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May 08, 2019 News » Cover Story

Decades of renovation and passion have brought Florence’s Rialto Theater back to life 

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

click to enlarge Richard Elhage brought masons from as far as Italy to construct Florence’s first opera house.
  • Richard Elhage brought masons from as far as Italy to construct Florence’s first opera house.

You can almost see it, when you use a little imagination — what the Rialto Theater in Florence, Colorado, must have looked like when it was first erected in 1923. You walk past the new glass-walled box office into the foyer, where the smell of popcorn wafts from the window of the theater’s newly renovated concession area. You pass under the twinkling, refracted rainbows of a delicate glass chandelier through a set of double doors, the darkened stage just visible beyond. To your right, a staircase leads up to balcony seating, closed to the public for now. In front of you, the wide, echoing auditorium awaits — an auditorium that, for years, sat empty and unused.

Striding through those doors, where a few rows of chairs repurposed from an old church have been set up, you can imagine hundreds of theater seats crammed between narrow aisles leading down the sloping floor — now concrete — and the orchestra pit — now filled-in. You can envision the Italian craftsmanship that went into the building’s masonry, the delicate floral paintings that once decorated the walls and balconies, the art nouveau murals that provided a backdrop to elegant box seats. 

You can feel the ghosts of theatergoers in their suits and gowns filing in beside you with programs clutched in their hands. You can imagine the buzz of conversation filling the hall, and silence when the lights go dim.

click to enlarge Renovations have made the Rialto a functioning theater space once more.
  • Renovations have made the Rialto a functioning theater space once more.

The Rialto Theater stands as a local marvel of Victorian-style architecture with art nouveau influences, and while you can indeed imagine its history when you take your first echoing steps into its auditorium, you’ll find it far more difficult to imagine that it was once nearly lost to the community that loves it so dearly.

Today, locals seeking live entertainment in Fremont County, or the city of Florence in particular, will find few options. They might enjoy the Fremont Civic Theatre Company, a 62-year-old organization that tours the county and performs stage shows at high schools and churches; or they might visit The Bell Tower Cultural Center, a former First Baptist Church built in 1898, which seats about 100 audience members in pews. Worst case? They end up driving to Pueblo or Colorado Springs to take advantage of the theater scenes in their neighboring towns. But the historic city of Florence now boasts the only dedicated theater space in the area, as it did when the Rialto was first built.

The story of the Rialto begins in 1920, when Syrian immigrants Richard and Sultana Elhage, who owned a dry goods store in Florence, recognized that the miners, laborers and other citizens of Fremont County were in desperate need of live entertainment. While Richard Elhage originally hoped to build a garage and car repair shop, a documented passion of his, he turned his money instead toward a project for the public good: The Rialto Theater, the area’s first opera house. 

click to enlarge The Elhages ran a successful dry goods store before opening the Rialto.
  • The Elhages ran a successful dry goods store before opening the Rialto.

At the time of its birth, the Rialto was unmatched. Records of exact numbers vary, but the Rialto could fit somewhere around 500 to 900 people between its jam-packed floor seating and ornate balconies and box seats. For years, it was the only venue in Florence geared specifically toward theater, dance, music and other performance art, but it wasn’t always used for its intended purpose. 

In 1927, the Rialto was purchased by B.P. McCormick, owner of multiple area movie theaters at the time, including the Skyline in Cañon City. He saw potential in the Rialto’s orchestra pit as live orchestras often accompanied silent films, and soon he turned the playhouse into a movie theater, which screened films consistently until 1968. 

click to enlarge B.P. McCormick, the theater’s second owner.
  • B.P. McCormick, the theater’s second owner.

Martie LaCasse, a volunteer with the Florence Historical Archive, recalls her childhood growing up in Florence, when the Rialto would screen serials for kids on Saturday mornings in the ’50s. She says kids would spend all morning at the theater while parents — many of them from outlying ranches and coal camps — ran their errands. The memory of those old Flash Gordon shows on the big screen brings a fond smile to LaCasse’s face. She is one of many locals who remember the theater as it once was.

Ads from old newspapers promote films like Ben-Hur (1925) and the Clark Gable classic Hold Your Man (1933), plus special events like Halloween parties with magicians and other live entertainment. In 1928 the theater started screening films on Sundays, and faced protests from local Protestant pastors. And in 1929, they started screening “talkies,” films with sound that rendered the theater’s orchestra pit all but unnecessary. An issue of The Florence Paradox from May 9, 1929, (kept by the Florence Historical Archive) asserts that nearly 1,500 people attended the first talkie screening at the Rialto: the 1929 musical Syncopation

click to enlarge Unique features like a 50-foot fly made it easy to stage big productions.
  • Unique features like a 50-foot fly made it easy to stage big productions.

