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'What a community theater should be': Loveland's historic Rialto Theater celebrates a century of the performing arts

The entrance to the Rialto Theater in Loveland
Yoselin Meza-Miranda
The entrance to the Rialto Theater in Loveland

A landmark of the northern Colorado art scene is turning 102 years old this year. The historic Rialto Theater in Loveland originally planned to celebrate its true centennial in 2020, when it would have turned 100. Because of the pandemic, though, those festivities had to be postponed — until now.

Visitors from all over Colorado flocked to the Rialto this week to share memories and to marvel at the lovingly restored building. Guests enjoyed silent film screenings and special behind-the-scenes tours that took them through winding, cramped passageways below the stage and into the bright, newly designed community spaces.

Freshly popped popcorn set out for visitors touring the Rialto Theater.
Erin O'Toole
Freshly popped popcorn set out for visitors touring the Rialto Theater.

Rialto theater manager Steve Lemmon and events coordinator Heather Rubald spoke about the work that's 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 flower murals on the walls have either been restored or painted to look almost exactly like the originals.

Rubald remembers when she used to go to the Rialto to watch movies.

“It was a rather run-down movie theater, so we had mutated the name from Rialto to 'Rathole,'" she said with a laugh.

Built in 1920, the Rialto was designed as a silent movie theater. In the late 1960s, they tried to attract more visitors by installing a large movie screen and a snack bar. The building went through many changes over the years, and for a time it housed a shopping mall and office space. It was so run down that it came perilously close to being torn down.

In 1988, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. And after the Downtown Development Authority purchased the building, the process of restoring the Rialto to its original glory began. Some of that work included expanding dressing rooms and adding a modern green room for performers.

Donna Evans was one of those touring the theater. Years ago, she performed a few times at the Rialto as part of a choral group. There were only two tiny dressing rooms below the stage, and she remembers a Tae Kwon Do studio across the alley that would allow performers to change costumes there.

“We had to go out through those back doors, run across all the parking and stuff, get in there (with) no privacy, change your costumes, run back across the thing, get back up on the stage again," Evans recalled. "It’s much better now. It’s beautiful.”

Theater manager Steve Lemmon says much of the renovation was done by a group of volunteers who would come in Saturday mornings to work.

“Slowly but surely they brought it back to life, and that’s the only reason this theater’s still open today,” he said.

Erin O'Toole

Of course, any building that's 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 of those spirits haunting the theater is Clarence, a projectionist who worked from the 1940s and '50s. Baugh says Clarence messes with sound and light every now and then.

There’s also the infamous “woman in white," a performer from the vaudeville era who has allegedly been seen floating on the stage. She even has her favorite seat: J-16.

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

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

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

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

The Rialto's centennial celebration wraps up Saturday, May 21. Due to inclement weather, many of the events will be moved inside the theater. Find more information and a full event schedule here.

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

The mission of Colorado Edition is to deepen understanding of life in Northern Colorado through authentic conversation and storytelling. It's available as a podcast on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Colorado Edition is made possible with support from our KUNC members. Thank you!

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

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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