Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sign Off

Yesterday afternoon I tweeted this:

Rumor:historic South Theatre sign being removed for safety. Is there hope for now?

I had it on fairly good authority that our beloved Rialto sign was going to be removed due to safety issues -- structural damage that occurred during the recent windstorm. Not long after my tweet, the story was confirmed by my editor at Patch. You can read the story here, including all kinds of optimistic yet obtuse quotes from powers-that-be about finding the right business model for the place and being uncertain if removal of the sign would reduce the possibility of reopening...

To which I say, bah. I'm sorry, I wish I could smile and nod and be optimistic but I just feel like this is yet another nail in the Rialto's coffin.

Let's be honest, here. The state of the Rialto has gotten so bad that it is literally falling into the street. First, heavy rains a few years ago caused huge chunks of plaster to fall off. Shortly after, the entire place was red-tagged. Now, we've got a situation so dire that the iconic, historical sign of one of the greatest movie palaces in Los Angeles has to be taken down. Of course these safety and structural issues have to be addressed, but why were they ever allowed to get to this point? And why are still hearing about searching for a business model? Where, exactly, is this search taking place?

There's a great line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof -- a film that was probably once shown at the Rialto. "There is nothing more powerful," said Big Daddy Pollitt, "than the odor of mendacity!"

For years the Rialto -- a city treasure and historical masterpiece of architecture -- has been allowed to fall into this tragic, unsafe condition. It's not like it is in a war zone, it is not located in the south section of Bogota, in Grozny, Chechnya or in the middle of cholera-infected swamp. It is a building listed on various historical registers, loved by its community. It has owners and a leaseholder. It also happens to be in a city that prides itself on a reputation of preservation.

Sure, it would cost more money to transform it into a multiuse entertainment complex than it would to produce an all-star film about its history. But it's abhorrent condition came purely from neglect. And that neglect is reprehensible. This is not a cookie cutter strip mall losing a few bricks. It's a priceless treasure, entrusted to people who have let it rot. So, you'll forgive me if I shake my head and start channeling my inner Big Daddy when I see yet another sign of disaster. Actually, when I don't see the sign -- because it's being taken down.

There are people working tirelessly to keep alive the dream of a revitalized Rialto Theatre. Chamber of Commerce president Scott Feldmann should win a special award for his efforts. Escott Norton saved the theater once, back in the 80s, and I'm certain would be delighted to try to do it again -- if the people in charge would join in. Miranda Gontz is a brilliant high school student who, by all rights, should have been more interested in her SAT scores but what did she do last year? Made a documentary about the history of the Rialto Theatre. Why? Because she thought it was important.

It is.

I've contributed a few things toward the fight to save the Rialto. You can go back and look at my Patch columns and videos here and here. I have many more hours of video interviews that I have not yet edited together featuring dozens of people expressing how much the Rialto means to them.

Over and over again my video subjects asked, "Why has nothing been done to save this?" In my search for that answer, I kept coming up against another line that really should have been growled by Big Daddy at some point. "It takes time," I kept hearing. "It just takes time to find a Rialto solution."

Well, you know what else happens with time? Decay. And ultimately? Destruction.

So, I'd like to offer my own heartfelt open letter to Landmark Theaters, the leaseholders of the Rialto:

Dear Cool and Powerful People of Landmark Theaters,

You are a company that transformed moviegoing during an era of popcorn blockbusters. You brought people independent films, art house classics and foreign cinema. Your theaters gave film lovers a chance to be not only entertained but enriched, shocked and amazed. Bottom line? You took a chance on substance during an era of fluff. And for many years it paid off.

I was personally transformed in your theaters. I still remember sitting in a daze after seeing Requiem for a Dream not knowing exactly what I felt, but knowing that I needed to talk about it. So I started talking about it right there in the theater, with the others who were still sitting in a daze.

Now, I know times are tough. I know that nobody can figure out how to keep people in movie seats anymore when we live in an era of 46" flatscreen televisions, Hulu and On Demand. I get it. You've got mortgages and bottom lines.

But you, Landmark, have done great, miraculous things before. You once brought another moldering, forgotten cinema treasure back to its glory. Remember? The historic Mayan in Denver would not have been saved if it weren't for your brilliant intervention, and willingness to take a chance on a tarnished yet valuable cinema.

