Downtown Indianapolis. Noon. At most tables, the lunchtime chatter was of clients, projects and “the kids.” But at our table—which was crowded with soup, a sandwich and notebooks—there was talk of an empty, dilapidated property. One on the Near Eastside, to be exact. The Rivoli Theatre, to be exacter.
Jim Kelly, president of the Rivoli Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., tilted back in his chair, his hands folded. “When was the last time you saw a movie?” he asked me.
I furrowed my eyebrows. “It’s been awhile, unfortunately.”
“Well, let me ask you this,” he said. “How would you describe the theater you last went into?”
“Dark,” I said with a laugh. “And that’s about it.”
“Oh, you couldn’t forget the Rivoli,” Kelly mused.
So I asked him about his favorite, about his most vivid memories of the Theatre. It takes only a moment for him to respond.
“The lights,” Kelly said, his eyes illuminating. “The lights would all be shining. You could see the Rivoli from the distance, all lit up and blinking. It was always fascinating. It was an entirely different world, especially inside.”
Kelly—who grew up in the area and who is the only board member to visit the Rivoli while it was still active—has fond memories of the Theatre. A quick browse through forums, articles, and the Rivoli’s Facebook page shows Kelly is not alone in his sentiments. In an email, former Eastsider Basil Berchekas, Jr. said he remembered how “majestic” the Rivoli’s overall appearance was. And, in an April 16 WFYI “The Art of the Matter” episode, co-host Sharon Gamble said that the Rivoli was “glorious.” Gamble, who is also the vice president for development at Indiana Landmarks, said in the episode that she and her friends used to attend the Rivoli on Friday and Saturday nights. “It was a beautiful space … elegant seats, cast-iron frames,” she said. “I remember beautiful upholstery, a huge screen, great detail, a domed ceiling with a beautiful motif around it and twinkling lights.” A glamorous movie palace, indeed.
The Rivoli, located at 3155 E. 10th St., was built in 1927. It was designed by architect Henry Ziegler Dietz in Spanish Mission Revival style, and included ornate iron brackets, second-floor faux balconies, parapet walls and a red clay tile roof (which was later replaced with red asphalt tiles). At the time, it cost $250,000 to build the Theatre, an amount that translates to a few million dollars today. According to the Rivoli’s website, “[Dietz] had an eye for beauty.” He included brick, Indiana limestone, leaded glass windows with upper window sashes, sweet gum woodworking and solid brass door fittings in the construction of the Theatre. Furthermore, the upper window sashes above the Theatre’s front doors were adorned with calligraphic “R”s.
The Rivoli was constructed under the belief that it would be “a new home of happiness for the entire family.” It was the first Universal Studios-owned theater in Indiana, and a positive correlation between luxury and theater attendees was established. (In other words, it was assumed that a more glamorous theater setting would attract more visitors.) The Rivoli was managed by Willis W. Grist, Jr., the local manager of Universal Chain Theatrical Enterprises, Inc. In an Indianapolis Star article published Sept. 15, 1927, Grist is quoted as saying, “The Rivoli will be for the entire family because of the moderate prices, the excellent pictures, unexcelled organ music, and because of courteous employees, general comfort, and assured safety.”
A noteworthy feature of the Rivoli’s Sept. 15, 1927 opening was the organ. The original organ was a Robert Morton “Golden Voiced” organ, so named for its “unusual clearness and sweetness of tone,” as quoted in an opening day article published in the Indianapolis Star. The opening night organist was a man named Tim Crawford, who played at numerous theaters, but elusively disappeared from Indianapolis after 1930. Though I am unsure of what happened to the original organ, I do know that, under the watchful eye of Rivoli manager Tom Ferree, a Louisville Uniphone Pipe Organ was installed in 1966. (That particular organ had originally been installed in 1927 in the Louisville Labor Temple. It was later rescued by Ferree from the United Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in Terre Haute, where it had been deemed “scrap metal.”) With talented organists and extraordinary acoustics, the Rivoli made for a fine theater experience.
Though the Rivoli was originally designed and constructed as a single screen movie theater, it also provided the community with stage productions, and other live entertainment. In 1974, actress Gloria Swanson (best known for “Sunset Boulevard”) made a personal appearance on the Rivoli stage. Swanson’s 1929 silent film “Queen Kelly” was shown at the Rivoli, with organist Lee Erwin accompanying. Her nationwide tour included clips from her films. When describing her one-woman show, Swanson said, “I’ve tracked down about 25 films of mine from the silent days and I’ve edited them together, taking only the best or funniest or most interesting scenes from each.”
Swanson wasn’t the only famous face to grace the Rivoli’s stage, however. In 1972, Ferree remodeled the stage to better accommodate live concerts. Bands such as Kansas, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Golden Earring appeared at the Rivoli. Kelly informed me that such concerts would cost only a few dollars, and that six dollars was an “outrageous” amount of money to spend on a concert. (He also said that, as a 10-year-old, he could purchase a movie ticket, a soda and some popcorn for forty-five cents.) It’s unsurprising that so many bands visited the Theatre; at the time of its construction, the Rivoli had the largest stage in Indianapolis. Each seat in the Rivoli offered an unobstructed view of the stage. There was an orchestra pit as well, and plenty of room backstage. Furthermore, the Rivoli accommodated 1,500 patrons (a population that, I should note, is larger than my hometown).
