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Rialto Theatre

123 West Church Street, Champaign, Illinois

Belvoir renamed Rialto 9 September 1918.

Closed as a movie theatre 31 December 1981.

The old Theatre Belvoir was renamed the Rialto at the start of the 1918-1919 season.

Along with its new name, the Rialto got new management at the start of the new season.  The new manager was Charles Tackas, who had been manager for Finn & Heiman at Bloomington.  The first movie in the new Rialto was a war movie called "To Hell With The Kaiser."


In 1928, "The Lion and the Mouse" with Lionel Barrymore came to the Rialto.  Half-talkie and half-silent, it was the first talkie in town.  "The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson came to the Rialto later.  In fact, Jolson himself frequently visited the Rialto.

Eugene Russell took over management of the Rialto around 1935.  Prior to that, the Rialto was operated by Mrs. Lizzie V. Russell who died in 1947.

In the Spring of 1937, theatre owner Gene Russell had air conditioning installed at the Rialto.  It was a water cooled unit of the latest design available.  Part of the installation involved digging a 180 foot deep well to provide naturally cooled water.  The air was cooled by blowing it past a coil filled with the well water.

In 1938, the Rialto underwent a major remodeling.  The project was as big an undertaking as when the theatre was first constructed as the entire theatre was gutted and then rebuilt within the existing walls.  The theatre was reconstructed from the ground through the roof.  George Ramey was the architect for the project and English Brothers the general contractor.  The concrete floors, balcony, and roof were hung from steel trusses to eliminate the need for supporting columns.

The large marquee glowed with neon and more than 1,000 light bulbs.  The entire canopy was made in Champaign by the Gil Wilson Sign Company.  The style was kept simple to make it more legible.

The theatre had eight doors for entrance and exit.

Inside, the lobby had been widened to twice its old width and was decorated in Tuscan red and cedar with blue-green walls.  The lobby was completely isolated from the theatre by swinging doors to eliminate noises.

Two stairways, one immediately inside the front lobby, led to the upstairs lobby and the balcony.  This lobby was decorated blonde oak and blonde mahogany in a modern style.  The woman's powder room was half way up to the balcony on the stairway off the lobby.

The interior of the new Rialto was decorated in an Art Moderne style.  The auditorium had green and buff colored acoustic walls made of a new composition material called Acoustone.  There was no "gingerbread" decoration in the new theatre.  The flat and curving surfaces were highlighted with indirect lighting.  The curtain was apricot and the rugs gold.

The rebuilt theatre seated 1,000 persons: 600 on the main floor and 400 in the balcony.  They sat in new green seats with plush mohair backs and leather seats that would automatically spring up when not occupied.  The seating was spaced two inches wider than the average seat arrangement for added comfort.

New improved sound and projection equipment was installed.

Cooled or heated air was blown into the theatre through indirect vents on the walls and the old air was sucked out through small mushroom shaped vents under the seats.

The new Rialto Theatre opened Saturday, October 1, 1938.  The opening program was the movie "Sing You Sinners."  It was a musical comedy starring Bing Crosby.  Fred McMurray and Elizabeth Patterson co-starred.  The movie also featured Donald O'Connor, a native of Danville, Illinois.

Prior to the opening, Gene Russell received several telegrams of  congratulations and good wishes from Hollywood.  The senders included the players in "Sing You Sinners" and George Burns and Gracie Allen whose message said: "Gracie says she would love to live in Champaign - it sounds so refreshing!"

After Gene Russell died on August 7, 1956, his son John Russell took over the management of the Rialto.  He ran the theatre until 1978.

Pop corn began to be served at the Rialto on Friday, June 14, 1963.

 A very special motion picture played simultaneously in one-thousand theatres throughout the United States and Canada on September 23 and 24, 1964.  This special picture, which played locally at the Rialto, was Sir John Gielgud's production of "Hamlet" starring Richard Burton.  The production also starred: Hume Cronyn, Alfred Drake, Eileen Herlie, William Redfield, George Rose, and George Voskoyec.

