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Revamp of Rialtor Theater to Begin Soon - Sunday, December 15, 2013
Originally published in the El Dorado News-Times on December 14, 2013.

By: Kelsey Womack

Plans for El Dorado’s Festival City Program were presented by Austin Barrow, president of El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc., during a recent meeting of the El Dorado Civitan Club.

"We set around a $50 million goal in fundraising to get the El Dorado project up and running. As of right now, we are 80 percent committed in that fundraising goal, and that has been a hurdle that we are very excited to jump over. So all these grand plans of different projects that are going to be coming — art galleries, restrooms, police substations, farmers markets, indoor markets, amphitheaters, and of course the Rialto theater renovations — all those pieces have been funded to a level now that we can begin construction without any further delays. So you are going to see an immense amount of construction happening during the 2014 year, continuing in the 2015 year with hopeful completion by the first quarter of 2016 of all projects.”

Barrow discussed in greater detail the plans are for the Rialto.

"When I experienced the Rialto for the very first time, it was after the big renovation that happened in the late 70s and the early 80s,” he said. "So my memories of that space are after it had already been divided up into numerous different movie theaters.”

To give the architects who have been hired inspiration for renovations, Barrow and other members of Festivals and Events looked for different photographs and drawings of the Rialto as it was when it was initially constructed.

"One of the things we have had difficulty with is finding drawings of this building,” he said. "They don’t exist, so we have digitally recreated the entire interior of the facility so that they (the architects) will have something to start with.”

They were, however, able to find some photographs of the theater after the facility was first opened.

"I thought that these were some really great finds to kind of get some perspective as to where this building was when it was first created, because it is about to go through a grand renaissance in the next few years,” Barrow added.

According to the photos, the theater has seen many changes between its inception and the iconic structure El Dorado residents have come to know and love today, he said.

In the 1930s, chandeliers hung from the ceiling; it was one big theater instead of three. The front had granite instead of the art-deco style tiles, and even the marquee has been through numerous changes.

"One of the great things I find is the chandeliers, how amazing it was that they had chandeliers hanging up in that area,” Barrow said. "I can only imaging what it must have been like to watch a movie from that balcony that far up.

"Sitting way up there watching some of those movies must have been a lot of fun, and getting to hear the organ as well. So many pictures today, we see the Rialto, and that marquee is such a big fixture. It’s kind of an iconic fixture of what we think of when we think of that building. I can tell you the architects  we have hired out of Little Rock just drooled over these photos; they just thought it was great to find these things.”

Upon completion, the Rialto will boast a large lobby area that will stand beside the theater on what residents currently know as Jefferson Street. Barrow explained that the current lobby area was not intended to be a standing area when it was built.

"One of the things that I’ve learned, even if you have been there in the 80s, 90s, and 10 years before it closed, was that entrance area,” he said. "That lobby was not meant to be a standing area for people. It was meant to be a passing area, and those big leather doors across the front didn’t even exist when the facility first opened. When you purchased a ticket outside at the ticket booth, you would walk into those wooden doors, and you were in the theater. That awning was all open, so you just walked into a seating area or walked up the stairs and into the balcony.

"So one thing that we have gotten used to over the years is that lobby has become a wandering space. We want to mingle with other people and talk about what we did or have a soda.”

The idea is to dead-end the street where the Rialto stands rather than where it ends now — at the El Dorado Glass warehouse — in order to allow for that open expanse of the new lobby.

Barrow also explained the structure of how shows are put together now as opposed to the way they were in times past.

"This facility is an example of an older style of how we used to entertain ourselves,” he explaind. "We would get there a little before it’s time for the show, we would walk directly into the show and once it’s over, we would all go home. Now we even design shows in a manner where we take longer breaks in between. We will do a little bit of a show, take a longer intermission, then see the second half of the show.

"Those lobbies of that era just weren’t designed to handle that flow of people, so we are basically modernizing that space so that it can handle that flow of people, so that street space is needed to allocate that,” Barrow said.

When complete, the theater should have a capacity if 850, "so the large portion of that lobby is to allow for those 850 people enough room to mill about and to be able to go to plenty of restrooms.”

Contractors met at the Rialto two weeks ago for the first construction meeting and to walk around and observe the facility for the first time.

"Every consultant that walked into that theater two weeks ago had the same thing,” he said. "They come around the corner and see that stage, able to see all the caste work on the walls and the curtains and just go ‘whoa.’ It just has this ambiance that people just delight in. It’s a beautiful facility, and one of the things that we have to put in as a trademark for our organization, one of the things we are really holding close to is maintaining the architectural integrity and the interior of that hall, because it is extremely important to the city of El Dorado’s historical piece.”

Barrow said plans are to maintain the interior of the Rialto as much as possible.

Last year, the organization bought the Rialto and went to work making sure that the structure was sound, checking brick and mortar, features on the walls and replacing the roof on the way.

Barrow reported that there has been "some slight damage (inside) but it’s primarily due to the castes and molds on the walls from humidity and moisture getting involved inside the facility.

"One of the things we did learn when we climbed up into the clear space between the ceiling and the roof itself is it’s a completely steel structure,” he said. "So it’s got steel bones, it’s a solid structure.”

He marveled at the effort of the individuals who built the theater that "took the time and effort to make sure that it was going to stand and not go anywhere.”

Barrow showed Civitan members another drawing of a building that will become the "police substation and festival of restrooms.” This will be a multi-use facility that will have two levels, the lower being the police substation and restroom facilities and the upper (serving as) an open-air event facility "that will be an event space for people to utilize.”

According to Barrow, this facility will "capture the style of El Dorado, but also the style of southern architecture in general.” There is no set place for the structure yet, but Barrow said it is expected to be centralized between the stores and restaurants downtown and the El Dorado Conference Center, which will be a convenient spot for those visiting downtown.

"In any economic survey, having public facilities in any retail area is a huge part of being a successful outdoor mall, as we have,” he noted.

As for the substation, this will "be a good spot just to have a police presence for those larger festivals.”

Other facilities that will be new to downtown will include the amphitheater, a farmer’s market, an indoor market and an art gallery. All of these structures are planned to be near the conference center.

"We are hoping by sometime toward the end of March, early April, we will be able to roll out images for every single solitary facility that we are working on. We have architects on the case and we are just starting schematic process for some of them,” Barrow said.

"We have put a tremendous amount of focus on the Rialto, and now we are about seven months away from the construction start process for the Rialto. That’s an enormous piece of that $50 million: Just over $25 million is just for the renovation of the Rialto. So that project alone has taken up a tremendous amount of time for our architects. We are very excited to see them coming close to the end of their process so we can actually begin construction,” he said.

 

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