“I’ve made it a priority to try to make sure we can go forward with the professional equipment we need to be a world-class movie palace again,” said Lee Foster, Rialto Center for the Arts executive director, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It first opened on the corner of Forsyth and Luckie streets during the silent movie era in 1916 as Piedmont Theatre, touted at the time as the largest theater in the Southeast at 925 seats. It also boasted the largest electronic marquee south of New York City.
Soon renamed the Rialto, it became a popular vaudeville and film theater in downtown Atlanta. In 1940, it hosted a Hollywood-style opening for “Who Killed Aunt Maggie?” 10 months after a similar star-studded “Gone with the Wind” premiere over at the Loew’s Theatre (since torn down.)
Over the decades, it sustained itself as a large movie palace, debuting Disney movies exclusively in Atlanta for several years in the 1950s. In 1962, the original building was torn down and rebuilt into an upgraded movie house. For a time in the 1970s and 1980s it became a choice destination for blaxploitation and kung fu movies such as “Shaft” and “Enter the Dragon.”
But business deteriorated as the Fairlie-Poplar neighborhood lost its mojo and the theater shut down in 1989. Georgia State University, looking to expand its downtown footprint and create an arts program, spent $14 million renovating the Rialto Theatre space. With an 833-seat capacity, it reopened in 1996 and over the years has became a popular destination for dance, jazz and global music acts to perform. It also holds dance competitions and student productions and rents out the space for private parties and charity events.
In recent months, the Rialto hosted R&B legend Mavis Staples, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. of the Fifth Dimension and a Johnny Mercer tribute featuring trumpeter Joe Gransden with the GSU Jazz Band.
Foster said the Rialto is busy 300 days a year but this upgrade will enable the venue to accommodate about 10 film-related events a year.
Christopher Escobar, who runs the Atlanta Film Festival and owns both Plaza Theatre and the Tara, said the Rialto is a treasure and now a viable alternative for larger film screenings that require 500 to 800 people.
“Now Atlanta has four cinema venues to suit capacity needs as well,” added Escobar. “The Plaza offers 40 to 324 seats, Tara Theatre is in the 200 to 500 seat range, Rialto accommodates 500 to 833, and The Fox has room for 2,000 plus. Atlanta’s popular Dragon Con, for instance, could leverage one or a combination of these venues for new fan experiences.”
Escobar joined the Rialto’s advisory board in 2016 and became a key advocate for the projector fundraising campaign.
Foster said the Rialto, which generated $1.1 million in revenue in 2019 but was closed for 20 months due to the pandemic, hopes to hit $1 million this year. She said overall attendance and subscription levels remain below pre-pandemic levels, but she is seeing gradual improvement on both fronts.
The Rialto will host its first private film premiere event since the additions on April 3 for Atlanta producer Will Packer, and in late April, the Atlanta Film Festival will host one of its special screening events at the Rialto.