Rialto Theatre


This building is easy to miss, on Mathewson, between Westminster and Washington. It’s been in use as office space and ground level retail, but the ornamentation suggested that it used to be a theater of some sort. A few Google searches revealed that it was indeed a theater, but more surprisingly, a church before that. Only the lobby and entrance survive. The parking lot behind the building is where the theater portion used to be.


From CinemaTreasures.org: This Rialto Theatre was one of a group opened or owned by Edward M. Fay (1875-1964). Mr. Fay spent his life involved with the entertainment industry, as violinist, conductor, vaudeville impresario, poet, and motion picture theater owner. He owned at least six different theaters between 1928 and 1971, and was called by the Providence Journal the “;dean of Rhode Island entertainment” (April 22, 1947).

On December 31, 1906, the Scenic Temple threw open its doors. It had movies and illustrated songs, and also had four acts of vaudeville. Hours were from 1:30 to 10:30, six days a week, with new shows every Monday and Thursday. Admission was 10¢. The Scenic had been the old Westminster Congregational Unitarian Church and a roller rink before its life as a theatre. The old church probably sat 700 on the orchestra floor and another 200 in the balcony. Owner Charles Allen’s modifications were minimal. He covered up the windows but the floor remained flat and he put in a stage without a curtain. A vertical sign with lightbulbs spelling out the word “Scenic” was suspended over the sidewalk in front of the minuscule entrance lobby.

Downtown Providence and many other cities and towns were flooded with theatres at the turn of the century, and only a handful of them remain.It is hard to remember, or fathom, what a gigantic effect Vaudeville and eventually movies had on entertainment. This excerpt from “The Board of Trade Journal” of April, 1915 makes a case for not enough theatres to meet the demand: “The Emery is turning away people at every performance. The ‘Hip,’ [Hippodrome] with its very large auditorium, is packed to the doors. The Bijou and Nickel can’t accomodate those seeking to see ‘the movies,’ neither can the Gaiety, the Scenic, the Union or the Casino. Out in Olneyville Spitz & Nathanson’s new theatre has all it can attend to.”

Allen died in 1915. A Providence Journal article from March 1 reported that James Bartley of Seekonk had purchased the then-dormant theatre and was to spend $50,000 to remodel the place, which had been closed and on the market for some time. The changes would include a new pitched floor, an enlarged balcony, a new lobby of 20x40 feet and a new frontage of brick with limestone trim. The interior would be finished in stucco and marble as would the new lobby. The theatre would not have a stage but would be used exclusively for movies. The reconstruction work was being done by the construction firm of Timothy Coffey of East Providence. In September, 1919 the theatre was reborn as the Rialto Theatre. According to the Providence Journal Almanac from 1935, the seating capacity of the Rialto was 1448. On the façade along the top, one can make out the outline caused by removed lettering. It is very faint, but it does say Rialto Theatre.The Rialto remained in business until 1936, when most of the building was torn down and the remaining front part was converted to shops and offices.

An editorial by David Brussat in the Providence Journal of March 17, 1994 suggested the site of the former Rialto Theatre as the place to put a movie theatre in the then cinema-less downtown. One suggestion was for a multiplex at the site; another was for a single-screen “blockbuster house.” At the time plans were already underway to bring movie theatres to the proposed new mall at Providence Place, and this Rialto-revived facility never materialized.

Mike P Oct 20 2010 For years I had heard stories from folks older than me about "fay’s Theatre" downtown. this must be it. I was told it was basically silent films, with piano players and old vaudeville acts.

shane jones May 31 2008 I have noticed that there is a small plaque on this building above the door to the smoke shop, which is dedicated to the electrical scientist Nicola Tesla. I asked around and apparently it was placed there by the owner of a prior smoke shop – who felt some personal affinity with Tesla.

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