I know it would be easy to let the Rialto fall apart. After all, it's just another line item on your company balance sheet. I'm sure many of you don't even know where South Pasadena is. (Don't feel bad, I lived in Los Angeles for several years before I did.) And anyway, who cares if some old theater ends up at the wrong end of the wrecking ball?

We do. The people of South Pas and Los Angeles. We film geeks and art lovers and fans of architecture and history buffs realize that landmarks like the Rialto are our country's very own great pyramids and palaces of Versailles. They might not be listed as wonders of the world, but they create wonder in our world. We care because we don't want to see yet another part of art and history carted off, piece by piece, until nothing remains but the memory.

We care because the Rialto is, like Bogart said in The Maltese Falcon, "The stuff that dreams are made of." If we could, this community would march over to the Rialto right now and start fixing it with our own hands. The problem is, we just don't have the legal right, or the power, or the money.

Can you help us?

Letting the Rialto fail is more than crossing off a property on your roster, it's like throwing out a pile of old celluloid not realizing that it contained an original print of Citizen Kane. Please, dear people at Landmark. Please don't just show up with walls are caving in. Help us put those walls back together again.

In Martin Scorcese's recent Academy Award winning film Hugo, the genius film director Georges Méliès had been forgotten, relegated to a broken-down version of himself, surrounded by other broken things. The one remaining symbol of his glory was a mechanical man, an automaton from a lost era that could not work because of a missing key.

Most might have thought that the automaton was useless -- a relic of the past, just like the old filmmaker and his forgotten movies. But look what happened in the film. (If you haven't seen it, I won't spoil the ending for you. But I'm sure you know, dear people at Landmark, because Hugo is exactly the kind of movie that plays at your theaters.)

I don't have all the answers to the problems of the Rialto. I just have one question: Will you please help us save it? It will be difficult and expensive and filled with all matter of sturm und drang. But it will be worth it. And the next time someone talks about searching for the right business model, we can say, hey, Landmark found it.


Laurie Allee

For updates on the Rialto, make sure to join Escott O. Norton's Friends of the Rialto:


Judy Williams said...

Great post. This makes me sad. :(

Mister Earl said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Landmark does not own the theater. Landmark only has a lease. The problem, the reason for the inaction, is the trust that owns it. Apparently, it consists of something like 19 people who've never been able to agree to sell it. The solution to the problem lies somewhere in someone with enough money to buy and restore it, with some sort of plan to make it viable - if that's even possible - and somehow getting the owner to sell. This has been discussed and discussed. Why nothing has actually been done I don't know. Have we been beating the bushes to find someone with the dollars and the will to restore it?

Mister Earl said...

Although he may have no power to do anything because he's only the tenant, Mark Cuban apparently owns Landmark. Why not make an effort to actually talk to him? He's an unconventional guy with gobs of money. Has anyone actually tried to do this? What efforts have been made to reach out to him?

Green Guy said...

Lessees invest in property all the time. I believe Landmark does not actually own the Mayan, either. Clearly the owners here don't care if the place disintegrates and Landmark leased it for years before dropping the ball and walking away.

This is great, Laurie. I love all of your Rialto research at Patch. You should talk to Mark Cuban yourself! How could he resist you?

Mister Earl said...

Exactly, Laurie needs to talk to Mark.

Anonymous said...

Laurie wrote a detailed analysis of the lease/ownership situation at Patch. It's also available in the Vision Rialto report. I've always said we must start with Landmark. They're on the lease for quite a few more years.

Great post.

Michelle said...

Another vote for Laurie talking to Cuban!

JB said...

This is exactly the kind of insightful passionate yet respectful rallying for the cause. Excellent. You need to be the Save Rialto spokesperson, Laurie.

Johnny Black

Laurie said...

Wow, gang. I wouldn't have expected anyone to have read this yet.

Yes, this is complicated. But when I sign a business lease, I have obligations not to let the property fall down in a heap. Seems logical to start with Landmark, who operated the Rialto until a few years ago, now owned by super-cool Cuban who is a damned savvy businessman, loves entertainment enough to appear on Entourage and has enough money to start his own film studio.

As far as I know, Mr. Cuban has been approached but I do not know to what extent. I'm happy to take him to lunch, anyone have his number? :-)

Petrea Burchard said...

