, noting with good humor that he would have done it sooner if he'd had the money for a lawyer and the filing fee.
EVEN MORE DAMAGING to Avedisian's case is his own admission that he "warned" both the Heritage Fund office and the State's Liquor Licenses and Control Division about Barrington's "fraudulent scheme."
"He says they got a grant, but they didn't get a grant. They applied for a grant from the Heritage Fund, and apparently Molly McKasson and some other downtown folks were pushing for them to get the grant," Avedisian says. "I heard about it and I called the Heritage Fund and I told them, 'Look, your business is your business, but do you know these guys are under investigation by the Attorney General's Office? Do you know who you're dealing with here?' "
Avedisian says he made the call because, "I just don't want to see crooks get away with stuff. And I know if they got that money, crooked things would happen...I talked to Fran Tropia. All I said was, 'Look, I hear you're considering making the largest acquisition grant ever in the history of the Heritage Fund (not true), and I have recently spoken with the Attorney General's Office, and they're on the verge of pressing charges. Meaning, within a month.' " As previously stated, that never happened.
Avedisian claims the call was not in violation of his settlement, which states he's not to interfere with the running of Barrington's business: "I was a concerned citizen, and the AG's Office had called me. That's how I knew about that." He claims the two are separate enough that he was in the clear to blow the whistle on the Rialto Theater project.
In a second interview on February 27, 1997, Avedisian still claimed Barrington "did not have the grant," because he "hadn't done his end of things, as usual." So apparently Avedisian was still involving himself in the process, even though he is not now, nor has he ever been, a part of the non-profit Rialto Foundation.
In point of fact, the grant was approved by the Arizona State Parks Historic Preservation Office in September 1996. Out of 68 applications filed statewide in June of 1996, 19 were approved, of which the Rialto Foundation was the highest award of that year at $218,000. It's the second-highest award for historic preservation ever made by the Heritage Fund.
Renee Ball, liaison to the State Parks board, gave us the update just last week, on April 2: "We recommended funding for the full amount of their request for acquisition, which was $212,500. We recommended an additional $5,500 for some smaller things. The only thing we did not approve was some additional money for architectural and engineering consulting, which we uniformly don't cover, just as a matter of policy.
"Whenever there's an acquisition, we require an appraisal, which then gets reviewed by our state appraiser. He's now reviewing the theater's appraisal submission to make sure it meets all criteria. This is normal for appraisers to go back and forth," Ball says.
"It's taking a while longer than some others, but we just touched base with our appraiser today and he's working on it. I'm not an appraiser, but I think there probably aren't many theaters of that age to compare it to, to find a comparable price. That would be my guess," she says, emphasizing that she doesn't see any reason why agreement would not be reached. "Whenever there's an appraisal involved, we have to go through (this process). Any acquisition always takes longer."
With regard to the liquor license, Avedisian again is full of misinformation: "Paul had borrowed money against the license without my knowledge, too," he says. Avedisian states this as evidence that Barrington never intended to open the Cabaret. "That was just stupid. How can you open a bar without a liquor license?" Avedisian asks.
His question makes it sound as if that transaction took place recently, which it had not. Barrington borrowed $25,000 from Zia Records' Singer in May 1995, for part of the down payment on the theater, using the license as collateral. This is both legal and common, to borrow against a license. It also took place before the Cabaret project existed. Because it's both legal and common to operate a license with a lien against it, a fact confirmed by the Tucson office of Licenses and Control, Avedisian's knowledge of the lien would seem irrelevant.
It did, however, cause problems when Avedisian filed for a transfer of the license following the partners' out-of-court settlement. He claimed Barrington was "disputing the transfer," and that Barrington and Singer were "working together to try to get it back from me, but I don't think they can." Another misconception: Barrington had nothing to do with that. The State Licensing office determined Singer was the rightful owner, as it were, of the deactivated license. Its present status remains somewhat unclear, in that in all the hubbub yet another branch of the Attorney General's Office has initiated yet another investigation, this time of "an appearance of deception" in the filing of the Rialto Foundation's applications for special events liquor licenses. Investigating attorney Dan Crystal has instructed the AG's press office and the Tucson and Phoenix licensing offices not to speak with the press about any aspect of the Rialto Theater or Cabaret while the investigation continues.
