JOLIET – The Rialto Square Theatre turned on the lights of a newly restored marquee Wednesday as theater management and boosters questioned how long the theater could stay open.
The lighting ceremony came after a contentious meeting where Rialto board members debated the future of the theater amid the increasingly likely denial of an annual city subsidy and a mounting stack of unpaid bills.
“We might go downstairs and light up a marquee that in a few weeks goes dark again if we can’t pull together,” Trisha Simpson, who heads the fundraising foundation for the Rialto, said at the board meeting as she tried to rally support in raising money for the theater.
Simpson later joined the Rialto board and about 100 people who gathered outside the theater to see the marquee and vertical sign lit.
The good spirits of the ceremony belied the financial issues facing the theater as Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, who has resisted the Rialto’s request for $500,000, and other city officials joined in the festivities.
The restoration project was made possible with $98,000 in contributions that included a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior along with donations from the Rotary Club of Joliet, Rialto Square Theatre Volunteers and First Midwest Bank.
“It looks beautiful,” said Michael Morgan, who was a member of a special committee that recommended restoration of the existing marquee. The recommendation included scrapping a brand-new marquee that drew civic opposition while construction was already in progress.
The aborted plan for the unpopular marquee led to the Rialto spending $200,000 on a sign it never used and initiated a prolonged period of financial trouble that appears to be peaking.
The multitude of problems facing the Rialto are:
• The city so far has not budgeted the $500,000 the Rialto is seeking to cover a projected 2017 deficit and has given no signs that it will before the budget is finalized Dec. 6;
• Unpaid bills are mounting, and theater management expects it to reach $675,000 by the end of 2016;
• VenuWorks, the outside firm that took over management of the Rialto in September and is viewed as key to the theater’s future success, indicates it will likely leave town in January if the Rialto cannot raise money to pay off its old bills.
“We have to have operating capital,” VenuWorks Chief Operating Officer John Siehl said as he headed to the marquee ceremony after the board meeting. “We can’t buy a light bulb because we owe money to everybody in town.”
The Rialto Square Theatre Foundation, headed by Simpson, is trying to raise the money to wipe out the old debt.
“This is an all hands on deck situation,” Simpson said in her rallying speech as she called for Rialto backers not to depend on just a couple of foundation leaders to raise the money.
‘A brick wall’
Rialto board member Michael Murray said he “remains optimistic” that the theater still has a chance to get the $500,000 it has sought from Joliet but said the two sides will have to talk.
“I see there are two sides, and I see there’s a brick wall in between,” Murray said. “But, Lord, can we just sit down and have a conversation?”
O’Dekirk at the lighting ceremony said the City Council may discuss the issue at its Dec. 5 workshop meeting before voting on the budget the next day. But he called suggestions that the city would be responsible a Rialto closing “ludicrous.”
“I didn’t put them in debt. The city didn’t do this,” O’Dekirk said.
The city in past years has contributed $600,000 a year to the Rialto. But the relationship between the theater and city became frayed over the past year amid growing financial problems and the Rialto’s resistance to a proposal to bring in the city inspector general to investigate the theater.