There’s a little jewel in Aransas Pass just waiting for you to discover it. It’s not hard to find, just easy to overlook so let me point it out to you.
It’s The Rialto Theater on Commercial Street. The Art Deco style venue originally opened in 1937, part of a chain that was headquartered in Beeville. The Aransas Pass theater had 500 seats and at the time was the only air conditioned space in the region. It operated as a single screen cinema until 1991 when it closed, yielding to competition from multiplexes.
And there it stood, shuttered, until it caught the eye of Jen Rubinowitz. Originally from Indiana and Kentucky, Jen worked for a time for AT&T and MCI. In the 1990s MCI moved to Texas and Jen moved with it. She loves the water, fishing and diving and kept coming back to Rockport and Port Aransas to enjoy those activities. Drawn to “old buildings and old houses,” she spied the Rialto Theater and felt called to do something with it. She was heartened in 2003 when she saw a “Sale Pending” sign and thought that someone would be bringing the Rialto back to life. When the sale fell through, she decided the theater’s revitalization was up to her so she bought it. Cleaning up flood damage to the interior was a monumental undertaking and she ended up having to close the theater temporarily.
When she reopened it Jen’s original concept was to make it a type of artist commune with leased studio spaces, taking inspiration from urban commercial repurposing projects like Boston’s Fanieul Hall Marketplace and Monterey’s The Cannery. That worked for a while. So did having theater groups put on plays but it all didn’t quite turn out the way she envisioned.
In 2006 Jen formed her own non-profit organization with an eye toward creating the cinema drafthouse experience, that is, to offer dinner and drinks with movies. To that end she obtained a liquor license for the Rialto so now beer and wine are available as well as soft drinks. In June the theater started Tapas Tuesdays. Guests can enjoy snacks as well as beverages at happy hour prices that begin at 5:00 p.m. and continue until 6:30 p.m. when the stage is available for the acoustic jam.
Jen encourages musicians to participate in the jam. Check your stage fright at the door. The musicians are laid back and eager to share their talent and energy to make a happy noise, and the folks in the audience are relaxed and supportive. The jam “gives people space to work on their fear and develop their talent.” Jen has really enjoyed hearing performances by “the coolest people” and seeing them blossom. She’ll often join in along with her husband, Jake. They met at the Rialto when they started performing together.
The Rialto serves as an art gallery too. Check out the gallery and gift shop open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11-4 and Tuesday evenings when the theater is open for the jam. A portion of the sales goes to the theater’s renovation and operation.
The restoration has been a labor of love. Jen has renovated old houses but never a commercial space and nothing of this size. Some restorers of historic buildings go to great lengths to use only period-authentic materials and furnishings. Jen is more interested in having the building “open and alive even if it is raw.” Her current challenge is to level part of the floor to create a cinema lounge area. Boyd Camera will be donating time and equipment so that the Rialto can offer digital films. Jen has no intention of trying to compete with the multiplexes but sees the Rialto operating as an art house especially since there aren’t any in the area.
She’s also looking to establish a year-round calendar. For starters there’s Tapas and Acoustic Jam every Tuesday night at the Rialto. Saturday, July 4 a special BBQ and Blues featuring the Hot Attacks to benefit the theater is being held at the Tiki Bar located at 508 Bigelow in Aransas Pass. Upcoming events on the Rialto calendar include “Suite Surrender,” a melodrama directed by Karen Cline-Tardiff, slated for August. Set in 1942, it’s the story of two of Hollywood’s biggest divas who descend on the luxurious Palm Beach Royale Hotel, assistants, luggage, and legendary feud with one another in tow and find themselves assigned to the same suite.
For more information visit the Web site at www.rialtotheater.org. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 361-758-0383. Or, just come by 327 S. Commercial Street in Aransas Pass. I’ll see you there. — http://devorahfox.com