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“What community theater should be”: Loveland’s historic Rialto Theater celebrates a century of performing arts

A landmark in northern Colorado’s 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 been 100 years old. However, due to the pandemic, those celebrations have had to be postponed — until now.

Visitors from across Colorado 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, narrow corridors below the stage and into the bright, newly designed common areas.

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Freshly popped popcorn prepared for visitors touring 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 theater’s aesthetic has been preserved. The seats are new but have a vintage look, and the stylized floral murals on the walls have been either restored or painted to look almost exactly like the originals.

Rubald remembers when she went to the Rialto to watch movies.

“It was a pretty rundown theater, so we changed the name from Rialto to ‘Rathole,'” she said, laughing.

Built in 1920, the Rialto was conceived as a silent movie theater. In the late 1960s they tried to attract more visitors by installing a big screen and a snack bar. The building has undergone many changes over the years and at times housed a shopping mall and office space. It was so run down it was dangerously close to demolition.

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

Donna Evans was one of those who toured the theater. Years ago she performed a few times at the Rialto as part of a choral group. There were only two tiny changing rooms under the stage, and she remembers a taekwondo studio across the alley where performers could change costumes there.

“We had to get out those back doors, run all over the parking lot and stuff, in there (no privacy), change costumes, run back over that thing, back on stage,” Evans recalled. “It’s much better now. It is wonderful.”

Theater manager Steve Lemmon says much of the renovation was carried out by a group of volunteers who came 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.

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

“We have a couple of ghosts that live here in the theater,” said Rialto technical coordinator Phil Baugh.

One such ghost that haunts the theater is Clarence, a projectionist who worked in the 1940s and 1950s. Baugh says that Clarence fiddles with sound and light every now and then.

There’s also the infamous “lady in white,” a performer from the vaudeville era who has reportedly been spotted floating on stage. She even has her favorite spot: J-16.

“She was in the middle of a performance and died in the dressing rooms,” Baugh said. “If you feel a little cold breeze, it might just be the woman in white.”

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

But this week the focus is entirely on celebrating the here and now of this longstanding cornerstone of the Loveland arts community.

“A lot of people who grew up here remember its heyday; they remember the hard times it went through; They remember the redemption story of all the parishioners that brought them back to life,” Lemmon said. “People feel like it’s their theater, and that’s what community theater should be.”

The Rialto centenary celebrations end on Saturday May 21st. Due to the bad weather, many events will be moved to the theater. Find more information and a Full event schedule here.

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

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Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs. Other music in the show by Blue Dot Sessions.

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