Given the confidentiality of the case, Avedisian's claims, in a February 27 interview, of knowledge of the proceedings were surprising: "I've been talking to the guys up in Phoenix, the assistant director (of the Liquor Board)." In fact, he said, "What the Liquor Board was most interested in is what was happening with the funds generated from these special events liquor licenses. That's what these guys were interested in, and that's where I'm saying they were using that money to basically run the Cabaret."
That's the same tired allegation of mismanagement and fraud that led to the TPD investigation; and Avedisian trots out the same tired allegation that these investigations have surfaced independent of his involvement. Last September, for example, he told The Weekly TPD had contacted him regarding the Rialto, that he had nothing to do with their investigation.
TPD's Hunt refutes this statement entirely. "That's not true," he says. "Erich and his wife initially made the police report." After they filed their report, a detective was assigned to the case to investigate. No charges were ever filed.
Still, Avedisian has made his position clear. "I would have loved to have gone to trial, if for no other reason than to have it on public record that Paul Bear is a thief," said Avedisian in September. "But that would have cost me $10,000 easily in attorney's fees, and what would that have gotten me? Nothing. So all I could do was try to get the property back, and with the license try to run a business. I tried desperately to get a partner to come in with me, and couldn't. The landlord gave me two weeks to do that, but it wasn't enough time to come up with $48,000. I was running around like a madman, but I couldn't do it. So the landlord took back the property yet again," (though really this was the first and only time the property reverted to landlord Rich Rogers). This is the same man, who not many months later, told us he was prepared to pay cash for the entire Congress Street block (as reported in The Weekly, February 28, 1997).
Rogers had few comments about either of the Rialto projects, saying the terms of the lease were such that Barrington was entitled to "quiet enjoyment of the premises," but he did say the Chapter 11 filing prevented him from taking any action on the property. He also wished to make clear that, "Erich does not have the property under control; we have no agreement, so there's nothing going on there." Asked on March 27, 1997, if he had entered into negotiations with Avedisian or anyone else on the property, he responded, "I can tell you that we do not have an agreement with anyone to buy or lease any part of the entire property, or the club." At present, Barrington holds the lease on the Cabaret space, an agreement renegotiated with Rogers, without Avedisian, after the nasty dissolution of the Rialto Cabaret Company in August of 1996.
IF YOU WANT the inside scoop, I'm giving it to you," Avedisian told The Weekly on February 27. He also wanted to know if, when he took over the Rialto property, The Weekly would give him the same attention he complains it lavished upon Barrington and Schoonover. He wanted to know if the paper were interested in the truth--something with which he, apparently, is unable to come to terms.
We have dutifully followed every one of Avedisian's leads. We have given him every opportunity to amend his statements in light of more recent proceedings. As of April 6, our last correspondence with him via fax (at his wife's request), he had nothing new to say; nothing, that is, that hadn't already been disproved. Two law enforcement agencies, a Superior Court judge, and an independent reporter have all reached the same conclusion: What Avedisian claims to be true simply is not true.
Back in September, Avedisian told us, "I told (Barrington), 'You screw up and I'll ruin you. I have a wife and two kids, and I am broke because of you. You screw up, and I'll finish you. I'll follow you until the day you die and I'll make sure your life is a living hell, in any way I can.' Yeah, it's a little bit of revenge, too...to mess up his grant. I think anyone would do that."
That seems to be the only allegation of Avedisian's that has any proof associated with it.
NOW EVERYBODY'S BROKE. The Avedisians have lost in excess of $145,000 from their ill-fated litigation. They've lost their capital investment, they've lost their attorney's fees, they've lost their quest for vindication. Their pain is no less real for having been almost entirely of their own doing, but their story is over.
And what about the Rialto Theater? Throughout all of this, Barrington has quietly trudged on because nobody else would. In the face of immense personal sacrifice, public scandal and financial ruin, he's persevered toward one goal: to save the Rialto Theater, to set the ball in motion so that no matter whose hands it may fall into in the future, it will be protected. He's on the verge of realizing that success with the Heritage Fund grant.
The grant is the largest chunk of the money needed to purchase the theater outright. But in order to initiate agreement on the $212,500 for acquisition, Barrington and his Rialto Foundation must show verification of matching funds. While the down payment and capital investments can account for a large portion of the match, the Foundation needs to raise an additional $60,500 in donations to make up the difference. The sum total the Foundation needs to raise to close on the theater is $75,000.
Regardless of whether you believe in Barrington, you must ask yourself whether you believe in his vision to create something of lasting significance and beauty in the heart of Tucson's downtown Arts District. For once the theater is secured, it is forever protected from demolition or significant changes to its historic character.
