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Ghost Tours Honor Rialto's History, Revive Anniversary Celebration

When the Rialto Theater opened in May 1920, it was a brilliant jewel in Loveland’s downtown. The country was finally coming out of the Spanish flu pandemic, the economic recession was ending and the Roaring Twenties were just beginning.

The theater initially screened silent films complete with a small orchestra in the pit. The tiny wooden chairs could seat more than 1,000 patrons. A century later, as the COVID-19 pandemic remains in full force, the thought of cramming that many people into the venue makes Heather Rubald shudder.

“We now have 446 so you know how close together everyone was,” said Rubald, development assistant with Backstage Rialto, a nonprofit that supports the historical theater.

When the “talkies” came in just a few years later, the Rialto was one of the first theaters in the state to upgrade so they could feature films with sound, she said, adding, “It was kind of a cutting-edge little place when it started.”

Over the decades, the theater began to show its age and the new kid on the block, multiplexes, started to take over. The venue closed shortly after an unprecedented six-week run of “Star Wars” in 1977.

By then it had become less of a jewel and more of a, well, joke, Rubald said.

“People were calling it the ‘Rathole’ rather than the Rialto,” said Rubald, who remembers going to the theater when she first moved to Loveland.

In the 1980s the Rialto was turned into a mini-mall before falling into disrepair.
In the 1980s the Rialto was turned into a mini-mall before falling into disrepair.

For a time, it was a forgettable mini-mall. After that, it sat largely vacant until the late 1980s, when a group of volunteers began raising money to refurbish the theater and return it to its former glory.

It reopened in 1995, and ever since the Rialto has been a classic movie theater/performance venue. Now, officials are putting the spotlight on the building's long-rumored ghosts as a way to celebrate its history the best way they can during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before this, the venue’s ghosts were something that staff talked about more amongst themselves, although they’ve brought in several paranormal investigators over the years. Rubald says, to her knowledge, they’ve never done big tours like this before.

Over the past hundred years, there have been three rumored deaths connected to the theater. Only one could be confirmed. Clarence Herrin was a projectionist at the Rialto for 23 years. On Oct. 8, 1957, Herrin died of a heart attack in the projection booth after threading the last reel of the movie "Island in the Sun." Over the years, the booth has been considered a “hot spot” for creepy happenings among employees, as well as various paranormal investigators.

“There have been sightings,” Rubald said. “Decalibrated machinery that you’d have to hit really hard to make it decalibrate that much. An employee was locked out, couldn’t make the key work at all and said, ‘Please can we come in?’ and then it just worked. Cool air brushing past you on these stairs.”

Clarence seems to be a friendly spirit, she added, more mischievous than malevolent. Recently, the staff recorded a movie trailer for the ghost tour and when they went to play it in the booth, the sound had just... vanished.

“We’re not sure how (Clarence) feels about the ghost tours,” Rubald said. “We want to be respectful. I mean, if I were a ghost and I was stuck here, I’d occasionally just want to make my presence known, I think.”

Much like Clarence, the tour isn’t designed to be too scary, she said. But like any good ghost story, there are a few embellishments here and there to the historical tales.

Like the urban legend from Backstage board member and longtime Loveland resident Harrison Hand, who helped design the tour.

“Well, the construction worker — and this was the original construction in 1920 — the scaffolding collapsed on the stage and killed him,” Hand said. “This was the last project he worked on obviously, so he has some attachment to it.”

While he hasn’t been given a name, the ghost often gets blamed when there’s construction mischief afoot — like the terrazzo floors that were installed when the venue was a mini-mall. In one spot, the word “Rialto” is written on the floor backwards.

“He wouldn’t much appreciate a mall in this beautiful work of art that he helped create,” Hand said.

In the Rialto's boiler room sit a series of chairs, perhaps waiting for some ghostly guests?
Stacy Nick / KUNC
In the Rialto's boiler room sit a series of chairs, perhaps waiting for some ghostly guests?

One area that needs no embellishment to be “creepy” is the theater’s basement.

While the boiler room isn’t technically part of this year’s tour — the tight quarters and steep staircase make it too dangerous right now — Rubald says they hope to add it in the future.

The room leads to the threshold of what some believe are part of Loveland’s underground tunnels, rumored to have been used by business owners — and bootleggers. While Rubald doesn’t have any documentation of nefarious goings on here, it definitely has a creepy feel to it. In the former coal chute, a strange setup of theater chairs sits as if waiting for ghostly guests to arrive.

Heather Rubald walks through one of the tunnels below the theater. Urban legend says there are a series of tunnels under the city which were used by bootleggers during prohibition.
Stacy Nick / KUNC
Heather Rubald walks through one of the tunnels below the theater. Urban legend says there are a series of tunnels under the city which were used by bootleggers during prohibition.

“People don’t come down here,” Rubald said, noting that when she was first hired and given a tour of the building, her guide refused even to step onto the landing above the space.

The basement’s tiny dressing rooms once used by vaudeville stars have their own haunted past. While many updates have been done to the main theater, these rooms are largely unchanged, Rubald said, down to the original beadboard that lines the narrow staircase, and the stage’s trapdoor that lands in one of the dressing rooms.

It’s in this room that Jim Doherty, chair of the Backstage Rialto board, tells an eerie tale from those days about “Heartbreak Mary.”

“I don’t know how corroborated this has been with actual news, but it was reported that an actress died down here,” Doherty said. “And the way the story goes, it was one of her debut shows. She finally got her big chance and it was a roaring success. And when they were gathering up at the front of the theater to go out and celebrate their performance, it took her a real long time to come up. Finally someone came down to check on her and she was discovered dead in one of the dressing rooms. So, we have named her Heartbreak Mary, because she wasn’t able to see the fruits of her success.”

One story that Doherty knows is true is that of the Rialto’s very own “blob” that used to terrify and delight movie-goers in the 1970s, when he went to the theater as a kid.

“Myself and my friends all vividly remember this piece of tar that was dangling from the ceiling,” he said. “And in my mind's eye I’m thinking it was 6, 7 feet long. And it just was menacing. People would not sit underneath it for fear it was going to drip on them.”

The result of a bad roofing job, the story of the Rialto’s blob will tie into the ghost tour with a special screening of the classic horror movie “The Blob.”

While plans for the theater’s 100-year anniversary have been postponed, Rubald says both the movie screening and the tour are part of Backstage Rialto’s effort to safely begin some new traditions for the beloved venue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally planned to be in-person, the tours have been moved to virtual only due to concerns over increasing COVID-19 cases in Larimer County.

And though the Rialto isn’t likely to close, with recent budget cuts and lost programming and ticket sales due to the pandemic, the venue — along with a lot of the arts — is in what Rubald calls a "precarious position."

“We feel kind of empowered and important right now, I think, as an organization because of these times,” she said. “And obviously this is a jewel and was considered, really, the first thing to do when they were looking at revitalizing downtown.”

Who knows? Maybe it’s about to see yet another Roaring Twenties.

Virtual Rialto Ghost Tours will go live Nov. 7. For transparency, KUNC is an underwriter for the Rialto Theater.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.