Rialto Theatre building exterior

The Rich History of the Rialto Theatre

The Rialto Theatre as we know it today is actually known as the “New” Rialto in the history books of Pocahontas. It was built in 1939 by Jack and Gladys Bouma, who were the owners of the Old Rialto, which was located across the alley from where Pocahontas State Bank is currently located. The Old Rialto operated there from 1922 – 1939. The “New” Rialto, the Rialto Theatre where it stands today, was built at 324 N Main St. by the Boumas for $25,000. Back then, it featured a 10’ by 30’ stage, 432 coral colored seats, and a “cry room” with a large glass window in the ladies’ washroom so patrons could still enjoy the picture if there was an upset child.

The Boumas sold the theatre in 1964 to the Muetings, who eventually sold it to Fridley Theatres. It operated that way until 1985, which is when its doors closed. But, thanks to over 6,000 hours of volunteer labor and a dedicated community, it was able to reopen 10 years later in 1995.

Irene Shaw, Marcia Hamp, Tom Van Overbeke, and Pam Ahlrichs were the first four to have the conversation about getting the Rialto Theatre back open. After their preliminary meeting, a public discussion was set, which saw the likes of 90 people showing up to get the theatre back in business. 

From 1993 – 1995, every Saturday morning for those three years, volunteers showed up at the theatre to help clean up, construct something, and/or work on a project to get the theatre fixed up. It was a huge community project that brought several community businesses and organizations together. It was during this time the theatre saw some modern additions, such as the construction of the green room and dressing rooms, new walls with an updated paint job, seats that were better spaced apart, and updated equipment. In total, nearly a quarter of a million dollars were raised for the project.

New Screen
The new large screen installed in the theatre during 2020. A fun aside about the seats at the time of the 1990’s remodeling project: they were obtained from a theatre that had burned in Branson, Missouri. They were stripped totally down to reupholster the fabric and have the metal components repainted.

The Rialto had a soft reopening in 1995 on April 6, which entailed a concert performed by the Pocahontas Community Chorus. At that time, about 90% of the entire project was done, and the new renovations allowed the Rialto to be called the most modern theater in northwest Iowa. To celebrate, the theatre was prepping for a grand reopening on June 22 alongside the Iowa premiere of Disney’s Pocahontas.

The idea to get Pocahontas to premiere in Pocahontas was ignited by Carol Hallman, who had seen in the trailer for the movie in Storm Lake before a different showing in December 1994. When she saw the premiere was the coming summer, she thought of how the Rialto was on schedule to be reopened by the release of the movie. Carol and city librarian, Ruth Ahlrichs, decided to do some digging and make some calls about getting the movie to premiere in town.

Hallman got in contact with Dick Cook, President of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution for Walt Disney Studios, after several phone calls and memos to him and his secretary. Once Cook gave the greenlight for the idea of premiering the movie there for Iowa, a group of volunteers began working with the publicist company for the movie. 

Pocahontas released for theaters on June 23, 1995. The original premiere of the movie occured in Central Park in New York on June 10. The Iowa premiere occurred on Thursday, June 22. The celebration for the premiere started in the early afternoon and featured a lawn party, ice cream social, family picnic, and ribbon cutting. The current Iowa governor, Governor Brandstad, and Russell Means, a voice actor in the movie and Native American activist, both were in attendance. Several news stations were in attendance to cover the event. 

A statement made by Russell Means that sticks with Carol to this day is that the movie was the “best depiction of Native American life” in any movie up to that time that he had seen, and he was very proud to be associated with the film. Another Disney employee in attendance, Chris Buck, who served as a supervising animator on the movie, signed his name with an illustration of the dog he had animated for the movie in the Rialto green room. He’s since gone on to co-direct some notable Disney projects, including Tarzan (1999), Frozen, and Frozen II. 

Pocahontas merch
Some memorabilia provided by Disney for the premiere, including an advanced CD, folder with credit listings, and a t-shirt. The back of the premiere night tickets is shown as well with autographs from the celebrities in attendance of the event. A photo of elementary kids lined up at the football field in the shape of Mickey Mouse as a thank you to Disney is also shown.

Leading up to the event, Disney had actually sent an engineer out to make sure all of the theatre equipment was satisfactory, and that same engineer ran the movie the night of the premiere. There were two showings the night of the premiere, at 6:30 and 8:30, with commemorative memorabilia sent by Disney for those in attendance. It included Pocahontas sleeves for Hershey candy bars and Pocahontas t-shirts. Due to the recent renovations and reopening, Disney let the Rialto keep all of the proceeds from the two weeks the movie showed.

The next big renovation project at the Rialto took place in 2010, which saw the installation of 286 brand new seats, a new furnace, new roof, new carpet, and refinished floor. And then, in 2013, the theatre saw another big upgrade when it went digital. It was an appreciated update from 35 millimeter film, which meant all new equipment, including a new sound system. This was another massive fundraising effort where the community rallied together with donations to help once again bring the theatre into the modern age.

The Rialto Theatre is still operating to this day and has seen various updates and projects during the recent years, including a massive new 12’ by 28’ screen installed in March 2020. Although it was temporarily closed for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it once again opened its doors in late March 2021. Today, the theatre functions as a nonprofit entity through the Pocahontas Community Foundation and is overseen by a Board of Directors, which was established by the original four members that served as the catalysts for renovating the theatre.

The Rialto Theatre has daily movie showings at 7 PM that can seat up to 281 people with an additional 2 PM Sunday Matinee showing. There are occasional special performances as well, such as PAC’s High School Swing Show. The theatre is always looking for volunteers, which can earn you free admission and concessions to a movie of your choice! You can visit their website and/or Facebook page to see what movies are coming soon.

History & Heritage Posted March 25, 2021

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