AS THE 20 patrons of the Cine Plaza laughed at the on-screen antics of Mexican comedian Cantinflas, trouble was brewing in the boiler room. At 6:30 p.m. a faulty pressure valve caused a blast that sent moviegoers running for their lives as the stage partially collapsed before them and the force of the explosion blew out bricks used to fill in a window frame 60 feet up in the fly.
"Someone had put the wrong size pressure valve on the boiler, so it built up twice the pressure it should have, and the boiler just blew up," says Paul Bear. "I remember it well, because we'd just started KXCI radio and had a studio down the street. The explosion actually shook the studio."
Bear is taking a reporter on a tour of the newly rebuilt stage in the Rialto Theater on East Congress Street downtown. He's full of such historical anecdotes, and he doles them out appropriately as he discusses the renovation project he and partner Jeb Schoonover have launched in recent months.
Bear and Schoonover, under the umbrella of Rialto Development Corporation, purchased the Rialto from local real estate mogul Rich Rogers in May. Their goal is to restore the old theater to its original interior design circa 1923, a less elaborate era in the Rialto's history.
Built in 1919 as the "sister structure" of the Hotel Congress, the Rialto was downtown Tucson's premiere theater, a private enterprise which housed traveling vaudeville and dance companies. While the exact years the theater changed hands are unclear, sometime in the mid-1920s Harry Nace, the movie mogul of Arizona, became the sole proprietor. In the 1930s he became a partner in Publix, a now-defunct Hollywood production company, and converted the theater into a movie palace, touching off a battle of ostentation as theaters such as the Fox, State, Tucson Opera House and the Temple of Music and Art tried to out-do one another. Bear says at one time there were 11 live and motion picture theaters downtown, all vying for their reign as the "queen of theaters."
"This was the queen of theaters in the early '20s, then the Temple came along and it was the queen. Then they remodeled the Rialto and it was the king. Then the Fox theater came along and the Fox was conceived as an art deco extravaganza." He says the Fox is 80 percent intact, surrounded by buildings on the west end of Congress; but it's slated for demolition. People have been trying to save the Fox for years, to no avail. Bear remembers bumper stickers from 20 years ago that read "SAVE THE FOX!" With the Rialto, he's not waiting for public attention to catch up.
Paramount Studios inherited the Rialto in 1948, renaming it simply The Paramount. It was during this period that the theater reached the height of gaudiness, with renewed grandeur added to the 1930s' floor-to-ceiling faux Renaissance frescoes painted in dark green and gold leaf. Emphasis on the gold leaf.
"You wouldn't know it to look at it now," says Bear of the 60-foot walls in the bowels of the theater, half hidden behind a coat of thick white paint and the other half dulled by decades' worth of smoke and dirt, "but that's all gold leaf up there."
The shoddy paint job comes thanks to the previous owners, whose sole aim was to tear down the theater and build a high rise. Some say they deliberately gutted the place, removing the theater's marquee and doing irreparable damage to the interior design to ensure the building would not qualify for historical preservation.
Rich Rogers denies such allegations, saying the only changes to the theater were made in 1988-89 in hopes of renting the Rialto out as the courtroom for the "Whoops" (WPPSS) trial, a long-term federal case involving a Washington-state utility company. He says that was the only impetus for painting over the walls and removing the fixed seating. He says they removed the marquee because they thought it "was a hazard." He doesn't recall any tile being removed. Furthermore, he states that throughout his 10-year ownership of the theater, the exterior concrete-relief detail and interior wall tiles in the former lounge were covered (and preserved) by previously-built faux walls. He doesn't deny they had planned to build a high rise in the Rialto's place.
BEAR DELIGHTS IN conjuring the spirits of the Rialto's rocky past. As we pass the orchestra pit, he recounts the tale of an ill-fated pianist whose inspired performance triggered an old vaudeville trapdoor under his bench, sending him plummeting to his death in the basement 40 feet below.
Or how Ginger Rogers allegedly launched her career on the Rialto stage, a 17-year-old beauty passing through Tucson on her way to Hollywood to become a star. Then-theater manager Roy Drachman let her tap-dance her way through the opening act for a traveling vaudeville show. She was so popular she later became the headliner. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
By now we've traversed the newly constructed stage, and Bear and I exit, stage right, outside to the run-down parking lot that stands between the rear of the theater and the empty Trailways Bus Depot on the corner of Fifth Street and Broadway. This is the second aspect of the project: the Rialto Cabaret.
