Remembering the Rialto

Photo courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle

The same day that The Augusta Chronicle announced on its front page that Hollywood movie actress Grace Kelly was engaged to a prince in Monaco, “Our Town” columnist Chris Brady announced inches away on Page 1 that the Rialto was closing after more than 60 years as a movie theater.

“The Rialto Theater, one of the city’s oldest movies houses, is going out of business,” Brady wrote in his column published Friday morning, January 6, 1956.  “Lack of customers.  Milton Newsom, city manager of the Imperial and Rialto, said the theater would close down Jan. 18.”

Brady reminded his readers that his column had reported several weeks earlier “a certain downtown theater would soon be forced to close because it was losing some $300 a week.”

And he noted a savings loan company was rumored to be interested in the building in Augusta’s 700 block of Broad Street with a “complete renovation” scheduled.

Brady was right in his information with the Chronicle headlining a few days later, “Federal Savings to transform theater site into new ‘home.’”

The Augusta Federal Savings and Loan Association would be moving from the Southern Finance (Lamar) Building next door and had hired local architect Phil Scroggs for the renovation work, the article related.

Among the changes would be leveling the floor from its sloping, theater seating construction; building a new front and marquee with Georgia marble; paneling the walls with walnut wood and making a main office lobby in the front and creating a directors’ room and executive offices in the rear.

That’s pretty much how Augusta-raised Dr. Thomas (Tom) Casella found the building when he bought it and renovated it again for his optometry practice in late 1985.

By that time, Augusta Federal Savings & Loan had moved into a two-story building in the same block between the Marion Building and the four-story building used by the Chronicle and the Augusta Herald staffs and the headquarters of Morris Communications Company Inc.

Eventually the media company would buy the savings and loan building and extend its newsroom and first floor into the space.

For Casella, it has been a special location; working originally in the building assisted by his father, Victor, who had been a downtown optometrist since 1948 and later being joined in 2008 in the practice by his own son, Benjamin.

Readers of Buzz on Biz magazine know the younger optometrist Ben for his regular columns eagerly devoured by beer drinkers.

Victor died in 2010 at the age of 93.  The veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II was well known in the Augusta community including being a charter member of the Italian-American Club of the CSRA.

When Casella Eye Center patients walk into the lobby, they are greeted by framed articles, photos and colored prints detailing and illustrating the former uses by the Rialto and Augusta Federal.

At the center of one wall is a framed front page of the Chronicle covering the disastrous fire of March 22, 1916, which burned much of the 700 block of Broad as well as several lower Augusta blocks of what is now the Old Towne neighborhood.

The same fire that destroyed the dreams and fortunes of many downtown business leaders fueled a major growth of new businesses and new buildings to either take the place of burned lots or go into buildings that had been gutted but left standing.

Prominent local architect G. Lloyd Preacher, who would design the still-used iconic Atlanta City Hall, was one of the visionary Augustans who saw what could be done with the opportunities created by the fire.

Preacher, whom Chronicle columnist Bill Kirby claims “had more to do with the look of downtown Augusta than any man since James Oglethorpe,” came to design the Marion Building, Lamar Building, Herald Building (later called the “News Building” when the Chronicle staff also moved into it), the Richmond Hotel and several schools.

He would not only design the simple structure Rialto but also become its first owner.

“The Rialto has just been completed and represents the last word in the way of a moving picture theater,” the Chronicle reported near the building’s completion in the fall of 1918.

“It will seat 710 people and each seat commands a perfect view of the screen.  It is equipped with the finest system of ventilation obtainable [in early air conditioning days].

“There are two eight-foot fans run by ten-horsepower motors which empties the air of the theater completely every two minutes and brings in a current of fresh air from the roof.”

The color scheme was a pale yellow “carried out in all the decorations and handsome velvet curtains.”

Originally the Rialto was to open on Wednesday, September 18, but due to unforeseen problems that the Chronicle never mentioned the opening was delayed until Monday, September 23.

The opening feature film shown was “Bound in Morocco” starring swash-buckling actor Douglas Fairbanks along with a comedy directed by Mack Sennett and a film about current events.

Like many motion picture theaters that doubled as venues for touring vaudeville acts, the Rialto also had its own five-piece orchestra that would be playing every afternoon and evening.

The first manager of the Rialto was H.D. “Hank” Hearn, who was employed by Atlanta-based S.A. Lynch Enterprises, owner of 30 theaters in the South.

He eventually will become the president of the Theaters Owners of North and South Carolina and head of the Exhibitors Service booking company for independent theaters in Charlotte, N.C.

Hearn and D.H. “Max” Reinhardt in 1949 were reported to spending $60,000 to build a drive-in theater in Rock Hill, S.C.

