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Morrilton’s Rialto Theatre undergoes epic transformation through the years

The Hollywood stars who once graced its screen may be gone with the wind (if you’ll forgive the play on words), but the Rialto Theatre still remains a gem in downtown Morrilton today. Actually, the story of the theater — with its myriad stops and starts, and especially its survival in the face of long odds — would arguably be worthy of the sweeping epics that used to screen there.

Not so long ago it appeared the more-than-100-year-old landmark had outlived its relevance: doomed to the same finale as countless aging buildings before it. In the 1990s, the Rialto was slated for demolition – to make room for a parking lot. Progress, it seemed, had caught up with the Rialto and left it behind. Movie-goers had long ago moved onto bigger multiplexes, larger screens and state-of-the-art surround sound.

Rialto-old

The first film showed at the Rialto in 1911. In the 1950s, the building was gutted and seating increased. It reopened to great acclaim with a showing of Lovely to Look At, starring Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton. In the 1970s, it was again modified to keep up with the times and was converted to three screens. It didn’t last, however, and the following decade, the once-grand theater was shut down.

For years, the Rialto sat there boarded up and empty — a deteriorating relic whose golden age had played out its run. Enter our hero in this script.

Lindell Roberts wasn’t the only person who helped save the Rialto, but if this were one of those “based-on-a-true-story” movies, this gregarious Morriltonian would undoubtedly play a leading role.

“When I would drive through downtown, I would look at it (the Rialto) and think, ‘We need to turn that into a performance theater.’ This was around 1995,” Roberts recounted one morning from the sidewalk outside the Rialto. Occasionally people would honk and wave as they drove past.

“Then one day, our new mayor at the time, Stewart Nelson, called me up and asked, ‘What would you think about making the old Rialto into a performance theater?,’” Roberts recalled between waves. “I said, ‘When do you want to start?’”

And like those feel-good celluloid stories that never get old, hard-working members of the community came together to bring the regal lady back to life. Most of the early labor was made up entirely of volunteers, Roberts said. Improved lighting was installed, a new stage was built and a proscenium added. A capital improvement grant helped renovate the building next door, which became a connected art gallery. A donor, Afton King, paid for the installation of the necessary dressing rooms for performers. A local artist even came in to restore the murals along the walls of the main seating hall that were added in 1952 when the theater was beginning its second life.

“When The Rep (in Little Rock) did their renovation, they gave us the seats that came out of the theater,” Roberts said, recalling just how broad the backing for this success story has been. “We have great community support for this theater. A lot of towns our size don’t have something like this (a downtown theater).”

Current Morrilton Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer agrees. “I’ve been to cities all over Arkansas that deeply regret tearing down their downtown theater,” he said. “In fact, cities are now building replicas of historic theaters. We did a good thing preserving this piece of history. No one regrets saving history.”

Roberts helped create the Rialto Community Arts Center Board, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Conway County, to manage the renovation and operation of the theater, which is now called the Rialto Community Arts Center. He was the first president and currently serves as chairman. The reopened 400-seat venue hosted its first performance in 2000 and has been used frequently ever since for a variety of plays, concerts, murder-mystery dinners and, of course, films, such as the classic Gone with the Wind, which was screened a few years ago. Next door — formerly a hardware store — houses a meeting center (complete with a full kitchen) and an art gallery, which varies its exhibits every few months.

This type of success story is part of what will be highlighted at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference on Aug. 10-11. The conference, which only costs $75 to attend (includes lodging and meals), will feature experts in historic preservation, fundraising and art as a method of community and economic development. It will also include time for networking among people who are all passionate about ensuring their community’s historic theater has its own success story.

Most seem to agree that Morrilton isn’t ready for the credits to roll on the Rialto, a true historic Arkansas landmark.

“Art is a part of what makes communities unique, and artists bring with them passion,” Lipsmeyer said. “I like knowing we have a space for our citizens to enjoy art, perform, celebrate, demonstrate and show their talent. I believe art will be a vital part of our downtown revitalization.

“We are a better city because of the Rialto.”

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