Rialto Theatre (Tucson, Arizona)

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Rialto Theatre
Rialto Theater (Tucson, Arizona) from NW 1.JPG
The Rialto's marquee, facing Congress Street
Address 318 East Congress Street
Tucson, Arizona
United States
Owner City of Tucson
Operator Independent (1922-1929); (1971-1984); (1995-2004), Paramount Nace Theatres (1929-1949), AP Theatres[1] (1949-1963), The Rialto Theatre Foundation (2004-present)
Opened 1922[2]


Rialto Theatre
Rialto Theatre (Tucson, Arizona) is located in Arizona
Rialto Theatre (Tucson, Arizona)
Coordinates 32°13′19″N 110°57′59.4″W / 32.22194°N 110.966500°W / 32.22194; -110.966500Coordinates: 32°13′19″N 110°57′59.4″W / 32.22194°N 110.966500°W / 32.22194; -110.966500
Architect Curlett, Alexander; William Curlett & Son
Governing body private
MPS Downtown Tucson, Arizona MPS
NRHP Reference # 03000909[3]
Added to NRHP September 12, 2003

The Rialto Theatre is a performance theater and concert venue located in downtown Tucson, Arizona in the United States of America. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.[3]


First conceived of in the early-to-mid-1910s, The Rialto Theatre was built jointly by William Curlett and Son along with the neighboring Hotel Congress across the street. Upon its opening in 1922, The Rialto Theatre was one of Tucson's first movie theaters, playing primarily silent films per the time period. In addition, the theater was host to Vaudeville shows, another popular form of entertainment at the time.

By the 1930s, the Rialto was hosting talking pictures in addition to weekly Vaudeville shows and plays. During this time, and beginning in 1929, the theater was bought out by Paramount-Publix, a theater-owning consortium that controlled a significant number of American movie theaters (and would soon be broken up by the American government). During the Paramount-Publix period of ownership, the theater was significantly revamped. This included buying new seating, new interior decorating, and the installation of evaporative cooling, a fixture which lasted in the theater until the early 21st century.

During this time period (no earlier than December 12th, 1947[4]) the theater's name was changed to The Paramount, reflecting its corporate ownership. Though the studio-movie theater monopoly was broken up by the Supreme Court in 1948 (see Paramount Decree) it took many more years for Paramount Pictures to comply. Hence, the ownership would remain the same for at least another decade.

In 1963, while downtown Tucson suffered a recession, The Paramount was closed as a motion-picture house, citing lack of sales, first-rate films, and a general demographic move away from downtown Tucson. From 1963 to 1971, the vacant theater served as storage for a furniture store.

In 1971, the Rialto suffered another name change, this time being re-christened El Cine Plaza. For a while, the theater was transformed into a strictly Spanish movie house, until 1973, when it was resold again and re-opened as a pornographic theater, initially showing Deep Throat. Though the city of Tucson attempted to block The Rialto in its capacity as a porno theater, they were initially unsuccessful, and it remained in this capacity for five years. During this time, sexologist and one-time porn star Annie Sprinkle got her start in the adult industry working as a vendor at the theater.

During its run as a porno theater, there were several incidents of attempted arson, purportedly stemming from one offended local woman; she succeeded at one point in burning the balcony stairs in 1978, and was never caught.

In 1978, the theater was transformed once again into a Spanish-language cinema, still under the name El Cine Plaza, and continued showing Latino films until 1984, when a boiler explosion devastated the theater, collapsing the stage and resulting in the theater's condemnation.

The theater remained closed until 1995, when it was re-opened once again as a concert venue under the original name. Despite a few monetary-related closures, it remained, for the most part, open until 2004, when the theater was purchased by the City of Tucson, as part of Rio Nuevo, a downtown revitalization project. The Rialto Theatre is now operated by a nonprofit organization, the Rialto Theatre Foundation, which has leased the theater from the Rio Nuevo District for 50 years. The executive director of the foundation is Douglas Biggers.

The Rialto Theatre is one of several historic theater and concert venues built along Congress Street, the others being Club Congress (directly across the street) and the newly renovated Fox Theatre several blocks to the west.


The Rialto Theatre is located in one of the more urban districts of downtown Tucson, across the street from Club Congress. It bears much similarity to the neighboring Hotel Congress, being built in the same year and by the same contractors.

In its capacity as a concert venue since 1995, The Rialto was in need of many repairs, as it still sported an ancient swamp cooler (rather than more modern air conditioning) and much peeling paint and decrepit interior. Since its latest revitalization in 2004, the theater still boasts its original historic interior with a distinct art nouveau motif, along with new and much-needed air conditioners.

Primarily holding music concerts from all genres, The Rialto hosts other shows and events as well, from dance, performance, and occasional film screenings. Approximately 150 events occur at the Rialto annually, with reported attendance of more than 100,000 patrons.

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