“With renovations, though,” Kelly said,” The number of available seats would go from 1,500 to about 1,000. We’ll need to widen the aisles, create handicapped seating, that sort of thing.”
I ask Kelly, who is also the co-chair of the renovation and construction committee, about the work that needs to be done in order for the Rivoli to be fully revived.
“Well, it’s a three to five-year plan,” he informs me. “And it’s going to cost about three to five million dollars for the entire project. Since the building is exposed, we knew we wanted to get a new roof first.” Originally, the board of directors had planned to re-roof the Rivoli in its entirety. However, when the bids rolled in, the board saw that the lowest one was still $174,000 over-budget.
“We had to redo our estimates,” Kelly said. Now, only the auditorium and stage part of the Rivoli will receive a new roof. New bids for the project were taken recently, and work is scheduled to begin later this month, on June 22.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead,” said Kelly. “But with the economy coming back, we are staged—pun intended—to get the Theatre up and running.”
This circa 1970 photo shows the Rivoli in stable condition. The photograph is from the Indiana Album: NESCO History & Preservation Committee Collection. NESCO advocates for the residents of the Near Eastside and, in the same year that Gloria Swanson visited the Rivoli, NESCO began “an intensive campaign of economic development and revitalization of businesses in the community.”
The Rivoli formerly closed more than twenty years ago, in 1992. At the time, it was owned by Charles Chulchian, who had purchased the property in 1976. (Presently, Chulchian resides next to the Rivoli.) During Chulchian’s ownership, the Rivoli offered “skin flicks”—and a continuous run of them from 9 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. A Jan. 29 Indianapolis Star article described a Rivoli advertisement as promising a “dirty-movie film festival.” In 2007, Chulchian gifted the Rivoli to the not-for-profit Rivoli Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. (Chulchian retained a legal interest in the property, however, which complicated restoration efforts in 2012, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal.)
Over the decades, the Rivoli has closed and re-opened several times. Universal Studios sold many of its smaller theaters in the 1930s, with the Rivoli going up for sale in 1937. Joseph Cantor purchased the Theatre, who used it to host motion pictures and live performances. Cantor then sold the Rivoli to Mr. and Mrs. Forest Kraning in 1952. The Kranings restored the marquee, redecorated the lobby, and added a new ticket office. It was under their ownership that the Louisville organ rescued by Ferree was installed. Ferree, as it were, would lease the Rivoli from the Kranings in the 1970s, before the ownership transferred to Chulchian.
Kelly told me that, for years and years, people in the Near Eastside had commented about the Rivoli, and had wanted to see it fixed up. Rejuvenated as an emblem of nostalgic theatre. With the help of Indiana Landmarks, preservation efforts began in 2003. One year later, the Rivoli was included on the National Register of Historic Places. Currently, renovation plans include sealing the roof, drying out the building, rehabbing the marquee, restoring decorative elements and rebuilding the acoustics. There are also a few apartments above the Rivoli, on the second floor. These apartments can be rehabbed as well, and could potentially provide homes for visiting artists. On the other hand, the roof could also be transformed into a green space, which could be rented out and used for parties, receptions, weddings and the like. Furthermore, there are four storefronts that need spruced up and revived. And though the marquee is original to the structure, the vertical “blade” was added later. And, in fact, the streetscape rendering done by the East 10th Street Civic Association and the Ball State University Design Center does not include the blade.
Of course, a restoration of this size (the Rivoli is 17,000 square feet) is going to cost quite a bit of money. There are a few stakeholders who have expressed interest in the Rivoli, but are hesitant to provide financial support until the theater is more stabilized. A Catch-22, have you. The Rivoli Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. does have one large fundraiser, however: the Rivoli Revue. The Revue is in its third year, and had grown, both in attendance and in money donated. In an email, Kelly added that it would be “great to team up with some established film festivals or historic theaters.”
It’s going to take some time—a few years, by the board’s estimate—for the Rivoli to be fully finished. However, the large-scale project coincides with the overall rejuvenation on 10th Street, and the board is determined to enhance that particular corridor. “Currently, there isn’t a lot of entertainment on 10th Street,” Kelly said in “The Art of the Matter.” “We want [the Rivoli] to be the place to come.” He later told me that he looks forward to being in his nineties and attending performances by individuals who have yet to be born or discovered.
“I didn’t want people to say, ‘Do you remember where the Rivoli was?’ Now, it’ll be ‘Do you remember where the Rivoli is?’”
If you’d like to learn more about the Rivoli Theatre, or would like to contribute, head over to the Rivoli website. You can stay in touch and learn about the most recent renovations through Facebook and Twitter. Also, if you are interested in seeing the (heartbreaking) inside of the property, I recommend watching “The Art of the Matter.” Sharon Gamble narrates the feature, which is at the beginning of the episode and lasts about 10 minutes.
Lastly, thank you to anyone and everyone who made this article possible, and who tolerated me through a lunch date, a phone call or a series of emails. (Or all three.)