While the Rialto saw certain success as a movie theater, its bones were always meant to be used for performance art. Among its many features, the Rialto boasts a 50-foot fly, one of the few left of that height in the United States. The fly — a large space above the stage winged by balconies for stagehands to stand on — could store backdrops, curtains and set pieces, making it fit for nearly any production of the day, and nearly any production now. 

Shortly after the movie theater closed in 1968, a group of citizens recognized this potential and formed the Rialto Theater Club. Under the name the Red Brick Players, they used the venue for live performances until 1982.

click to enlarge The Red Brick Players used the Rialto space for decades.
  • The Red Brick Players used the Rialto space for decades.

By that point, the theater was 64 years old, and decades of unaddressed building needs had developed into countless structural problems. It wasn’t sustainable as a venue anymore. After a short-lived period of use by Fremont County’s School District 2, the Rialto shuttered in 1992.

The only occupants after that? The bats. 

Lisa Steele, board member of a group called Florence Architectural and Cultural Traditions (FACT), which has taken charge of the Rialto’s restoration, says: “When we got started, when we got involved, one of the biggest issues was the bats because they lived up in the fly. And they, you know, it was disgusting. … and they’re endangered so you can’t just bump those little suckers off.”

She laughs, but she and all members of FACT recognize how close they were to losing this historic building and all the potential it offers the community. FACT formed in 1992 when it took ownership of the building from District 2, and they committed to turning it once more into a functional and beautiful performance space. The group started by getting the Rialto officially listed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Places on March 10, 1993. (Downtown Florence, which includes the Rialto, became part of the National Register of Historic Places in 2017).

click to enlarge In the ‘90s, FACT threw themselves into renovations.
  • In the ‘90s, FACT threw themselves into renovations.

Though the group’s progress has encountered stops and starts in the ensuing decades, the Rialto has begun to live up to its former splendor, one renovation project at a time.

“I like the fact this place has such a great history,” says Steve Steele, Lisa’s husband and one of FACT’s resident historians, “and they really almost lost it. They could have easily, just as easily, torn the building down, but there was a group of people in the community that said, ‘Hey, we want to save it.’ It’s been a long, hard road, so to speak, to get it there.”

Under the leadership of Leopold “Pol” St. Paul, an art restoration expert from neighboring Cañon City, FACT originally worked to fix the most immediate needs of the building, from the collapsed ceiling to the water damage on the walls. 

After St. Paul’s death in 2000, the project halted once again, only revived when Suzanne Phipps came on board in 2004. For a decade, Phipps led the fundraising effort to revive the old theater, concentrating on the most immediate infrastructure needs — of which there were many. In a 2004 article from the Cañon City Daily Record, Phipps is quoted as saying: “This is the first time we’ve had water in the building in many years. We’re really happy that we’re working with a group of professionals. We will bring this to fruition.”

During the 10 years that Phipps was at the helm of the project, FACT raised about $1.3 million for the theater’s restoration.

According to documents about the Rialto’s history, compiled and shared by FACT, “Many donors thought that their donations would be used for one aspect of the renovation only to find out that they went into some other part of the project, and the average person can’t really appreciate all of the costly and necessary improvements to infrastructure.” Because of this, outwardly the community did not realize just how much work had been done to get the old building in working order again.

Steve Steele says Phipps is the reason FACT remains able to continue the mission of Rialto restoration, though the project halted briefly after her death in 2015. “She [Suzanne] was the one that raised over a million dollars that was put into basically the infrastructure,” Steele says. “Part of the building was falling apart… She had all-new electrical, plumbing, HVAC — I mean, all that stuff that nobody really sees or understands. And then she passed. And frankly, I think she got all the dirty work done. So now we’re here trying to get the rest of it finished up, which is easier than the stuff she went through, but it’s still always a challenge.”

“The rest of it,” as Steele puts it, includes a great deal of work. The team recently received a grant to re-do the venue’s flooring, but below the stage lies an unfinished room with plywood walls that they hope to turn into dressing rooms. There remain safety concerns and ADA standards to address before they can open the balconies to the public. And after decades of rotating occupants, there’s plenty of items in storage in the theater to re-home. But FACT has vision, passion and a secret weapon that has proved invaluable to keeping them on track — the Rialto’s own, operating theater company.

click to enlarge From left: Lisa Steele, RC Wilkins, Steve Steele.
  • From left: Lisa Steele, RC Wilkins, Steve Steele.

