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The Missing Link Of Downtown Walkerton – The Rialto Theater

Many years have gone by without a thought of what was once at the burned out hulk located on the 600 block of Roosevelt Rd. Everyday, Walkerton people share memories of their experiences there. Business people, travelers, and residents alike. Many Facebook Group members have expressed their hopes that the Rialto Theater will one day return to its former position as one of the sources for entertainment in the community.

A rare photograph of the old Rialto Theater in downtown Walkerton from 1974. The marquee had changed over the years. Once, it included a blade sign with a pickle decked out in neon.

Some accounts I understood were that it was built originally, in 1910, and that the theater began as a vaudeville house including a proscenium stage. It was not very deep since the railroad was only 20 feet behind it’s rear facade. People in town had a place to gather for live performances which included singing, and talent numbers. (This according to members of my own family, the Gaw’s who liked to perform song & dance numbers there, and in South Bend. Later they even appeared on radio shows broadcast at WSBT to win singing contests.)

Cinema innovator Albert G. Schultz posing for a Motion Picture News article inside the Rialto. The article was printed back in 1930.

According to an article, from April 1930, the facility had changed hands twice until, Albert G. Schultz bought it in 1922 to be used solely as a cinema-house to show movies. He paid $3,300, then, for the 264 seat theater which was quite a deal in its day!

I understand it had already been outfitted by the Rialto cinema-house chain before that 1922 deal by one of the owners. I wish I knew who those previous owners were? From what my Great Aunt, Eva Gaw Strauss said, “the place was always packed for vaudeville when I was a kid.” And that it wasn’t uncommon for her, brothers, or sister Irma to get on stage to do a number.

She said it was a cabaret stage before it was remodeled and outfitted with a cinema screen. I remember her stories that people would use both exits at the front, and the rear alley. And that with the railroad station across the street that people would enter while waiting for their trains to entertain in tiny Walkerton? She said, people got mad when they shrunk the stage to add a movie screen.

Picture of fire on northside of Roosevelt, 600 Block, May 1908. The theater was built between that time and 1910. Photo courtesy of Charles Sherland, Walkerton Area Historical Society.

Since, there was a major fire on that corner of the 600 Block of Roosevelt May of 1908, I would guess the theater was built sometime after that fire? Probably, 1910. Albert G. Schultz described it as a rundown hall when he bought it. He put all his money in it to remodel it with new, leather upholstered seating, a new brick façade on the front, new curtains, a new stage, and new plaster decorations on the walls and ceiling.

He replaced the piano and organ, replaced the footlights, and added motor fans for ventilation. He also added a heating system for the winters.

Cinema innovator Albert G. Schultz added heating and ventilation in the old Rialto Theater back in 1922.

Schultz added new equipment to show first run movies, including a sound system for talkies. He described the movie-house as “remarkable for acoustics” and that sometimes he showed films, first; before Chicago, LaPorte, and South Bend got them from distributors! He was proud of his 264 seat theater in popular Walkerton, abreast of the times!

According to Motion Picture News, “his typical program included, in addition to the feature, a good two-reel comedy, a color-tone revue, and, on Sunday nights, an up-to-the-minute news reel. Big nights in winter, when only six programs a week are scheduled, are Wednesday, Saturdays, and Sundays.

On a summertime seven day schedule, the resorters (at Koontz Lake) help to boost business on Thursdays, and Fridays as well. Westerns and comedies are inevitably popular. “The Covered Wagon” film hung up a record of a three day run at capacity that has not been equaled here since.”

The Rialto has always been a historic link to downtown Walkerton functions. Photo by Barb Hochstetler

Today, there is hope among some in the Walkerton area that perhaps this movie house and marquee can be reconstructed? The building caught fire in 1983 from an electrical shortage. The owners never rebuilt it. Is there anyone from Walkerton who believes it can be reproduced? It could be done, better than ever.

The former Majestic Theater still stands today and serves as a retail space along Roosevelt Rd. You can see the before and after.

On an extra note, another theater once, served the community at the end of the block. The Majestic Theater thrived further down towards the westside intersection now, SR 23. That building still stands and has been repurposed for retail. Most people are unaware of its past as a vaudeville stage and cinema house too.

 

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