The Rialto Theater
Louisville, KY

Rialto Theater construction, Alfred and Oscar Joseph in middle - 1920
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

The Rialto Theater, at 616 S. 4th Street, on the west side of 4th Street just south of Chestnut in Louisville Kentucky, was built in 1920.  It was designed by the Louisville firm of Joseph & Joseph Architects, founded by brothers Oscar and Alfred Joseph.1

Rialto Theater construction, Oscar and Alfred Joseph near stage - Oct. 13, 1920
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

Rialto Theater balcony construction - Oct. 13, 1920
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

Rialto Theater still under construction - 1920
Photo courtesy Old Louisville Guide

The classical façade of the Rialto made extensive use of white-glazed terra cotta tile from Cincinnati's Rookwood Pottery. The finest and and most costly (at one million dollars) theater in the city, the Rialto could seat 3500 people, had chandeliers of Bohemian crystal, a great marble staircase, walls of expensive Rookwood tiles and a $30,000 pipe organ.  It opened in 1921 as Louisville's first grand movie palace.2  Loews United Artists Theater (Louisville's Palace theater) would open across the street in 1928 followed by the Ohio Theater down 4th Street in 1941.

Grand staircase of the Rialto Theater - 1921
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

Modeled on the Capitol Theater in New York City, only the best of materials were used and they were incorporated into designs intended to dazzle. Crystal chandeliers and brass torchères adorned the lobby, where a white marble stairway led to an upper level promenade whose walls were hung with blue silk damask, arabesqued in gold.1

The second floor promenade of the Rialto Theater - 1921
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

The second floor promenade of the Rialto Theater included chandeliers, wall paper, frescoed ceilings, mirrors, chairs and loveseats, and table with mythological figures forming the pedestal.  The area was illuminated with eighteen-light candelabra. The portals on the left led to a balcony, which, combined with the main level, gave the theater a capacity of thirty-five hundred people.1

Rialto Theater interior - 1921
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

Rialto Theater interior - 1921
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

The Rialto Theater had an elegant stage, with orchestra pit and music stands. The stage was framed by an ornately tiled proscenium arch, two box seats and the walls included murals.1

The projection room at the Rialto Theater- 1921
courtesy Photographic Archives, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville

4th St. looking South with the Rialto on right during the 1937 flood
Postcard courtesy Moody's Collectibles

The Ohio River flood of 1937 took place in late January and February 1937. With damage stretching from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, 1 million were left homeless, with 385 dead and property losses reaching $500 million, further worsened by the fact that it occurred during the Great Depression and just a few years after the Dust Bowl. Water level reached 57 feet in the Louisville area, setting a new record. 70 percent of the city was under at that time.3

Postcard of 4th Street. at night looking North showing Rialto on left - ca.1938
courtesy vanishing movie theaters

Postcard of 4th Street looking North showing Rialto on left - 1942

In 1942 Billboard reported that the Rialto was leased by the Al and Belle Dow Agency who brought in name bands and "road legit shows" to the theater in addition to the vaudeville type that the theater had been featuring almost exclusively.

I.B.M. Convention Committee, J.J. Musselman - top row, 4th from Rt. - June 1954
Photo courtesy the Louisville Magic Club

In 1930, J. Johnson Musselman, became the manager of the Rialto Theater. An entertainer by profession who for years carried a roadshow and specialized in magic, he performed under the name of "The Great Aska." 4  While managing the theater he still made appearance at theaters within traveling distance and the April 7,1945 Boxoffice magazine reported that a story appearing in the column of Harry Bloom, columnist for the Louisville Times, described Musselman's difficulty making dates during the the Ohio Valley flood in 1945 when the Louisville territory had its second highest water to date. Musselman performed with his assistant Pauline and her trained love-bird and the November 26, 1949 Boxoffice magazine reported that he "was the subject of a feature in the Courier Journal rotogravure section complete with color photographs by reason of his training of parakeets."

Saturday evening Post ad for Philip Morris - Mar. 19, 1955
courtesy eBay

By 1955, Musselman had been the manager of the Rialto for over 25 years.4 At the time, Louisville was the third largest tobacco manufacturing center in the United States. As one of the largest employers there, the Richmond, Virginia based company of Philip Morris operated two large facilities in Louisville; a stemmery on Miller's lane where selected quality tobacco are prepared for aging, and a factory at 1930 Maple St.  They also maintained warehouses to store tobacco during the slow aging process.5

The Marquee of the Rialto - Dec. 8, 1955
Photo by Lin Caufield courtesy Ger Rijff's "Long Lonely Highway"

On December 8, 1955 the Philip Morris company held a special show of the Hank Snow All-Star Jamboree for its employees at the Rialto that featured Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ.  It was just over a week earlier that they had performed a special show for the employees of Philip Morris at the Mosque theater in Richmond.

