Long-awaited upgrades to South Pasadena’s celebrated Rialto Theatre continue to churn toward completion as the landmark structure eyes its 96th birthday.
Since January, workers have busied themselves both inside and out of the 1,200-seat venue, which was built in 1925 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The theater has been used in various capacities, including as a single-screen theater during the silent movie era, a locale for vaudeville acts, the site of a mighty Wurlitzer organ and an occasional on-location filming site. Its recent cameo appearance was in an episode of “Modern Family” (where, ironically but not coincidentally, Phil takes his children back to see a theater undergoing upgrades that he helped build). Locals also recognize the main floor seating from 2016’s award-winning film “La La Land.”
Izek Shomof, a Los Angeles developer who specializes in the revival of historic structures, purchased the Rialto in 2015. Two years later, Shomof Group signed a contract with Mosaic, a multi-campus nondenominational church, which holds a lease for the interior portion of the building while Shomof retained the exterior. The area includes two retail spaces with storefronts on Fair Oaks Avenue. Major upgrades are underway as the pandemic has forced Mosaic to adapt its worship services to an online platform.
Interior construction includes Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades and other cosmetic improvements while permits were recently pulled for a renovation to the restrooms.
On the exterior, Shomof Group is close to completing a facelift aimed at turning back the clock about a century.
“The city of South Pasadena has been nice enough to work with us hand-in-hand to help remodel the theater,” said Jimmy Shomof, a project manager for Shomof Group. “We are reviving it, bringing it back to literally exactly how it was.”
Shomof Group has used a historic structures report along with other records to assure accuracy in the project.
“They have given us a guideline and a great deal of detail that has allowed for an accurate representation,” Shomof said. “We have worked with many historic structures in the past that have been abandoned and brought back to life.”
Casting a curious, watchful and helpful eye over the project is Escott Norton, a self-avowed lover of vintage showplaces. Norton established Friends of the Rialto, a nonprofit that unapologetically declares itself on its website to be “an advocacy group dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of the beautiful Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena, California.”
It’s a solid fit. A theater restoration designer by trade, Norton owns EON Design, a consulting firm that specializes in the restoration and creation of theaters, homes and commercial spaces. His bio lists a multitude of foundations, conservancies and preservation associations.
“Our goal is to activate the theater,” said Norton. “We are hoping that after the pandemic subsides, we can have the theater actively used by the community. The purpose of a theater is to have common experiences, to bring people together. I talk to people of all ages who have strong memories of some historic theater somewhere. It is very common for a theater to create a lasting memory.”
Norton was instrumental in working with painting contractors to assure that the building was restored to its original color palette.
Friends of the Rialto actually staged events at the theater until Mosaic took over, but Norton hopes to see the space more frequently used once construction is completed.
That should happen in mid-September, according to Shomof. One of the final amenities scheduled for installation is a collection of approximately 150 Batchelder tiles, which have been carefully restored or rebuilt by contractors under Norton’s loving supervision.
Made famous by Pasadena’s Ernest A. Batchelder, the handmade tiles became staples of the local arts and crafts movement that exploded in the 1920s. The tiles will be replaced at their original location, under windows and around door wells at street level.
“They are distinctive by their muted colors and natural materials,” said Norton, who assisted in farming out the project to Clifford Douglas, a contractor, who has painstakingly removed and restored each of them by hand.
Norton explained how the tiles were covered, pilfered or generally neglected, but will soon be restored.
“We are waiting for a couple of them to be remade,” Shomof said. “We were basically able to save most of them, and those we couldn’t will be replicated. This part of the project should be done within a couple of weeks.”
He then hopes to find renters for the two vacant commercial spaces.
“We are hoping to get those occupied,” Shomof said. “We don’t have anyone in mind yet, but we are looking forward to getting tenants.”
Regardless, he enjoys the mission of his vocation.
“Being able to restore old buildings for a living is amazing,” he said. “This is something I was born into and it all comes purely from passion. You can’t write this stuff.”
Apparently you can.