"...we just don't have the legal right..." seems to be the crux. Does Cuban? Or could he?

I like the Laurie takes Mr. Cuban to lunch idea. Let's all pitch in so she can take him someplace really swank. As for his number: six degrees, baby, somebody out there's got it.

Petrea Burchard said...

Here's Cuban's bio:

Surely we all know someone who knows someone...

Anonymous said...

Damn, this is good. LA Times should run it. Do all those rich celebrities with deep pockets know what's going on?

Trish said...

Brava Laurie! A wonderful piece about saving a landmark property that *could* be something incredible, if just a skosh of effort were put into it.

If Cuban has a hand in this, I would presume he would want it done RIGHT, not half-assed. Not having some crumbling piece of history be associated with his name, his legacy.

He has done a lot with the team he has owned, imagine what he could do with SoPas? (Laurie, if you break bread with him, the bulb-outs should be on the agenda too?!?).

Go Laurie! Go Laurie! Go Laurie!

Escott Norton said...

Another Great Rialto post, Laurie! And thanks for the shout out to Friends of the Rialto! Still too many rumors and incomplete info in these comments. Since the actual Lease is not public record, I can't confirm, but I have been told that the leaseholder IS responsible for maintenance, and since they are working with the city on the sign I think that confirms it. The Mayan in Denver is wonderful, I have visited it. I consulted on the Rialto with the CEO of Landmark in the 1980s when their business model involved restoring old theaters and playing revival movies. They had plans for reviving the Rialto that were squashed by a local lawsuit, even though the city had approved it. Then the economy crashed. The old Landmark business model seems to have changed when the company sold and the CEO that I worked with left. Now they are building fine new theaters and maintaining their profitable older theaters. I have been researching historic theaters for years, and working hard for the last 6 months to develop a viable business plan. There are successful historic theaters open now in this economy, that were in worse shape that the Rialto. Community support is vital, and we do have support of the city. They are not "sitting on their hands". The city is also NOT in the business of theater operation, and can't take on the liability of a project like this. Believe me, 30 years ago when I started, the city was not at all supportive. This is a different city now, where preservation is valued. I don't want to vilify the city, Landmark or the Trust the owns the Rialto, we will ALL need to work together to make revitalization happen. The sign coming down might just be the rallying point that is needed, and your fine writing is a great help!

Laurie said...

Thanks, Escott! You know, I'm your biggest fan.

I agree with not vilifying anyone, but as a parent I know that sometimes you've gotta call out bad behavior and insist upon personal responsibility. Not to mention the classic line I tell my daughter: if it's your mess, please clean it up.

Who cares what I think? said...

Laurie, you make more sense than any of the talking heads in this town. What is to be gained from continuing to allow those responsible to destroy a piece of history by neglect? I am disgusted by what most city people say about it and by Landmarks disappearance over the years. Do not get me started on why the owners are so invisible in this debate. Are they comotose??? It's as if we citizens are just supposed to accept that things are being done or planned or whatever when obviously it is a lot of malarkey.

Well done and straight talking. Good for you.

Shanna said...


Virginia said...

Did you get my comment? I swear, now we never know with the "WORDS"~!

Virginia said...

Oh you didn't. LEt's see here:

I have seen your lovely RIalto when I had the privilege of walking the streets of So Pas with you. Here in B'ham, the powers that be tore down our historic railroad terminal decades ago. Luckily for us, there were many here that took our very grand old Alabama Theatre and lovingly restored her. I hope the same for your RIalto.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Why would Landmark (Mark Cuban) continue to lease a theater that he has no power over? It's unsafe and the landlord is a group of 19 people who are unwilling to do squat.

Are they waiting it out so that the structure is beyond repair and they can then demolish it and sell the land?

Maybe the Rialto could use the powers of HSH Prince Zargarov from the Sovereign Principality of Zargaristan. I'm actually serious - he's the subject of my blog. He lives in Houston and seems to have his thumb on the pulse of Houston culture. He might know Mark Cuban

Stefanie Eskander said...

Amen, Laurie! Keep this going!

Laurie said...

Thank you, everyone. More as this develops.

beckynot said...

Hi, any updates? We passed the theater the other day and were worried.