The nostalgia was overwhelming as I stepped through the doors of the Rialto, one night earlier this month: the aroma of buttery popcorn, murmured conversation, and muted footsteps of couples as they stumbled to their seats were all vivid reminders of a time when people still went to the movies.
For Elizabeth Wingfield, a lifelong Raleigh resident, that time was the 1980s. As a teenager, she used to regularly visit the Rialto with her friends, even participating in the theater’s weekly screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show—the cult classic traditionally shown with a shadow cast and lively audience participation.
“I’m a veteran of Rocky Horror … [but] well, who’s not?” Wingfield says. “This is where teenagers go to cut up. Wes [Hughes] used to be the night manager. He was up in the projectionist booth, having to herd all the cats and keep all the teenagers from getting pregnant in the back row.”
For me, the Rialto is a reminder of life in the early 2010s, when I regularly walked the half mile from my Glenwood Avenue high school to the theater to see movies like Moonrise Kingdom and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
This was an era well before streaming took over and people defaulted to watching movies at home. There were no reclining seats—audience members just crammed into every available spot to watch newly released blockbusters on the big screen.
There was something special about that time that the Rialto, on Glenwood Avenue at Five Points, makes me miss deeply—the experience of being completely immersed in the story in the theater’s inky darkness, buoyed by an audience laughing and crying together.
The movies might have changed, but that feeling is the same across generations. Wingfield’s husband, Kurt Schlatzer, also frequented the Rialto in his younger years.
“It still smells the same,” he says.
The Rialto, originally the Colony Theatre, first began showing movies in 1936. The theater survived the pandemic, somehow, but closed in August 2022 when longtime manager Bill Peebles retired. The theater’s future was uncertain until it was bought by SportsChannel8 reporter Hayes Permar and a group of Raleigh investors earlier this year. October 5 was the first time the Rialto had opened for a movie screening in more than a year.
“I want this to be a community gathering space,” Permar says. “People love the Rialto for different reasons. There are logistical things that make it good, but to me, truly the draw is that it’s tucked in this little neighborhood. It is downtown, but it isn’t, you know what I mean?”
Since investing in the theater in May, Permar has unlocked the Rialto’s doors for live screenings of the Women’s World Cup, a few private events, and a comedy night. The Rialto also hosted a “Fuckup Night” last week, where five Triangle locals shared stories of professional failures in an inspiring TED talk–style format. Karaoke accompanied by a live band and readings by local authors could also be on the horizon, according to Permar.
“Right now, it’s a lot of experimenting,” he says. “I want to try all these things. I don’t know that every one will be the one that we do forever. But I want different groups, different types of people.”
For cinephiles, the day the Rialto really reopened was October 5, when the theater started screening films again. The projector fired up for Stop Making Sense, a concert movie that documents a 1983 Talking Heads concert. In a short speech before the lights dimmed, Permar said he couldn’t think of a better movie to kick things off.
“It fuses together the live music we want to bring back and the movies the Rialto has always been known for,” Permar said. “People tell me they saw this movie here in 1984. So it’s the perfect merger of the Rialto’s past and its future.”
Movies and live music will be the “tentpoles” of the Rialto’s programming, Permar adds. The theater is already off to an explosive start with the return of Rocky Horror last week. Fans flocked to Five Points on Friday the 13th to celebrate in costume—the perfect spooky start to the Halloween season.
In November, a concert series will kick off, including a holiday pops show by the Durham Symphony. With each new show, Permar aims to draw a diverse audience.
He hopes people will come to the Rialto for events they might not usually be interested in, he says, because of the trust that’s been built between the historic theater and the community. For example, there are tentative plans to host the North Carolina Master Chorale next year for a night of movie music.
“There were plenty of people here last night who are 50 years old, and they came to see Stop Making Sense because that’s what they remember watching in their dorm room in the ’80s or ’90s,” Permar says. “Those same people, they might never come to a North Carolina Master Chorale show, but because there’s one at the Rialto, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ll give that a try.’ And they’ll probably end up enjoying it.”
Today, as independent theaters shut down and even large multiplexes face financial losses, the warmth that filled the Rialto seems harder to find than ever. In 2019, the once $1 Mission Valley movie theater (owned locally by the Rialto’s parent company, Ambassador Cinemas) permanently closed. In Apex and other cities across the country, 39 chain movie theaters owned by Regal Cinemas shut down earlier this year. That’s not to mention the hundreds of film screens that shut down across the United States during the pandemic.
As I wander through the Rialto’s lobby, people are chatting, catching up with friends and neighbors. In the aisle, two women hug tightly, apparently not having seen each other in a while.
Stepping back inside the lobby, Oakwood resident Allison Kinnarney tells me, “Was like coming home.”
“I missed it terribly,” she adds. “I’ve been coming here since I moved here in 1995. I used to come, at least a couple Sundays a month, to the matinees by myself. It was like my little weekend tradition.”
Kinnarney, like many of the locals filling the theater’s seats, bought a ticket to see the Rialto “back in action.” So tonight, it’s a full house. But with movie theater attendance dipping post-pandemic, can the Rialto survive another 87 years?
The answer seems to lie in its connection to the community. Without the support of nearby residents, the theater wouldn’t have even gotten this far, Permar says.
“Right now, it’s the easiest customer service there is,” he adds. “Obviously, I know that won’t last forever, but everybody who walks in here right now is just super excited to be at the Rialto.”
As lifelong residents return to enjoy the iconic theater—and new generations buy tickets after hearing stories of past Rocky Horror Halloween parties—it seems likely the Rialto has life in it yet.
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