Just a few months after its opening, the Rialto was being managed in March of 1919 by J.H. Hughes of Jacksonville, Fla.  He advertised in the Chronicle for an apartment but hopefully it wasn’t a long term lease because he was gone within days.

Charles G. Branham took over as manager and stayed for 12 weeks until being replaced in June of 1919 by A.H. Cobb Jr.

He lasted until November when it was announced the Lynch company was transferring Cobb to Asheville, N.C., and was sending J.F. Kane, formerly of Asheville and Atlanta, to become the Rialto’s new manager.

But just two days after that revelation, the Chronicle broke the news that the Lynch company had bought several theaters in Augusta and that those properties (including The Rialto, The Wells, The New Modjeska and The Grand Opera House) would be managed by a hometown boy named Frank J. Miller.

Needless to say that was the same theatrical professional who in 1940 would build his own namesake show palace just across Broad Street from the Rialto.

For just over 60 years, the Rialto entertained thousands and thousands of Augustans and visitors including Camp Hancock soldiers in World War I, Camp Gordon soldiers in World War II and Fort Gordon soldiers during other wars with a variety of movie offerings and occasional live performances.

Just the month after its opening, the Rialto was showing director D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” with American Civil War veterans being invited to see the film for free.

“In order to give every veteran of the war of ’61 to ’65 an opportunity see D.W. Griffith’s wonderful production, the management of the Rialto announces no admission charges will be made with the exception of the government war tax which is 5 cents,” the Chronicle reported.

Remember this is referring to veterans serving from 1861 to 1865 and the “war tax” referred to World War I federal charges being assessed.

One of the most unique historical connections to the Rialto happened in the spring of 1920 when the Southern Photo Plays Corporation filmed a movie called “The Arizona Bandit” in North Augusta on the banks of the Savannah River.

The star of the movie was Ernest “Pete” Hart, a talented Augusta horse rider, who already had courted danger both on the battlefields and at the race track.  He recently had returned from serving in France during World War I.

Hart was said to have filmed some amazing riding stunts for “The Arizona Bandit,” but he apparently ended up taking his role too seriously.

On Wednesday morning of June 30, 1920, Hart jumped on a Charleston and Western Carolina train that had just left Augusta’s Union Station (where the Augusta main post office now exists on Eighth Street) about 5:15 a.m. carrying a Marine Corps payroll of $59,725 bound for Parris Island, South Carolina.

Hart bound a messenger, chloroformed a guard and threw off a safe containing the payroll.  He had an accomplice in an automobile waiting near the tracks to recover the safe.

Hart was unable to jump from the train when it started across the Fifth Street railroad trestle across the Savannah River and had to ride to the other end of the bridge before jumping off on the South Carolina side and disappearing into the swamp.  He was tracked by bloodhounds but escaped.

But police had a detailed description of him that was published in the Chronicle including wearing a dark colored suit, a dark cap with a long visor and “English cut tan low shoes.”

The train company offered a $1,000 reward and described the stolen loot as being 7,500 pennies, 3,000 nickels, 1,000 half-dollars,  1,000 one-dollar bills, 1,500 two-dollar bills, 1,000 five-dollar bills, 1,000 ten-dollar bills and 2,000 twenty-dollar bills.

Hart, the hopeful movie star, was spotted by someone who had recognized him going into the Rialto to see a movie called “The Deadlier Sex” about a conniving woman who arranges for her chief business competitor to be kidnapped.

“About noon yesterday the manager of the Rialto Theater was told that there was a man in the audience wanted by the police, and he was asked to turn on the lights,” the Chronicle related. 

“A minute or so later County Officer Guy Sturgis tapped Hart on the shoulder and informed him that he was wanted outside.  Hart accompanied the officer without a word of protest.

“Mr. Sturgis was accompanied to the theater by a dozen or more other men, county officers and special agents by it is said that he was selected to make the arrest because he knew the man wanted.”

  Hart’s two accomplices also were arrested with one being the train’s messenger who was in on the deal.  The money was recovered.

Searches online indicate “The Arizona Bandit” filmed in North Augusta never was released.

Probably that was just as well since it could never have equaled Hart’s real life story.




NOVEMBER 30, 1916:
The “New Modjeska Theater” opens in the 800 block on the north side of Broad.  This does not replace the original Modjeska Theater, which still is operating at the same time on the south side of Broad directly across the street.

FEBRUARY 18, 1918:
The Wells (shortly later to become The Imperial) opens on Broad built by Jake Wells of Virginia.  Wells and his brother, Otto, by the 1920s controlled 42 vaudeville theaters/movie houses in nine states.

SEPTEMBER 23, 1918:
The Rialto Theater opens in the 700 block of Broad Street seating 710 people and having a weekly five-piece orchestra.  It was built and owned by architect G. Lloyd Preacher with its first manager being H.D. Hearn.

Article appears in the August/September 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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