A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
Maybe it’s the former performer in me, but I love theater buildings. I find them fascinating as architecture, and as measures of culture and history. At a time when large scale entertainment could not be experienced in the home, for most people, the theater was a necessary part of life. No matter if the venue was serious classical drama, opera, vaudeville, farce or, later, motion pictures, the theater building was a very important part of any community, and most communities were happy to have one nearby.
Of course, the motion picture industry cemented the movie theater in American culture, and as early as the ’teens, most theaters began showing movies, even if they had been built for theatrical productions. Some very fine architects began specializing in theaters, and even architects who built other kinds of buildings soon found that theaters were good money, and steady work. R. Thomas Short was one of those architects. He designed the Rialto, and would also design other theaters for the same owner. He’s most well-known for the Alywn Court apartment building in Manhattan and, locally, the Kismet Temple, aka the Shriner’s Arabian Nights headquarters in Bedford Stuyvesant. Both are very intricate and beautiful buildings.
In 1916, the Rialto Theater opened on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Cortelyou Road in Flatbush. It was under the direction of A. H. Schwartz, the impresario who began the Century Circuit of movie theaters. The Rialto would become a Century theater. They showed movies, and in the earliest days, also had a small orchestra and chorus that performed during intermissions and for special shows.
According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the interior of the theater was in the “Egyptian” style, with a lot of gold and white décor, sprinkled with red, green and blue accents. It was said to be quite tasteful, and not ostentatious, and very modern for the time. Mr. Short was very good with themed architecture. There was a lot of excitement about the opening of the theater, and on opening night, March 19, 1916, the crush of people waiting to get in spilled out onto Flatbush Avenue, causing the police to be overwhelmed by the crowds.
The Rialto was a good sized theater, holding 1,550 patrons. As the years passed, the red brick building with the white trim and flashing marquee became a familiar and popular movie theater for Flatbush folk. The Century Circuit featured the “Silver Screen” movie format, and played first run, popular movies. The postcard dates from the early 1930s.
Many on-line posters on Brooklyn theater sites who grew up in Flatbush remember seeing such greats at the Rialto as “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “West Side Story,” “Dr. No,” “Goldfinger,” ”Jaws,” and “Mame.” Actor Eli Wallach, who grew up in Flatbush, wrote in his autobiography that the Rialto played an important role in his childhood; it was where he watched so many of the early westerns and serials that would influence his later work.
The Rialto was a movie theater until 1976, a time when most local movie theaters in Brooklyn neighborhoods all seemed to disappear and get turned into churches or supermarkets. In 1977, the building was sold to an evangelical church, and several churches later, now belongs to the French-speaking Church of God: Eglise De Dieu. The façade has been painted white, obscuring the details, but seems to be otherwise intact. Today, the only people who remember the Rialto are those who grew up nearby, or theater buffs who seek out every old theater they can find and write about them. If it wasn’t for them, so much of Brooklyn’s cultural and architectural history would have been lost forever. GMAP