Curtain Call

Douglas Biggers' Next Act: Rehab the Rialto Theatre!

Back when he was the editor and publisher of the Tucson Weekly (and, in the interests of full disclosure, both my boss and my friend), Douglas Biggers regularly worked miracles to keep our scrappy paper alive. In bad times, he found the will and the way to hold the operation together; in good, he'd push and prod those of us on staff ever onward to the next plateau. Over the 16 years he guided the paper, TW steadily grew from a 12-page arts journal to the powerhouse player in the local media it is today.

About five years ago, Biggers sold the paper for a handsome and still-undisclosed sum to the current owners, Sierra Vista-based Wick Communications. Now he's set his sights on an even bigger challenge: Harnessing the power of rock 'n' roll to rehab downtown's Rialto Theatre and help set the stage for Tucson's long-promised downtown revitalization.

Biggers stands to do well should he succeed; he and his partners in Congress Street Investors--developers Yoram Levy, Tom Warne and Don Semro--own the property along the south side of Congress Street between the Herbert Avenue east of the Rialto Theatre and Arizona Avenue, a narrow corridor east of Sixth Avenue.

In a whirlwind makeover between February and mid-April, Biggers and his crew managed to improve the auditorium's troubled acoustics, give the lobby a fresh new look and address lingering electrical and safety problems. For the first time since the TAMMIES in June 2004, the 85-year-old Rialto is back in business.

Biggers has always had a soft spot for downtown and its historic buildings; under his direction, the Weekly dedicated itself to covering the area's arts district and music scene, as well as political power plays. In the late '80s, the paper played a big role in saving the Temple of Music and Art, now the headquarters of the Arizona Theatre Company, from the wrecking ball.

The Rialto captured Biggers' imagination the first day he entered the building, circa 1995.

"There was some sort of historical resonance that spoke to me, and I immediately became taken with the place," he says.

In those days, Paul Bear, who had played a key role in launching community radio station KXCI in the mid-'80s, and Jeb Schoonover, who had managed KXCI's concert series through the early '90s and now coordinates special music events for the Weekly, were launching an effort to use the theatre as a performance space. It was no easy task; the Rialto had fallen into disrepair following a boiler explosion in 1984 that shuttered the theatre, which was then showing Spanish-language cinema.

It was a sad state of affairs for the Rialto, which had opened at the dawn of Roaring '20s and had entertained generations of Tucsonans with silent films, talkies, vaudeville performances, live bands and even pornography over the decades. (A screening of Deep Throat in the early '70s resulted in federal obscenity charges, which the theatre owners managed to beat in court.)

Bear and Schoonover reopened the theatre for all manner of musical acts, but lacked the resources to do significant rehabilitation. Last September, the Tucson City Council agreed to purchase the theatre for $1.54 million. In return, Congress Street Investors committed to making $3.28 million in improvements to the partnership's downtown properties.

The city then leased the Rialto to the Congress Street Historic Theatres Foundation, a nonprofit organization headed up by Biggers. Although the foundation is obligated to pay $3,690 a month in rent, that money can be rebated for theatre repairs.

Biggers sees the city investing in more than just an old theatre. The Rialto represents a key element to the success of the city's ongoing effort to restore downtown through the Rio Nuevo project.

"The Rialto Theatre is such an important anchor in helping revitalize Congress Street as a viable entertainment district," he says. "With the Rialto at one end of Congress and the Fox Theatre at the other, everything in between can fill in."

To aid in the theatre's makeover, the city committed another $350,000 in Rio Nuevo funding, which has been matched by $350,000 in private dollars raised from supporters of the project.

Roughly a half-million dollars of that money has been sunk into the theatre's makeover. The crew assembled by Biggers has replastered, repainted and repaired the theatre; upgraded the electrical system; improved the restrooms; installed new carpeting in the stairwells and balcony lobby; and overhauled the cooling system.

While the tight timeframe was a challenge in many ways, designer Gary Patch found it to be a relief, because it meant there was little time to second-guess his proposals. "This was great, because there wasn't time for people to think through it too much," he says. "Too often, you end up with design by committee, which never works."

Patch, who helped launch Club Congress in the mid-'80s, jumped at the chance to work his magic on the theatre.

"I love old architecture and buildings," says Patch, who now runs Patch & Clark Design. "At the same time, I think they deserve something of a contemporary approach, because we're living in 2005. ... What I wanted to do was pull the theatre into a timeframe that's a little more current and also unexpected."

One of Patch's unorthodox calls: a whimsical mural by artist Hilary Meehan that graces the lobby's ceiling. The work wasn't part of his original design, but when he saw Meehan's work at Dinnerware Gallery, "I just really, really liked it," Patch says. "It was really playful and fun."

Sprucing up the lobby was a cinch compared to improving the Rialto's acoustics. Along with a new $200,000 sound system and a $50,000 light grid, new baffles have been installed on the walls to absorb more sound rather than having it bounce around the auditorium. Patch came up with the idea of adding gold diamonds at the intersections of the panels, "to make it look like an upholstered wall as opposed to just a sound solution."

Tom Powers, chair of the Congress Street Historic Theatres Foundation board, is thrilled by the progress that's been made at the Rialto. "It's been amazing," he says, giving much of the credit to the "unstoppable" Biggers.

"He's an incurable optimist," says Powers. "I think that's why he invited me to help out, because I'm an optimist too."

A music lover as well as an architect who relocated from Berkeley to Tucson four years, Powers hopes a successful Rialto will "quell the naysayers" who doubt downtown will ever be revitalized.

"This is going to be one place to go to see really good rock 'n' roll and to buy a good drink and dance and have fun," Powers says. "If anything's going to bring Congress Street alive and make people want to live and shop and eat in downtown, it's successful entertainment."

Much work remains to be done. Among the priorities: Buying new seats for the auditorium, installing new carpeting and permanent seats in the balcony, and adding an air-conditioning unit to replace the current swamp-cooler system.

To do all that, Biggers has set the ambitious goal of raising anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million over the next two years through grants, contributions to the nonprofit organization and revenue from theatre rental and concession sales.

In the meantime, the Rialto is again open for business.

As the work continues, Biggers wants to get word out that the Rialto is available for all manner of shows. "I don't know why we can't have the Queens of the Stone Age on Friday night and Bill Nye the Science Guy for kids on Saturday morning," he says.

Curtis McCrary, who has booked shows at downtown's Club Congress and Solar Culture, has joined the foundation as programming director. A regular TW contributor, McCrary has lined up a few shows for the summer months--including Spoon on June 22, Leo Kottke on June 29, John Hiatt on July 18 and Robert Cray on Aug. 11--but it's the month of September when he expects the calendar to fill up. (Since the contracts aren't yet inked, McCrary can neither confirm nor deny any rumored shows.) Big plans are brewing for an 85th birthday party in September.

"We're hoping to be many things to many people," McCrary says. "I'm sure in the course of this job, I'll be hearing a lot of music I love. I'm also sure I'll be hearing some stuff I hate, but that doesn't mean there aren't other people who will like it."

The next milestone is just weeks away: A new $100,000 marquee will be hung outside the building, raising the Rialto's name above Congress Street for the first time since 1948, when the original Rialto marquee came down with a name change to the Paramount.

"With the new marquee about to light up the east end of Congress Street and the first phase of our renovations completed, the Rialto Theatre project can now focus on programming, financial stability and building a new relationship with the community," says Biggers. "In the end, creating magic within the confines of this historic theatre is what our mission is all about. We're ready to rock 'n' roll."

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