Scotty, Elvis, DJ and Bill onstage at the Rialto - Dec. 8, 1955
Photo by Lin Caufield courtesy Ger Rijff's "Long Lonely Highway"

According to Lee Cotten, there were no advertisements for this show in the Louisville papers and ads for the Rialto Theater gave no hint that there would be anything presented that evening other than the two scheduled films, "Tarantula!" and "Running Wild." 6

Scotty and Elvis onstage at the Rialto - Dec. 8, 1955
Photo by Lin Caufield courtesy Ger Rijff's "Long Lonely Highway"

Full frame photo of
Scotty, Elvis Bill and DJ onstage at the Rialto - Dec. 8, 1955
Photo by Lin Caufied courtesy UofL Libraries added July 29, 2013

Luckily, a photograph from the Lin Caufield Collection at the University of Louisville dated December 8, 1955 shows the marquee of the Rialto Theater announcing “Phillip Morris Employee’s Night - Hank Snow All Star jamboree - Elvis Presley - Duke of Paducah - Bill and Scotty and Don." (The final name is undoubtedly a reference to D. J. Fontana whose first name is Dominic, not Don.) Clearly seen in the photograph are huge posters and banners for "Tarantula" and a smaller sandwich board for "Running Wild." 6

Elvis, DJ and Bill onstage at the Rialto - Dec. 8, 1955
Photo by Lin Caufield courtesy Ger Rijff's "Long Lonely Highway"

Though there may have been no reviews or ads for the show in the papers at the time, the employee shows were part of the beginnings of Philip Morris' endorsement of country music to help promote its products and were mentioned a year to the day after the show at the Rialto when Billboard announced:

Philip Morris Frames Free C&W Shows to Plug Product
Talent Budget 400G; Weekly Air Seg Also in the Making
By Bill Sachs
-NASHVILLE--In a deal consummated here Thursday between Philip Morris, Inc., and the Jim Denny Artist Bureau, with headquarters here, the Philip Morris firm will sponsor 8 series of free touring country and western music shows beginning at 'Richmond, Va., shortly after the first of the year, and continuing for an indefinite period. The deal, finally completed after months of negotiations between Denny and Philip Morris officials, is expected to involve the greatest use of c.&w. talent ever employed in a commercial venture of this kind. Talent cost, it is reported, will run over $400,000.
To be known as the Philip Morris Country Music Show, the first unit is slated for an extensive tour of the South. Appearances in other parts of the country are set to follow. Augmenting the daily free shows, employing top names in the c.&w. field, will be a weekly radio broadcast using the same talent under- arrangements now being made by N. W. Ayer & Son ad agency, representing the Philip Morris brand of cigarettes.
The station line-up and the originating station for each of these weekly broadcasts will depend on the group’s travels and will be announced at a later date, Philip Morris officials announce.

Ray Price Featured
Denny, now in the throes of casting the initial unit, stated here Thursday that he has signed Ray Price, "Grand Ole Opry" star and Columbia Records name, to head up the No. 1 group. Remainder of the talent array for the first show will be announced at an early date. Denny says, along with the unit's itinerary.
The Philip Morris Country Music Show will launch its tour with special showings for the company's employees at its Richmond, VA, and Louisville factories. The first of these will be held in Richmond January 4, moving to Louisville for a January 11 appearance. Following these shows for the company's employees the group will stage three free shows for the public in each of these cities. Thereafter the group will make daily appearances in a different Southern city. In addition to the regular showings, unit members will make appearances at veterans' hospitals, industrial locations and military bases.
A special Greyhound bus is being remodeled at a cost of nearly $10,000 to provide transportation facilities and dressing quarters for the touring Philip Morris players. Using special mobile radio telephones aboard the bus, show members will phone ahead and converse with newspaper editors, civic leaders and disk jockeys in the
area they are about to visit.

Show a Forerunner
O. Parker McComas, president of Philip Morris, stated that the firm's proposal to present touring country music shows featuring top c.&w. names has been well received in all sections of the country.
Philip Morris, he pointed out, has been identified with an interest in country music for a number of years and among other ventures in the field presented Tennessee Ernie Ford to the nation's radio audience from coast to coast. A year ago, the company spotlighted Elvis Presley in special shows for its employees in Richmond and Louisville.
In May of this year, Philip Morris sponsored a three-hour National Country Music Festival broadcast from the Jimmie Rodgers' Memorial Celebration in Meridian, Miss., over a 22-station country music network throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, with Philip Morris vice-president, James C. Bowling, in charge.
On this occasion, Bowling along with Lieut. Governor Carroll Gartin of Mississippi, was honored with the Ralph Peer National Country Music Award. "Our latest move in the country field," McComas stated, "promises to become an important forerunner of other things to come in the growing expression of country music."
Jim Denny, one of the best known and most widely experienced bookers in the country music field, was named Country Music Man of the Year by The Billboard in 1955. He recently resigned as heed of the WSM Artists Service Bureau here to devote his full time to his own artists' bureau and his various publishing interests. He was associated with WSM more than 28 years.