Scheduled to open at the end of September, the Cabaret is clearly the immediate focus of the KXCI founding father's attention. Without getting drawn into the sordid details of Bear's career at KXCI, music lovers will recall the immensely popular Houserockin' Dance Parties in South Tucson's El Casino Ballroom--including the infamous Queen Ida concert in 1985--which was the illegitimate brainchild of Bear and then-KXCI Promotions Director Schoonover. We say illegitimate because of Bear's opinion that the concert series opened the ultimate "schism" between him and the station's board of directors, resulting in a controversial battle of wills many still talk about.
But Bear shrugs it off. "It's old news," he says of his departure from KXCI. While he's moved on to projects clearly bigger, those houserockin' days are hardly a thing of the past. Part of the aim of the Cabaret, the newest addition to the downtown club scene, is to pick up where the shows ended when the roof blew off El Casino. Their vision is to create an alternative music scene that transcends the pop genre that currently passes for "alternative."
Part of that vision is a setting designed for the comfort of the performers as well as the patrons. Bear emphasizes the focus of the Cabaret is the music, not the drink sales. They're expanding the east end of the depot to build an elevated stage and dressing rooms for the performers, a gesture indicative of the respect Bear harbors for musicians. "They go through all this effort to put on a show, to be the Musician, only to be reduced at the end to an average schmo fighting through the crowd to try to get a Bud at the bar."
All seating will be elevated as well, from a bar that continues around each of the walls and cocktail tables with stools. The aim is to free up as much space as possible for dancing and moving around, without obstructing the view for those who want to remain seated.
"It's not as good as the theater, but it's going to be a gem to the downtown Arts District," Bear says enthusiastically, waving his arms over the potholes and parked cars of the parking lot which will one day be a patio joining the theater to the Cabaret. "It's not only a nightclub, it's going to be a gallery of music-related art as well, with rotating monthly shows," including a 25-year retrospective of art from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a display of 1950s showbills of "famous people before they became famous, like Eddie Cochran, B.B. King and Fats Domino." Bear's collected this stuff over the years. He's also looking into showcasing one local artist who does only portraits of musicians; and musicians who cross over into the visual arts.
"No neon beer signs," he promises.
He's been thinking about the flagging interest in the monthly Art Walk. "Maybe the Cabaret will be the last stop on the Art Walk, and we'll have an exhibit one month of rockabilly posters or portraits, and then bring in a live rockabilly band. Maybe that'll add a new dimension--at 9 o'clock the lights on the showing go down, the stage lights come on, and we have a band."
Schoonover's been working with the Arts District Partnership and the Downtown Arts & Retail Alliance (DARA), both of which he says are supporting the Rialto mission.
"I think it's fabulous," says Arts District Partnership Executive Director Sara Clements. "What they're proposing for the Rialto Theater itself, in terms of the use and the market they're reaching for, fills a niche. While Downtown Saturday Night and Art Walk have fostered a certain level of community interest, the more permanent attractions we have the better off we'll be. The Rialto project is certainly in keeping with taking that next necessary step."
While others might be sensitive to Bear's assertion that downtown is "culturally deficient," the Rialto folks are hopeful the theater renovation will be a turning point for the Arts District, providing "an entertainment magnet" to help make the Arts District work.
"The Temple is good, but it's locked into one thing. People can come down and see an ATC play, but that doesn't really have anything to do with downtown," says Bear. "They could put ATC at El Con and they would still do their thing."
He envisions the Rialto as a venue that will bring different crowds for different shows, from Chinese acrobats to Marcia Ball. Something like Centennial Hall meets El Casino. "There's a few people that are (less than supportive), but the majority of people understand this is what downtown needs."
Dan Vinik, director of events at neighboring Hotel Congress, agrees. "What they're trying to do is great. And anything that draws people to this side of the underpass will boost the downtown scene," he says. But the longtime Congress veteran remains skeptical the Rialto can live up to the new owners' expectations. "We (the hotel) made an offer on the Rialto a couple of years ago," says Vinik, "and found it wasn't economically feasible with the resources we had. We figured it would cost about $250,000 just to bring it up to code," which doesn't include necessary improvements like a sound system and stage lighting.