Burton's acclaimed portrayal of Hamlet had recently concluded its Broadway run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York.  Instead of a "road" tour, the play was brought to audiences by a process termed "Electronovision Theatrofilm."

Another special production came to the Rialto on Thursday, December 14, 1972.  The film version of the Royal Ballet's performance of "Peter Rabbit and Tales of Beatrix Potter" was presented as a benefit for a scholarship fund at the National Academy of Dance.

In the Fall of 1978, John Russell's Rialto Theatre was the only independently operating theatre in Champaign-Urbana.  The motion picture industry had changed from the early years when the nickelodeons were independent operations to small local chains, to regional chains, to national chains.  The chains were ever more powerful in their ability to book the best movies.  The phenomenal growth of television over the years had also played its part in making the movie industry more competitive.  Mr. Russell decided to leave the movie business, and leased the theatre that had been run by his family its entire history.

The Springfield based chain, Kerasotes Brothers Theaters Inc., leased the Rialto from Mr. Russell beginning December 1, 1978.  Kerasotes subsequently restructured into two separate companies with GKC Theatres running the Champaign-Urbana theatres.  Kerasotes already owned and operated half of the fourteen indoor screens in Champaign-Urbana: the Virginia, Orpheum, Cinema, Thunderbird, and Co-Ed 1, 2, and 3, plus the two drive-ins: the Twin City and the Widescreen.

The company gave up its lease on the Rialto, and ceased operation of the Rialto when the curtain fell after the showing of the movie "Stripes" on Thursday night, December 31, 1981.

Kerasotes representatives said that the main reason for closing the Rialto was an anticipated shortage of first-run films during 1982.  The company felt that sixteen first-run commercial theatres were too many for a community the size of Champaign-Urbana.  They had determined that it was not economical to operate nine local theatres with the expected short supply of high-quality films.  They stressed that they were not leaving the Rialto because of problems with the theatre or its location, saying "People don't buy a theatre, they buy an attraction."

In May of 1982, gospel singer Arlie Neaville announced his plans to open the Gospel Lighthouse Theatre in the Rialto Theatre in July to present Christian films and Saturday night concerts.  Mr. Neaville had been running a similar operation, the Midwest Gospel Opry, for two years in an old grocery store building in Mahomet.

The not-for-profit venture folded within a year due to the high overhead costs.

Department store owner, Kyle Robeson, purchased the Rialto Theatre building, located just east of the store, from John Russell in February, 1986.  The department store's heating plant and air conditioner well were located in the Rialto, and Mr. Robeson was interested in creating an enclosed passage linking his main department store on the west to other Robeson's shops east of the theatre.

Mr. Robeson wanted to keep the theatre building occupied until he was able to finalize his remodeling plans and begin the reconstruction work.  He let Arlie Neaville use the theatre rent-free during the interim period.

Gospel music returned to the Rialto Theatre November 1, 1986.  However, the Rialto's days were numbered.  The day before the following week's performance, the city inspectors closed down the theatre, forcing the next two concerts to be held in a local church while work was done to bring the building up to code.  The concerts returned to the Rialto once the inspectors were satisfied, but the building was soon to come full circle and return to the same use it had for its first ten years of life - retail.  A passage was created along the front of the theatre connecting Robeson's main store to its Men's store on the other side of the theatre.  The former lobby and small storefront space was turned into shops.  The auditorium was left, but has since been gutted and used as warehouse space for the store.

After Robeson’s Department Store closed, the Rialto was sold to Jack Hayes.  He sold it to Bill Capel in 1994.  The corridor shop spaces were rented out.  The auditorium had a new in-floor radiant heat system installed and the room began to be used as a photo studio.  A state-of-the-art dark room was installed under the old stage.  Other work on the building has been undertaken including façade restoration and window repairs.

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