Rialto Theater could reopen for business next year
by Gary Kent
Dec 06, 2008 | 3406 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When it opened in 1922, the Rialto Theater was the social center of Bee County. It remained a center of activity in Beeville right through the 1960s and many residents still remember going there for their first date.
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More than 20 years have passed since anyone was able to buy a ticket and see a movie in downtown Beeville.

But sometime next year the memory that was once the Rialto may become reality again for several generations of Bee County residents for whom its cool, dark corners were once an important part of life.

Its restoration has been made possible by several grants received over the years. Most recently, a small but figuratively significant grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave the project a symbolic boost not enjoyed by many restoration efforts.

The Rialto, once the flagship theater of the 22-theater chain owned by Beeville’s Hall family, is much more than a cultural icon for people here. It is an artistic treasure, one of the five remaining creations designed by John Eberson.

For those who may not remember, Eberson designed the Majestic Theaters in San Antonio and Dallas, entertainment halls which lived up to the name “majestic.”

The Railto is Eberson’s only art deco creation, making it especially important to the architectural history of Texas theaters.

Dr. Barbara Welder, one of South Texas’ most renowned historians, said that when word got out that the Hall-Rialto Preservation Association had been formed and was looking for someone to oversee its restoration, “two architectural firms actually fought over the contract.”

“I knew it was nice,” Welder said. “But I didn’t know it was so special.”

The contract eventually went to Gensler, a global design and architecture firm with headquarters in San Francisco and offices in Houston. Barry Moore, one of the firm’s architects who specializes in theater restorations, was placed in charge of the project.

The original building was designed by W.C. Stephenson, the man who also designed the Bee County Courthouse. It opened in 1922, playing the latest silent films of the day.

Welder said several other historic buildings in Beeville also were designed by Stephenson, including most of the red brick structures in the downtown area.

The theater burned in 1935 but the next year it opened again after being redesigned inside by Eberson. It was the only air-conditioned building in a town where hot summer days could be grueling.

Welder said she remembers going to the theater on Saturdays for the matinees that so many of Beeville’s young people enjoyed. The entertainment was great, but the cool atmosphere inside was something everyone remembered.

Welder said the seats in the theater also were equipped with ear phones for the hearing impaired. In the evenings, when the downtown area filled with people coming to town to shop and visit, the Rialto was always busy.

“We went almost every afternoon in the summer,” Welder said.

“Few people know the Rialto had its own printing press,” Welder said. And the building was the home for KFRB, the first radio station in South Texas.

Although many people thought the Rialto’s closing was the end of an era, some in the community refused to accept its end. In 1991 the Hall-Rialto Preservation Association was formed and work began raising money for the eventual renovation of what they considered one of the jewels of South Texas culture.

Since then the association has raised more than $1.25 million in grants, gifts and in fund-raising activities of its own.

Mark Parsons, a downtown businessman, has been president of the association since its past president, Dr. John Hester, retired and moved away to be closer to family members.

Using funds obtained through a $150,000 grant from the Houston Endowment, $100,000 from the Brown Foundation, a $50,000 matching grant from the Texas Historical Commission, a recent $150,000 grant from the City of Beeville through the Beeville Economic Development Corporation and local contributions, Parsons said the association now has $415,000 to spend on getting the theater ready to use again.

“That will get us into the theater and open for business,” Parsons said.

The roof needs some repairs and the electric and plumbing facilities need to be replaced and brought up to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The building needs a new ceiling, the walls need refurbishing and the art work restored.

Parsons said he is honored to be allowed to participate in the restoration of the art work.

Humidity in the building has been the main enemy of the art work inside the building. But new air conditioning will take care of that problem.

The sound system, lighting and seating will be temporary at first, Parsons said. “We’ll have to renovate a section at a time,” he said, because the association needs to raise more money.

“But the main thing is that we’ll be able to open for the first time since 1986 when they closed the doors,” he said.

“There’s been lots of money spent on things that you really don’t see,” Parsons said. The restoration of the facade is probably the most visible improvement on the building. But roof repairs, asbestos abatement and other projects have been carried out over the years.

Parsons said there is no timetable yet on when the work will begin and end on the newest phase of the renovation. The association has hired local contractor James Lamb as a project manager and different contractors will be involved in the renovation.

“I think once construction starts, we can really get with it,” Parsons said.

He said a grand gala is planned for the opening of the facility. Not all the plans are in place yet but he hopes the association can play the Douglas Fairbanks silent movie “The Three Musketeers” during the opening.

“It was the first film shown at the Rialto when it opened in 1922,” he said.

One project Parsons is especially interested in is mounting two Texas historical markers on the building for the opening. The opening will, after all, be a historic event for this community.

“This isn’t just for the Hall-Rialto Preservation Association,” Parsons said. “It’s for the whole community.”

The project will need the support of the people in the future, he admitted. But that should be a natural, a reason for people to gather in downtown Beeville the way they once did.

Between the Rialto project and the ongoing renovation of the buildings in the 200 block of West Bowie Street, downtown Beeville should again be a nice place to spend an evening.
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