Save The Rialto Theater Report – Part 2

Save The Rialto Theater Report Part 2

Rialto Theater Report 3-13-09 Part 2

by John Gilbert,  contributing essayist Columbus Georgia Online

Rialto Theater Part 1Rialto Theater Part 2 | Rialto Theater Part 3 | Rialto Theater Part 4 | Rialto Theater Part 5 | Rialto Theater Part 6


Cleaning up the RialtoCOLUMBUS, GA. — On Friday, February 20th, Melanie and I drove from Stockbridge to the Rialto with a car load of cleaning supplies. This time I brought my TV lights that I use in video interviews. They really lit up the old theater! She and I started sweeping the projection booth and in a few minutes we had stirred up 35 years worth of dust. We would have to stop periodically to let the dust settle. The biggest problem we ran into is that I had forgotten to bring trash bags. I found old boxes and paint buckets to dump the trash and dirt into. After we had gotten the majority of the booth swept out Melanie tackled the balcony. More dust and this time old plaster. Before long she had a pile of dirt and trash and nowhere to put it. The workmen weren’t working on the front of the building so I confiscated a couple of their empty 5-gallon paint buckets to use as trash cans. I hoped they wouldn’t notice them missing. After a while and in a cloud of dust she finished the balcony. It looked much better but it could sure use a good mopping but that would have to wait until there was water in the building.

The biggest problem we ran into is that I had forgotten to bring trash bags. I found old boxes and paint buckets to dump the trash and dirt into. After we had gotten the majority of the booth swept out Melanie tackled the balcony. More dust and this time old plaster. Before long she had a pile of dirt and trash and nowhere to put it. The workmen weren’t working on the front of the building so I confiscated a couple of their empty 5-gallon paint buckets to use as trash cans. I hoped they wouldn’t notice them missing. After a while and in a cloud of dust she finished the balcony. It looked much better but it could sure use a good mopping but that would have to wait until there was water in the building.

Rialto interiorExploring the ruined Rialto Theater

While I was carrying a bucket of trash downstairs, I noticed an open door in the back of the auditorium. It was the door to the basement. I grabbed my flashlight and decided to explore. It was cool! There is a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms under the theater. It was really spooky too. It looked like something out of a horror film. Only a shaft of light from my flashlight pierced the gloomy darkness. Foot by foot I crept through each room only to find another turn ahead of me. At one point my light hit yet another turn. I almost turned back but I knew if I did, I’d have a dream that night of what might have lurked around that dark brickwork. What I discovered nearly stopped my heart. I eased around the corner and there it was, reflecting the beam of my light. Something that I had not expected to see. I had to move closer to be sure the darkness wasn’t deceiving me. It was a power meter. Not the old one with dials but a new digital meter with a blue tag hanging from it. There is power in the theater! A huge conduit came out of the meter box and went through the wall. Through the inky darkness, I traced the conduit through two rooms and it ended in a third. There was a large box with a lever in its center. It read “Open.” For a long moment, I stared at the lever wondering if I should turn it. Then I remembered the many junction boxes I had seen in the theater. Junction boxes with bare wires hanging from them. There were also many cut wires in the booth where the projectors had been ripped out. I finally decided not to throw the switch. I didn’t know how to throw it anyway. I left the basement to the darkness and climbed the stairs back to the dusty air of the auditorium. We’ll just have to keep using extension cords plugged into the flower beds in front of the theater. I knew I’d be back at the Rialto next week. Maybe just one turn of the switch won’t hurt anything.

After my exploration, I met Melanie in the balcony.

“The basement is really cool!” I shouted like a schoolboy. “You wanna go see?”

Melanie didn’t want any part of a dark and dusty basement. I really didn’t think she would. In a minute we heard a voice from downstairs. It was Reynolds Bickerstaff coming up the stairs.

“Hey, you guys have been busy,” he observed.

“Yeah. Melanie swept the entire Rialto Theater balcony but we’re about to pack it in. I’ll be back next Friday and We’ll tackle the rotted floor down by the screen.”

Rialto Theater floorI returned on Friday, February 27th and Reynolds Bickerstaff, the Rialto’s owner, and I set to work tearing out the floor in front of the screen. This is where the roof had leaked for years and the ceiling and the floor are ruined. The floor is rotted in a spot as wide as the building and about 12′ deep. It was quick work with crowbars to take out the rotted floor. Twice I fell through the floor to the dirt about 18″ below. The main timbers seem to be in reasonable shape but most of the floor joist crumbled. In less than 45 minutes we had half the floor removed. Reynolds had an appointment and had to leave for a while. I went to the booth, dragging the extension cords from the flower beds in front of the theater to plug-in the lights. If you’ll remember the theater has no power. I set to work attaching a fan motor with a pulley to the rewind table. In a moment I had the re-winder turning. The fan motor was underpowered but it works, sorta’. Now it was time to go back downstairs and work on the floor some more.

As I walked back into the auditorium I passed the door to the basement. I told myself out loud NOT to go into the basement. I knew what I’d do if I went down. “Don’t do it,” I kept telling myself. While my mouth was protesting my hands pulled the flashlight from my pocket and my feet made the turn for the door. “Stay out of the basement!” I told myself. “You know what the people in the 35 mm film forum told you about that main switch. Leave it alone!” In spite of my protesting, I made a B-line for the electrical room. There it was in the beam of my flashlight. That big switch with the green lettering saying “open.” I shone the light at all the switch boxes above the switch. Their levers were in the down position.

“It couldn’t hurt just to turn the switch on just once,” I told myself.

Rialto projection boothI knew it. I knew if I went back into the basement the temptation would be too great. Then my light hit one box with writing on it. “Booth Lights,” it said. That was it. That was what I needed, light in the booth. I grabbed the handle to the main switch and turned it with a big “Clack.” Now the switch read, “Closed.” Nothing happened. Then I turned the lever to the booth light box. Again, nothing happened. This was good. I ran from the basement, across the lobby, up to the balcony, and to the booth. I turned on the breakers in the booth and still nothing happened. I walked over to one of the light fixtures that hung by a missing projector and pulled the chain. Light! It came on and I was squealing like a kid. That bulb hadn’t been on in 35 years. I had to scrounge for a few more light bulbs but in a few minutes, the booth was all aglow and with no extension cords.

Reynolds arrived after a while and I pointed to the booth.

“Look, no extension cords,” I bragged.

“You got the power on?” he exclaimed.

He was as excited as I was and he had gone to the booth for a look himself. First, he started flipping breakers in the lobby to see if anything else would come on.

“It’s only on in the booth,” I told him. “I only turned the booth lights on because it was the only one labeled.”

It really only took about an hour and a half of work to tear up the floor because it was so rotted. We worked as much as we could before it was time to drive back home. We were both tired and very dirty as we left the Rialto. As I drove up I-185 I was very satisfied with what we had accomplished that day. I called Melanie to tell her what we had done.

“You’re always so happy when you work on the Rialto Theater,” she commented.

I told her that I’d be home in about an hour and a half and I hung up. She was right. I was happy.


by John Gilbert,  contributing essayist Columbus Georgia Online

Rialto Theater Part 1Rialto Theater Part 2 | Rialto Theater Part 3 | Rialto Theater Part 4 | Rialto Theater Part 5 | Rialto Theater Part 6

About John Gilbert 46 Articles

John Gilbert is a terrific story teller and “Save The Bradley” is historic, funny and entertaining! John’s special talent is to awaken the child in us all, this is why the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckle Berry Finn were so popular. John’s easy style, descriptive details, humor and just plain nice guy attitude makes John, without question, our modern day Mark Twain. Read one of John’s stories and see if you agree?

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