RC Wilkins is technically “retired,” but as the director of the Rialto Players, he works 60- to 70-hour weeks to ensure the Rialto’s resident theater company puts on the best quality shows it can. As the restoration has gone on around them (and as Wilkins has contributed to that restoration by lending his own skills), the Rialto Players have been performing in this space for almost two years, when all they had to offer audiences for seating were stiff folding chairs. Comprised of local actors from Florence and surrounding communities — including about 14 consistent volunteers — the players have brought sustainable revenue to the theater and live drama to Florence at long last.

“We’re so glad to have him and the theater company,” Lisa Steele says of Wilkins. “They’ve just made this place shine.”

Wilkins tends to agree: “Any board member can tell you, I’ve been pretty invaluable.” With a flashing grin and quick humility, he adds, “Not to pat myself on the back.”

Wilkins got his start in theater in his home state of Missouri, where he attended College of the Ozarks with a theater major in 1978. Since then, he has contributed to various community theater projects wherever he’s called home, and even served on the board of the Fremont Civic Theatre company for about a year.

This position with the Rialto attracted him because he had the opportunity to turn the Rialto Players into a consistent local presence with their own venue — a luxury that Fremont Civic Theatre doesn’t have. Under his guidance, and usually with his leadership in sound, lights, costuming, directing and whatever else the company needs, the players put on quarterly plays, and soon hope to start a children’s theater series and summer afternoon melodramas to draw a touristy crowd alongside the locals.

So far, the players have presented four full shows: Exit Laughing, The Savannah Sipping Society, Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play and Little Women. Their next show will be Deathtrap, opening May 24, a self-aware comedy thriller that was nominated for four Tony Awards in 1978.

But the Rialto Players are not the only folks who utilize the Rialto space. Lisa Steele says the very first show ever to be performed in the new Rialto was a Fremont Civic Theatre production of A Bad Year for Tomatoes. They took the stage immediately after the ceiling went in. “We just hit the ground running, didn’t we?” Lisa says with a laugh.

The Rialto has also hosted two years of Fremont County Has Talent, a county-wide talent show that draws huge crowds, plus fundraiser dinners like the recent Rescue Runway, a dog fashion show supporting the Humane Society of Fremont County. 

All this has brought life back into a space that once looked as though it would never again play its intended role in the community. 

click to enlarge Finally the Rialto is hosting consistent theater productions again.
  • Finally the Rialto is hosting consistent theater productions again.

So, yes, when you walk into the Rialto theater, you can imagine what it might have looked like in its heyday, but you don’t need to, and you may not even want to. Because this isn’t a 1920s opera house or a silent film movie theater. It’s something new and beautiful emerging from Florence’s historic downtown, creating its own identity with a century of history behind it.

“I think once it’s all done, and once we’ve got the attraction of not just Florence but the outlying communities — Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Salida, Westcliffe, all of that — once they know that they can come here and have an enjoyable evening ... I don’t see a problem in the place maintaining itself and maybe even profiting,” Wilkins says. He acknowledges, as all members of FACT do, that it will take a long time to put in the work, but this project has been ongoing for decades for a reason: No one is willing to let the Rialto slip away from them again.

Each volunteer who puts time into the Rialto does so for passion’s sake. For Wilkins, a passion for theater; for Lisa and Steve Steele, a passion for art, expressed through their own work as professional artists and in their volunteer efforts. For the city itself, it’s a passion for the history and future of Florence. A transformation like this couldn’t happen without the full range of support, and the full application of that passion.

The Rialto will never be fully “restored” in the official meaning of the term. To restore it would be, in a way, to condemn it once again. “If they had wanted to do a ‘restoration’ then we wouldn’t have the handicapped chairs,” Wilkins says. “We wouldn’t have the exit doors or the lights, and we wouldn’t be able to have people here. You could have people come in look, and leave.” 

By “renovating” rather than “restoring,” the Rialto won’t just live on as a gilded museum, a monument to the past. In committing to making the space usable once again, FACT and the community of Florence have ensured that the Rialto’s purpose remains intact: To entertain, to educate and to provide an artistic home for the performers of Fremont County. 

“People love art,” says Lisa Steele. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like. And it doesn’t matter if it’s like [high] art, or if it’s just something that people do because they love to do it. And someday we’ll have [high] art, but for now this is just the glue that holds everything together here: The volunteers and the community.”

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