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Local News

Then & Now: Rialto Theatre – Joliet

In the first two decades of the 20th century, Joliet experienced a great deal of commercial building activity. Most buildings constructed during this period were less likely to include local quarried stone – particularly Joliet limestone – which was common in the late 19th century. Instead, new materials, such as concrete and terra cotta, often were used in new construction.

By the 1920s, the new buildings on the outer edge of the downtown area housed new types of retail businesses, such as department stores and automobile dealerships. While it was essential to be near the central business district, it often was cost-prohibitive to be located directly downtown, where rents often were higher.

During this period, a new building, the Rialto Square Theatre, was proposed to make Joliet a leader in the entertainment world. As part of a planning effort by local business leaders to revitalized the downtown commercial area, the Rialto was designed to draw customers to a stagnant central downtown commercial area.

The construction of this new “vaudeville movie place” in Joliet was the undertaking of the six Rubens brothers, who helped to guarantee the $2 million project. The Rubens brothers also owned several other theaters in downtown Joliet at the time.

Facing west, the rectangular, five-story, terra cotta-clad building was designed in a Neo-Baroque style by noted theater architects C.W. Rapp and George L. Rapp. The Rapp brothers were known locally for other theaters, including the Chicago, Oriental, Riviera and Uptown theaters in Chicago. The noted architects designed more than 400 theaters nationwide, mostly during the 1920s

Constructed by Kaiser-Ducett, the Rialto, completed in 1926, includes a mix of classical and exotic ornamentation, and the scale and style of the many lobbies was unusual for a theater in a town the size of Joliet at the time.

The interior lobby was based on the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France. The design was typical for Rapp and Rapp, who often used classic French baroque places as models for their theater interiors.

Located on the northeast corner of Chicago and Van Buren streets, the Rialto Square Theatre stands as a familiar site in the downtown Joliet district. On May 24, 1926, the Rialto was officially opened to patrons.

Over the years, thousands of entertainers have graced the Rialto’s performance stage, including Bob Hope, Lawrence Welk and the Marx Brothers.

A campaign to save the Rialto was initiated and led by Dorothy Mavrich in the early 1970s. Her efforts, and the help of others, led to an 18-month, $6 million restoration program to begin to restore the theater to its original splendor. The grand reopening of the theater took place in November 1981.

The Rialto was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

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