“What a Community Theater Should Be”: Loveland’s Historic Rialto Theater Celebrates a Century of Performing Arts

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A landmark of the northern Colorado art scene turns 102 this year. The historic Rialto Theater in Loveland originally planned to celebrate its true centenary in 2020, when it would have turned 100. Due to the pandemic, however, these festivities had to be postponed – until now.

Visitors from all over Colorado have flocked to the Rialto this week to share memories and marvel at the lovingly restored building. Guests enjoyed silent film screenings and special behind-the-scenes tours that took them through winding, cramped passageways beneath the stage and into the bright, newly designed community spaces.

Freshly popped popcorn is offered to visitors visiting the Rialto Theater.

Rialto Theater Manager Steve Lemmon and Events Coordinator Heather Rubald spoke about the work that has been done to update and expand the space. Most of the aesthetics of the theater have been preserved. The seats are new, but have a vintage look, and the stylized flower murals on the walls have been restored or painted to look almost exactly like the originals.

Rubald remembers when she used to go to Rialto to watch movies.

“It was a pretty run-down movie theater, so we changed the name from Rialto to ‘Rathole,'” she said with a laugh.

Built in 1920, the Rialto was designed as a silent cinema. At the end of the 1960s, they tried to attract more visitors by installing a large cinema screen and a snack bar. The building has undergone many changes over the years and for a time housed a shopping center and offices. It was so dilapidated that it was almost torn down.

In 1988 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And after the Downtown Development Authority purchased the building, the process of restoring Rialto to its original glory began. Some of this work included expanding the dressing rooms and adding a modern green room for the artists.

Donna Evans was one of those visiting the theatre. A few years ago, she performed a few times at the Rialto as part of a choir. There were only two tiny dressing rooms under the stage, and she recalls a Tae Kwon Do studio across the aisle that allowed performers to change costumes.

“We had to get out through these backdoors, run through the whole parking lot and stuff, get in there (with) no privacy, change costumes, run through the thing, get back on stage,” Evans recalled. “It’s much better now. It’s beautiful.”

Theater manager Steve Lemmon says much of the renovation was done by a group of volunteers who came in to work on Saturday mornings.

“Slowly but surely they brought it back to life, and that’s the only reason this theater is still open today,” he said.

Rialto neon sign - EOT.jpg

Of course, any building over 100 years old has secrets.

“We have a few ghosts living here in the theater,” Rialto technical coordinator Phil Baugh said.

One such spirit that haunts the theater is Clarence, a projectionist who worked in the 1940s and 1950s. Baugh says Clarence plays with sound and light from time to time.

There’s also the infamous “woman in white,” a vaudeville-era performer who was said to have been seen floating on stage. She even has her favorite seat: D-16.

“She was in the middle of a performance and died in the locker room,” Baugh said. “If you feel a bit of a cold breeze, it might be the woman in white.”

For those interested in paranormal activity, the Rialto offers ghost tours in October, just in time for Halloween.

But for this week, the focus is entirely on celebrating the here and now of this long-standing cornerstone of the Loveland arts community.

“A lot of people who grew up here remember it in its heyday; they remember the difficult times he went through; they remember the redemption story of everyone in the community who brought him back to life,” Lemmon said. “People feel like it’s their theatre, and that’s really what a community theater should be.

The Rialto centenary celebration ends on Saturday 21 May. Due to inclement weather, many events will be moved inside the theater. Find more information and a full program of events here.

Colorado Edition is hosted and produced by Erin O’Toole (@ErinOtoole1). Web was edited by Jackie Hai.

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