The Rialto Theatre celebrates 80 years in Raleigh, NC

Rialto Theatre

The Rialto in the 1940s vs. the theatre today. | Photo provided by the Rialto Theatre + RALtoday

From its iconic marquee to curated movie features, the historic Rialto Theatre has been a pillar of the Five Points neighborhood since 1942. This year, the Rialto is celebrating 80 memorable years.

The theater’s building originally opened in 1936 as the largest A&P grocery store. Six years later, it transformed into the The Colony Theatre, a space outfitted in plastic walls, pine floors, and a celotex ceiling. People dressed up and traveled into Raleigh from neighboring towns to see feature films at this bustling cinema.

“I remember waiting in line for the second showing of Mary Poppins in 1964,” long-time North Carolinian Karen Shell told RALtoday. “My parents lived in Fuquay-Varina from 1959-1965 and they used to drive us to Raleigh to see showings.”


The theater in the 1940s | Photo provided by the Rialto Theatre

The Rialto Theatre landed its permanent name when it was first refurbished and renovated in 1983. Something that’s stayed the same throughout the years is the showing of foreign, art, independent, and alternative films.

Theater owner Bill Peebles took over in December 1989 and immediately started a second round of renovations to help guests enjoy their movie experience even more. “What my predecessors did was pretty inventive, but the theater still needed some work,” said Bill. He revived the concession stands and updated the sound systems + picture quality.

Though the theater only has one screen, it holds one of the largest auditoriums in Raleigh, seating 432 people under the same two massive dome lights that have illuminated the theater since World War II.

Today, the Rialto still offers a classic cinema experience — when you walk in the lobby, the scent of fresh popcorn occupies the room and quintessential film posters are plastered on the walls.

All of the movies are hand-picked by the Rialto’s film buyer and Bill. Some of the more theatrical films are even accompanied + performed by a shadow cast.

Nearly 300,000 people pass the Rialto daily. “I wish people would say, ‘let’s venture in.’ And then they would see that it is totally restored,” Bill told RALtoday. “It’s an old but updated theater with a mature audience.” Earlier this month, the British Ladies of Raleigh showed up to the opening night of Downton Abbey: A New Era dressed to the nines in attire fit for the 1930s.

“When you’re watching a movie at the Rialto, you’re not being distracted by the cell phone next to you or the person in front of you — you’re watching the movie, taking in the performances, and being drawn into it,” Bill said. “If you say, ‘I’m still thinking about that movie,’ or, it caused some emotional response, then I have hit a home run.”

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