Church Group Shows Interest in Leasing the Rialto Theatre

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Like others, Escott Norton, the guiding force of the Friends of the Rialto, an organization committed to the preservation, restoration and re-opening of the Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena, has heard the rumors that a church could become the lease holder of the historic property.

Norton gave a tour of the theater to officials from Mosaic Church on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles last December with hopes the Friends of the Rialto can work together. “I explained what my vision for the theater was – multiple use so that there’s something here every night and day,” explained Norton, noting he’d like to see the venue full of life again, featuring art education during the daytime hours, and movies, guest speakers, live theater, music and a variety other programs at night.

Norton asked the group during their visit if they saw a fit between the church and the Friends regarding “the possibility of working something out,” he said, hoping the parties can make it work should Mosaic reach an agreement with ownership.

“They loved the space, but that’s the last I’ve officially heard from them,” said Norton. “There are rumors, and from what I’ve been told those rumors are about a lease, but (as of Monday) I’ve been told they haven’t signed one at this point.”

It’s Norton’s understanding that the Mosaic group is working with Rialto owner Izek Shomof’s business partner, Leo Pustilnikov, in an effort to come to terms on an arrangement to lease the theater. Shomof, no stranger to historic revitalizations, announced the purchase of the Rialto early in 2015.

Calls to the church and Eric Izek, Shomof’s son who has been the spokesperson for SLH Investments on the Rialto project, were not returned to the South Pasadena Review at press time on Tuesday.

South Pasadena City Manager Sergio Gonzalez said Rialto’s property owner or the potential tenant, believed to be Mosaic Church, have approached the city. “The city has not been approached, so I can’t confirm who is the new tenant of the Rialto because we don’t have anybody coming forward at this point.”

Norton said he has no knowledge of the agreement between Rialto ownership and church. “If they were negotiating a lease, my guess is they would be the primary leaseholder,” he said of Mosaic. “I would be dealing with them if I’m in a position to program other nights when the theater isn’t in use.”

The Friends of the Rialto, comprised of music professionals, architectural historians, preservations and members of the local community, was formed as advocacy group. “We spent just about 25 years preserving and protecting the theater,” said Norton of the Friends’ longtime goal of reopening the Rialto Theatre as a successful and thriving arts venue. “It’s only been within the past year or two that we’ve even conceived of being the leaseholder and managing it ourselves. If someone else winds up getting the lease on the theater, the Friends of the Rialto will not go away. We will continue to work with the owners, the leaseholder and the city to find the best way to activate the theater and preserve the historic qualities of it.”

Norton stressed that he’s dedicated to that effort, looking forward to the day when the theater, shuttered since March 2010 as a result of fire code violations, falling stucco and its deteriorating condition, will flourish again. Designed by Lewis A. Smith, the theater, built in 1925, showed movies and presented vaudeville acts when it opened.

“If the church group or any other group comes in, my hope is that we can still bring other things to the building. No church is going to be running seven days and seven nights a week,” he said. “Very few organizations use a building that much. With the potential of the theater, we would like to see whenever they have down time someone else activate the theater and brings the variety of arts to the space. So that’s my hope. Whoever the leaseholder ends up being, I hope they see the value to the community of presenting a wide array of arts.”

When Norton took the Mosaic Church group on the tour, he said they talked about using the Rialto only about two times per week. “That’s when I stared thinking, maybe it’s a good fit [between them and the Friends].”

In a New York Times article in December 2015, the newspaper described Mosaic as a hip church “that counts thousands of young people among its congregants, offering sermons rife with pop-culture references, musical performances that look like Coachella, and a brand cultivated for social media.”

On one Sunday, according to the article, the place was packed with more than 700 people as church-goers took turns “leading songs, most of which were originals that praise God’s glory.”

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