Billboard Magazine - Dec. 8, 1956

ad in Louisville Times - Nov. 21, 1956

The Philip Morris show was the band's only appearance at the Rialto but they would return to Louisville one more time a year later to perform at the Jefferson County Armory only a couple of blocks away.  By then, the scene would be much different, the whole city would know about it and Elvis' first movie, Love Me Tender, released only days earlier, would be playing at the Rialto.  The reviews of the movie in Louisville's Courier Journal would praise Elvis in the film, but not the fans that went to see it.

... If you can stand the catcalls, insinuations, jibes, frenzied screams of highly emotional young girls, you will find that "Love Me Tender" is exceptionally well done and interesting throughout.
It is only the audience that is nauseating.

excerpt from "Elvis Isn't Bad in 'Love Me Tender' But Audience's Conduct Displeases" - Boyd Martin's Show Talk - Courier Journal - Nov. 22, 1956

The proscenium is all that remains of the Rialto in this 1969 photograph
Photo courtesy Old Louisville Guide

The Rialto continued to play road show engagements until it closed. The last film shown there was "Doctor Dolittle" with Rex Harrison. It closed on July 31, 1968 and was demolished in 1969.7

A parking lot where once stood the Rialto - ca. 1970s
Photo courtesy Old Louisville Guide

Philip Morris closed its manufacturing plant in Louisville in 2000 and the rest of its remaining production facilities in the fall of 2006 to consolidate facilities in an attempt to save money.8  By 2008 it had put the last of its holdings in the city up for sale.9  Today, though, the company is still Kentucky's largest Tobacco purchaser.8

4th St., looking south from Chestnut, where Rialto would be on right - 2009
Photo courtesy Google Streetview

The building today at the location of 616 S. 4th St. Louisville, KY - 2009
Photo © Microsoft EarthData

page added December 8, 2009

1 according to The University of Louisville Digital Collections
2 excerpt from Old Louisville Guide
3 excerpt from Wikipedia" Ohio River Flood of 1937
4 according to Billboard
5 from "A Guide to Points of Interest in Louisville" by Philip Morris, Inc. 1962 courtesy Ebay
6 according to "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown" by Lee Cotten
7 according to Cinema Treasures - Rialto Theatre
8 according to Philip Morris USA to Close Louisville Operations in 2006, Philip Morris USA company announcement
9 according to "Philip Morris set to sell remaining downtown site" by John R. Karman III, Business First of Louisville - Aug. 22, 2008

Publicity consultant gave Elvis a bad review—at first!

In the 1950s, Jack Fones researched upcoming acts and decided a young Elvis Presley was too pretty to be a country singer. But the King was a hit on show night.

Jack and Jane Fones pose with Lucille Ball in the 1950sMy career in public relations brought me into contact with some of the most famous names in the ­entertainment world, such as ­ Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

That’s my wife, Jane, with Lucy and me in 1954.

I also knew a young Elvis Presley, early in his career, and actually tried to cancel two of his first gigs.

Philip Morris, which was a client of my company, Publicity Consultants Inc., planned shows for its employees in Louisville, Kentucky, and Richmond, Virginia. Melvin Gold, a New York producer, was hired to stage the shows, and when the three acts were set, he asked me to check them out.

They were country singer Hank Snow, some country comic and an unknown named Elvis Presley, who was a truck driver and aspiring singer.

I thought Presley was much too pretty to be a country singer, so I asked Mel to cancel him. But Elvis had already been signed for $150 per city, so we had to take him.

Elvis’ old Cadillac convertible broke down on the way to Louisville, but he took the stage that night, singing Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog and other soon-to-be-famous Elvis Presley songs.

The president of Philip Morris, who was in the audience, yelled to one of his aides to get Elvis off the stage, claiming that his hip gyrations were obscene. Elvis finished the show, though, and was a tremendous hit with the employees and their families.

The next week in Richmond, the crowd reacted the same way, and an RCA Records talent scout was there. The scout signed him to a contract after the show, and his career was off and running—despite my original intention!

Jack Fones
Keene, New Hampshire

courtesy Reminisce

added July 29, 2013


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