Happy 100th birthday, Rialto Theatre!

Downtown landmark celebrating centennial all year long

Rock on, Rialto.
Rock on, Rialto.
At last year's Century of Tucson party, Hotel Congress passed the centennial torch to their cross-street neighbor, the Rialto Theatre. While the Rialto's official hundred-year anniversary lands on August 29, 2020, they're filling the whole year with festivities, kicking things off with the eighth annual Rialto Theatre Fundraising Gala on Saturday, Feb. 29.

While the annual gala has committed to an evolving decades theme each year (a USO themed '40s, a Rat Pack '50s, etc.) they're breaking tradition by heading backwards with a '20s theme. The gala is officially titled the "Party of the Century: A Black and White Masked Ball Celebrating 100 Years of Rialto."

"Normally, we'd be doing an '80s themed gala, but because it's the theatre's 100th anniversary, we want to honor the building's history and do something that's off of the decades theme," says Julie Ragland, development director for the Rialto Theatre Foundation.

The masked ball is planned to be a bit fancier and more elegant than previous galas, but the Rialto wants to keep a bit of their signature quirkiness. This will result in a "Tim Burton-esque" nighttime circus at the theater. While it's common for the gala's festivities to spill out into the adjacent alley and R Bar, this year, the gala will extend all the way through Herbert Alley to Broadway, with carnival games and sideshow entertainment throughout.

The evening's entertainment will be hosted by Cathy Rivers from KXCI, with dance hits by local disc jockey Future Syndicate and performances by the local grassroots circus artist collective Cirque Roots.

The gala also provides an opportunity for Rialto to highlight some of the most interesting moments from their hundred-year history. This includes events mentioning the Theatre's history as a porno house, a storage facility for Mitchell's Furniture Gallery, a Spanish-language movie house known as "El Cine Plaza" and more. They're also paying homage to a memorable early '70s arson incident when one woman, upset at the pornography the Rialto was advertising, poured gasoline across seats and stairs and lighting the balcony on fire.

"The theatre was a lot of things over the years, so our intention is to try to celebrate every discrete era of the theatre's century-long history," says Curtis McCrary, executive director of the Rialto Theatre Foundation. "And the gala is a microcosm of that, as the first and signature event."

The Rialto's history includes legend as well as fact, such as rumors that the ghost of a pianist who died from injuries sustained in the orchestra pit still haunts the theatre, or that an underground bootlegging tunnel was once used to sneak alcohol to Hotel Congress during Prohibition.

"In the Eastern part of the United States, there's a lot of performance spaces that are hundreds of years old, but out here, it's much newer," McCrary says. "The state itself is barely 100 years old, so things that make it that long, it's important to recognize them and celebrate them. We're just happy to be the stewards of such a cool property, and we hope to keep it going as long as we can."

McCrary says the full centennial celebration is "evolving as we go" and is planned to include multiple events throughout the year. Rialto is looking to partner with The Loft Cinema to commemorate their cinema eras by screening some of the same movies as decades prior.

According to Ragland, the Rialto Theatre Foundation is also planning an illustrated chronicle that will depict Rialto's history, and may also ask the public to share their Rialto stories and memorabilia for a large story-collection event.

"This is so that as we go into the next 100 years, we can make sure we did a good job chronicling and stewarding the Rialto's history," Ragland says.

The gala will also feature food from the likes of Beyond Bread, Brother John's Beer Bourbon & BBQ, El Torero, Fría, HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery, Kingfisher, La Indita, OBON Sushi + Bar + Ramen, Renee's Organic Oven, Sauce Pizza & Wine, Snack Monster, Uncle Bob's Popcorn, Urban Pita and Villa Peru as well beverage tastings by Barrio Brewing Company, Crooked Tooth Brewing Co., Four Peaks Brewing Company, Cobra Arcade Bar, Elliott's On Congress, Playground Bar & Lounge and Roger Clyne's Mexican Moonshine Tequila. Attendees can also enjoy a silent auction, raffle, games (including opportunities to win bottles of wine from Charron Vineyards and Plaza Liquor & Fine Wines) and special guests. All this to help the Rialto Theatre Foundation continue their goal of fueling Rialto's events for another century.

"Our community is lucky to still have our historical theatres," Ragland says, referring to institutions like the Rialto, Fox and Temple of Music. "We want to celebrate the fact that the Rialto is still being used for its intended purpose, which is to bring the community together."

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