Schoonover says they purchased the theater for $350,000 and now must spend between $350,000 and $500,000 to bring the place up to par by next spring. It's a sizable sum they've just begun to raise. Bear has applied for his first grant, from the Heritage Fund. He's also trying to get the theater listed on the state and national registries of historic landmarks. The theater has already been determined to be eligible for landmark status by the State Office of Historic Preservation, as part of the Heritage grant application process.
The Rialto Theater of the Performing Arts is a nonprofit 501(c3) corporation whose charter is "to promote arts and culture." As a separate entity from the Rialto Cabaret, which is "just a plain old business," the theater's non-profit status maintains a safe distance from the profit-earning liquor license. It's the theater's nonprofit status that makes the grants possible, as well as imposing criteria for the restoration according to the National Code of Historic Renovation. Bear says these measures, while imposing added expense and bureaucratic red tape, will ensure the legitimacy of the restoration and protection from any future plans for demolition. It also gives them a juicy slice of tax incentives to offset building costs.
GONE ARE THE elaborate, gold-leafed frescoes that had adorned the walls since the 1930s, the elaborate, hand-crafted tile from the lounge areas, the leaded-glass marquee and copper kiosk at the entrance.
But the Rialto folks have had some pleasant surprises, like the 1940s spotlight they found hidden in the crawl space. They've cleaned it up and set it proudly on display in the lobby. Bear mentions old projectors and artifacts they also hope to display. "Yesterday was a great day," says Bear. "We found a huge collection of great photos. But then that was balanced out by coming down to the theater and seeing how much had been lost: the marble drinking fountain in the lobby, the beautiful tile in the women's lounge, some of the things that were in here were magnificent--and irreplaceable."
But he says they do intend to restore major components, like the marquee and the kiosk, with a return to the original floor plan.
It's not that the Rialto will offer anything new, much as they'd like to think so. It's that it'll offer a new way to experience it--a participatory, relaxed atmosphere combining the historic presence of the Temple with the diversity of Centennial Hall and the anything-goes charisma of the KXCI mavericks themselves. With a capacity of 1,200, the theater fills an interesting void between formal venues like Centennial and TCC Music Hall that are too large (at 2,500) and places like the Southwest Center for Music, or Berger Center, which range from 300 to 600.
While it's hard to imagine 300 to 1,000 Tucsonans consistently flocking downtown two nights a week, it's worth remembering the well-known editorial that ran in the Tucson Citizen in 1919, chiding the Hotel Congress builders for their foolhardy venture on what was then the end of town. Back then, the Citizen predicted the Tucson business district would never grow beyond the railroad tracks. So much for editorial vision.
From live theater to movie palace to a decaying cinema for pornography, the Rialto has cemented its place as a bona fide Tucson institution. It's certainly survived its fair share of catastrophes, natural and otherwise. Three devastating fires, two police raids (one over a risqué vaudevillian show in the '30s, and another in the '70s during its stint as a porno palace, when police arrested the house manager for allegedly transporting the movie Deep Throat across state lines), and a handful of developers bent on tearing it down brick by brick have failed to keep the Rialto's doors closed.
And Paul Bear certainly seems like the perfect savior for this once-proud venue. From an unpredictable career that led him from starting the Fourth Avenue food co-op to driving a truck, starting a radio station to building a surveillance system for an Arizona maximum-security prison, to designing a customized carburetor for his hand-built Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his spare time, the 46-year-old Bear is not a man to be categorized.
"When they say it can't be done, they mean it can't be done and make oodles of money. We just want to pay the bills, pay the musicians and pay ourselves. It's one of the vestiges of my '60s heritage that there's something evil about making money," he says with a hint of self-mocking. "So whenever I get too much money I tend to roll it into a project and get rid of it."
With the considerable needs of the theater, that sounds like a perfect match.
"Why just make money," he says, "if in addition you can do something to help out the community, to improve something or do something that has never been done--why not do that instead? Otherwise just open another Famous Sam's."
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