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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Positively The Jewel of Joliet

by Mauverneen

Joliet, Illinois is a blue collar town. Steel mill, railroad yards, barges on the canal kind of town. We have a state prison, a minor league baseball team, two casinos and a Nascar track.
And we have the Rialto Theatre.

Rialto esplanade, looking towards the rotunda

Dubbed the ‘Jewel of Joliet’ it is one of the 10 most beautiful theaters in the country and is on the National Register.  Opened in 1926 it was one of the first theatres to be built to accommodate both vaudeville and movies. In it’s hey day the theater saw many well known vaudeville performers pass across the stage. The original Barton Grand Theatre Pipe Organ is still in place, and very much in use.

Barton Grande
Like a lot of older theaters across the country it fell into disuse and for a time, stood empty. When the city began to talk of tearing it down, a campaign to "Save the Rialto" for future generations as a performing arts center was initiated by Dorothy Mavrich, president of the Cultural Arts Council of the Joliet Area. It was reopened in November of 1981, following a multi-million dollar restoration by the firm of Conrad Schmitt, in a spectacular extravaganza featuring the highly entertaining Victor Borge.

As a volunteer usher for about 20 years, I got to see many wonderful performances. But to me the main performance has always been the theatre itself. The ‘Jewel of Joliet’ is indeed a rare and sparkling gem. Once, in my ushering days, someone asked me if it looked better since the restoration. I’m sure it did, but I answered that it had always looked this beautiful to me. As I kid I sat in it’s red velvet seats and watched movies, generally summertime matinees. I have always been in awe of it’s sparkling crystal chandeliers, mirrored walls and gilt edged sculptures. To walk into this jewel for the first time is a jaw-dropping experience. To be able to return again and again is pleasure indeed.

The Rubens Brothers built and designed this theatre to be a “palace for the people”. Their intent was for the building itself to be part of the show, for patrons to be transported from the minute they walked through that front door until they walked out again. C.W. and George Rapp were the architects, who went on to build other ornate theaters in the Midwest. The construction firm of Kaiser-Ducett built many of the exhibits at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Even the exterior is a work of art - detail of the inlaid tiles in the alcove above the marquee
Together they created a masterpiece with design elements reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France, the Arch de Triomphe in Paris, and the Pantheon, in Rome.
Chandeliers and reflections of chandeliers in the Rialto's own 'hall of mirrors'
Eugene Romeo was the artist who created all of the sculptures throughout the theatre. His workshop was the stage, where he formed his molds, plaster casts, and sculptures. Workmen then attached his creations to the walls and ceilings. There is gold, copper and bronze leaf. Most of what appears to be silver is actually aluminum, which does not tarnish. Most of the sculptures are scenes and characters from Greek and Roman mythology.
Sculptures surrounding the dome of the rotunda
This sculpture is repeated on the underside of the balcony so patrons sitting there would not have a blank ceiling to look at
 There are over 100 crystal chandeliers and light fixtures throughout the Rialto, all of Czechoslovakian crystal. The grande dame of them all, the ‘Duchess’ graces the ceiling of the fabulous rotunda. She is a beauty at 22 feet tall and two and one half tons, one of the largest, if not the largest, of it's kind remaining.

Meet The Duchess
 Being in the theatre for any show is exciting, but going through on one of the guided tours is special. That is when one is able to see and truly admire the details, unobstructed by other patrons, and hear stories of it’s rich past and anecdotes about performers who have appeared there. There is even said to be a ghost or two.  
Tours take you through the main areas and also on the stage where you get the view that the performers get. Many a major star has been awestruck at the view from the stage – they just don’t build them like that anymore. As Liberace said – “Finally. A theatre to match my wardrobe!”
View from the stage - main floor, balcony, and the dome

Detail in the dome
 Tours also take you backstage, to the performer's dressing rooms, the star's dressing room and the ‘green room’, where the walls are covered with signatures of stars who passed through, waiting for their turn to be called onstage.

Heading back out of the theatre I’m never in a hurry to leave those marble floors. I take a last look at the Duchess, another glance up the grand staircase, admire one more sculpture, and bask just a few minutes more in this atmosphere of grace and elegance.

The rotunda as seen from the side balcony

Can you tell? I love this place.

For more on the Rialto, upcoming events and tours go to 
and also

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