Amidst all the rumor and innuendo, there's one indisputable truth: The Rialto would be nothing without Paul "Bear" Barrington. It would be lost in obscurity, perhaps still being used as unofficial storage space by its neighboring furniture gallery. It would neither be the subject of uninformed scandal, nor slated to become a national historic landmark in our city. This is the legacy that has followed the inscrutable man since his early days as a founder of KXCI radio, and the benefactor of those legendary El Casino Ballroom shows in South Tucson. He has a history of doing things unconventionally. He also has a history of getting them done.
He has set the ball in motion. He has installed fixed seating, patched walls, repaired the stage, determined the necessary improvements to bring the theater up to code. He has painstakingly stripped the cheap latex paint away from an elaborately painted mural recalling grander days. He has taken a condemned building and turned it "into a working building that's kind of ugly," he laughs. But nobody sees the beauty of that theater like Barrington. This is his gift. This is the story. The only question remaining is, do we accept it?
"Nationally, they're putting us on the map with their activity. What I liked about the Rialto was that it was in between a special event and a regular Saturday night event, it was easy and special at the same time. I really appreciate the extra effort it takes to pull that off. To do it with the level of integrity that they did, working with the limitations they had...It's not easy to do what they're doing. Faced with working with people who didn't care whether they succeeded or not, they kept going at it. That's admirable."
--Camille Bonzani, neighbor/owner of Café Magritte
"Professionally speaking, there's a lot of work to be done, and the grant is desperately needed for them to accomplish that work. As code official for the City, we're working with them and will allow them to restore the building to the code that was in existence at the time (circa 1924). I think it's achievable.
"Personally, I admire what they're trying to do. That facility fully restored would be a wonderful addition to downtown, and a tremendous effort toward keeping the heritage of our community. I'd love to see it happen."
--Chief James Gresham, Tucson Fire Department
"I don't subscribe to saving something just for the sake of saving it; but if the building could be utilized as a theater, and something that would add activity to that part of town, that would be a wonderful thing. Surely it's a worthy endeavor."
--Jim Gresham, downtown architect, historic restoration specialist
"There have been acquisitions like this, to buy buildings and keep them in perpetuity for arts uses. What's exciting about this is to see that effort continuing (on an individual level). It shows me the grassroots movement that wants--and has wanted--to make the arts the vehicle to revitalize downtown is alive and well. I look forward to seeing what's possible, and certainly in assisting in any way we possibly can.
--Mary Glenn, Development Manager, Tucson Arts District Partnership
"I used to go to movies there, before the war, in the 1940s. Anyone out there who has the wherewithal to make that come back, to do something for the 1990s and the next century, is doing something very positive for the downtown area. You don't revitalize by just walking in downtown and doing 40 buildings. You do it building by building. I applaud their efforts, and I'm with them all the way."
--Mayor George Miller
"What Paul was doing in there, the special events before I guess the Fire Department shut him down in the theater--it was a good use for the building. It was good for the building, and good for downtown."
--Rich Rogers, Rialto property manager and downtown developer
"Surprisingly, considering the damage (from the boiler explosion), the structure seems to be in good shape. (Paul and Jeb) have enlisted a few good consultants--architectural, structural and fire protection. I've talked to every one of them, and they say the project is feasible. We have to look at things objectively. Sometimes it's rough saying we're just interested in the nuts and bolts; but if they turn in the plans, and they do a good job, we'll certainly approve it. As far as a personal observation, it's a great old theater. It would be a great project.
--Dave Mann, Building Codes Administrator, City of Tucson
"I think this is one of those projects that certainly got its share of bad press. But the intent (Paul and Jeb) have had to save this building, regardless of what has gone on business-wise there, has been wonderful. They have done what nobody seemed to be wanting to do--not the owner, the city, or any private preservationists. There's something about the vibes in that place, it just has a good feeling to it. I would love to see the building in adaptive reuse, both personally and as an elected official. It would be great for downtown and wonderful for the community."
--Molly McKasson, City Councilwoman, Ward VI
To contribute, or for more information, contact The Rialto Theater Foundation, 318 E. Congress St., Tucson, AZ 85701. Basic membership in the Friends of the Rialto is $25; patron membership is $50. For contributions of $100 to $250, your name will be engraved as a "benefactor" on a brick in front of the theater entrance. Angels, of which the Foundation is in need of many, will have their names engraved on a special star in the lobby entrance. That's for a contribution of $1,000. Call 740-0126 for information.
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