Grand Theater Comes to Town

It was a night to remember, a grand and glorious occasion filled with pomp and circumstance, and pomp far outshone the circumstance. Grand theater had come to Joliet, Illinois.

Well, maybe it wasn’t particularly grand.

But it certainly looked as though it was.

When people saw it, no one wanted to leave.

The six Ruben brothers formed the Royal Theatre Company, and they aimed to build a vaudeville movie palace for the people, more palace than vaudeville.

The décor bordered on spectacular.

The cost bordered on ridiculous.

The Ruben brothers spent two million dollars, which was a staggering amount of money in the 1920s, to create an opulent temple for song and dance and an occasional silent move, more silent than moving.

The inner lobby was styled after the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, and the dome in the rotunda was reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. The arch that connected the esplanade with the rotunda reflected the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The décor possessed the distinct character of Italian Renaissance, Greek, Roman, Rococo, Byzantine, Venetian, and Baroque flair.

As the Joliet Herald News wrote: When the doors of the new Rialto open tomorrow, Joliet will have one of the finest theaters in the United States, as experts say there is nothing to compare with it in any city of similar size, and it stands on even terms with the modern motion picture palaces of Chicago and New York.

Nothing was too good for Joliet.

Joliet had never seen anything like it.

Neither had anyone else.

When they came, no one wanted to leave.

On opening night, patrons paid fifty cents a ticket and wandered past sculptures, fine art on the walls, and elaborate draperies to sit in the darkness, where they could no longer see the opulence, and watch the silent movie, “Mademoiselle Modiste.”

What’s more, it was May 24.

It was almost summer.

It was hot outside.

It was air-conditioned inside.

No one wanted to leave.

For decades, the Rialto Square Theater stage hosted vaudeville and stage productions, musical and comedic performances, ballet and opera, finally serving as a movie house during the golden age of Hollywood. The celebrities came, such as Red Skelton, Victor Borge, Liberace, Mitzi Gaynor, and Andy Williams. And on many nights, the darkness of the theater hid the face and sheltered the presence of Al Capone. It was his escape. No one ever took a shot at him in the Rialto.

But, alas, time and weather, decay and neglect began to eat away at the opulence of the theater. It had been on silk stocking row. Now the stocking had a runner. The lights dimmed. The screen went dark. It was old and forgotten, more old than forgotten.

Only one performer remained.

And no one knew her name.

She was graceful and lovely and in her twenties. She never grew any older. She danced on stage, surrounded by a hazy light, and her feet never touched the floor. The staff saw her. So did customers and workmen.

She danced alone. And if she sang, no one heard.

It was simply she amidst the ruins, and some believed that, long ago, she had been a performer who may have even starred at the Rialto.

The music had stopped.

She danced on.

Even when the Rialto Square Arts Association stepped in and raised funds to restore the theater to its original grandeur, the dancer remained. Now the Rialto has become the Performing Arts Center.

The theater is as vibrant as it ever was.

But when the lights grow dim, and the curtain drops, and the stage is gripped in the sounds of silence, she comes again to dance in the darkness.

The lady without a name.

The lady who is as graceful today as she was in the 1930s.

The lady who never grows old.

She came and never wanted to leave.

She didn’t.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Place of Skulls, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, Trail of Broken Promises, and Other Voices, Other Towns.

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