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Uniquely TampaThe Rialto
POSTED BY ANDY CALLAHAN, February 11, 2011    Share

Every now and then, I get really lucky and end up doing something I didn't think I would ever get the chance to do. I'm a pretty big fan of theaters, meaning that I like to track down old movie theaters--indoor and outdoor--and photograph them. It's a lot harder than you might think, what with having to dig through old maps and municipal histories and whatnot. Sometimes it's easy to find an old theater. Let's look at Exhibit A.

The stretch of Franklin Street north of 275 has long been Tampa's Skid Row. A large Salvation Army facility is what draws many homeless to the area today, but the area had its seedy element even back in the 1950s, with sleazy bars and dingy stores lining Franklin from Tyler Street all the way up to Palm Avenue. There's one building on Franklin that I've had my eye on for years: the old Rialto Theatre. Just south of the intersection with Henderson, there sits a large building without any front door or ground-level windows. If you keep looking up, past the faded painted tiling, you'll see a ghost sign that spells out "Rialto."

The Rialto Theatre opened in 1926, substantially farther away from the other downtown theaters, but still along the streetcar line up to Tampa Heights. I don’t know whether it was a first-run house, a second-run house, or whatever, but the Rialto definitely served the neighborhood and added to the thriving Downtown Tampa theater circuit. The Rialto changed its name to simply "The Cinema" sometime after World War II and closed its doors a few years later, seemingly as an early victim of television and suburbanization.

A machine shop was one of the most recent occupants of the former Rialto building, a building which has operated as other things for far longer than it operated as a theater. While Franklin Street south of 275 has seen a resurgence of sorts, north of 275 remains pretty dicey. There has been at least one attempt to turn the Rialto into a nightclub or live venue, but the owner wanted more than the property was worth.

This past December, a friend and I went to the Oceanic Supermarket, located just down the street from the Rialto on Franklin at Kay Street. While she was inside shopping, I decided to take some more pictures of the Rialto. I took a few of the front--nothing all that exciting--but I decided to walk down the alleyway adjacent to the theater, hoping that I wouldn’t have to step over any inebriated homeless. Much to my surprise, there was a little entrance on the otherwise doorless building: a small garage door with a chain-link fence in front. Inside of the theater, there were two ladies amid a sea of fold-out tables covered with manila file folders. I asked them if I could come inside and get a few pictures of the theater. I was floored immediately after stepping into the building. The stage was intact, the proscenium arch was in very good condition, and the overhead projection booth was still there, though only as a shell of its former self. The ladies and I talked about the building for a few minutes, and then I thanked them again for their cooperation. I made my way back down to the Oceanic Supermarket, excited to have seen something that's been more or less hidden since 1950!

The Rialto, circa 1926!
The Rialto's original projection booth window, present day.
I was pretty excited to step inside one of the places I had wondered about. While I hope that the Rialto will see new life one day, I also have my doubts. It's very likely that the pictures I took that day are the only ones showing the Rialto's interior in existence, since nobody tends to document those things. Next time you find yourself heading out of Downtown Tampa on Florida Avenue, look to your left after you go under 275 and you’ll see a ghost advertisement for the Rialto Theatre!

"Uniquely Tampa" is ©2011 by Andy Callahan. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2011 by Nolan B. Canova.

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