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A distinctive landmark on Park Avenue since its construction, the Rialto Theatre’s architectural consistency throughout its near-hundred year history belies the fluidity and multi-faceted nature of its historic and current purposes. Conceptualized in 1923, the Rialto Theatre was built in 1924 as a neighbourhood theatre and movie house which initially screened silent films alongside a live orchestra.[1] The building’s architect was Joseph-Raoul Gariépy, and the interior was designed by Emmanuel Briffa, who designed five other Montreal cinemas and 200 cinema houses across North America.[2] Originally owned by Lawand Amusement and leased by the United Amusement Corporation, the theatre’s ownership changed hands often throughout its history.[3] Given heritage status at the municipal, provincial, and federal level, the Rialto is one of the only Montreal theatres constructed in the 1920s that continues to operate as a cultural space.[4] Throughout its long history, the Rialto has been defined by the diverse nature of its cultural surroundings and has, in turn, impacted these contexts.

  1. Alexandra Heather Gibb, “Beyond the Decline: Revaluing Montreal’s Movie Palaces, ” PhD diss., McGill University, 2015, 133. 
  2. “Rialto Theatre National Historic Site of Canada,” Parks Canada, accessed November 24, 2021, 
  3. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 134. 
  4. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 45.

Upon its opening in 1924, the facade of the Rialto was intricately designed, and took up a major portion of space in the neighbourhood.

Building, Rectangle, Sky, Line

An article from The Standard on the day of the Rialto’s opening speaks to the theatre’s importance to the local neighbourhood, as well as the popularity of theatres at this time.

Newspaper, Publication, News, Font

In 1927, the Canadian Jewish Chronicle published a piece covering the anniversary of the Jewish Daily Eagle, which was celebrated at the Rialto, demonstrating how the space catered to and served the immigrant community of the area.

Organism, Font, Screenshot, Number

The materiality of the Rialto was crucial to the social experience of temporarily transcending class status. The Rialto’s intricate plasterwork, silk panels, wood carvings, and stained glass domes were all part of the early theatre boom’s working principles of excess and exuberance (Lanken 43).

Hall, Style, Chair, Rectangle

In this photograph from 1987, the Rialto shows some signs of grime and neglect, with dirt on the walls and some damage to the chairs, but the design remains little changed since its establishment.

Building, Symmetry, Monochrome, Monochrome photography

The interior of the theatre today shows how the restoration effort has aimed to preserve as much of the original space as possible, while adding updated technology to the space.

Building, Musical instrument accessory, Interior design, Chair

A film screening at the Rialto, showing the juxtaposition of contemporary technology and media within a historicizing space.

Fashion, Architecture, Entertainment, Stage

Today, the exterior of the Rialto shows contemporary influence with illumination technology, but its architecture remains almost exactly as it was when it was built. This speaks to how, despite its physical consistency, the theatre has been defined by adaptability and fluidity in its social purposes and cultural milieu.

Car, Building, Window, Vehicle

The cultural landscape surrounding the Rialto at the time of its establishment was largely defined by the multiethnic nature of Mile End and the highly varied purposes of Park Avenue. In the early 20th century, Mile End residents were mainly working-class immigrants, and the 1920s saw an influx of Jewish immigrants into the neighbourhood as well as a second wave of industrialization.[1] The Rialto catered to this demographic and the newly emerging urban middle class. Aware that most of its visitors still lived on limited income, the Rialto promised “a spectacle of every up-­to-date theatrical feature at popular prices.”[2] Further, the theatre’s programming catered to the multicultural nature of its visitors, featuring Yiddish productions, hosting events for the Jewish community, and providing French subtitles on 90% of its English films.[3] Moreover, Park Avenue, on which the theatre is located, injected the space with a further multifaceted nature. Park Avenue has been described as one of the most heterogeneous streets in Montreal, featuring historical and modern buildings, commercial businesses and residences, and pedestrian sidewalks alongside heavy traffic.[4] This highly varied landscape sheds light on the Rialto’s multi-purpose design. In addition to a 1300-seat auditorium featuring live performances and film screenings, the theatre initially also contained office spaces, boutiques, a dance hall, a bowling alley, and a rooftop garden to ensure maximum rentability.[5] Therefore, the diverse and multi-faceted nature of Mile End and Park Avenue is reflected in the Rialto’s marketing, programming, and design.

As the Mile End neighbourhood was undergoing increased industrialization and new waves of immigration, there was a simultaneous development cascading across major North American cities, including Montreal: the theatre boom.[6] This ‘theatre boom’ was initiated by the grand success of the films that were released at that time that captivated audiences with their longer running times and well-developed narratives.[7] The boom marked not only a clear increase in the construction of new movie viewing spaces but also the growing sophistication and elaboration of the size and decor of such spaces.[8] The Rialto theatre was one of the many movie-viewing spaces built during this boom and was extravagant in its form and architectural design.[9] Its Beaux-Arts style exterior, inspired by the Palais Garnier of the Place de l’Opéra in Paris, as well as its neo-Baroque interior elements, offer a unique blend of styles that contribute to the overall elegance of the theatre.[10] 

Fluidity and diversity not only marked the surroundings and style of the theatre, but also the visitor experience, as the space historically allowed working class visitors to temporarily transcend their class status. As a neighbourhood theatre, the Rialto allowed the local Mile-End audience to escape from their lower-middle class lifestyle, acting as a luxurious distraction from the demographic and structural changes that were occurring in Montreal at the time.[11] Upon entering the Rialto theatre, these individuals felt as if they were transported into a world of prestige.[12] This is precisely what the theatres of this period intended to do. Michael McKinnie describes a similar sensation in Good Times, Inc. through the way that the Royal Alexandra Theatre calmed the anxieties of Torontonians.[13] The Royal Alexandra, and other theatres in the city at the time, were used to "salve an anxiety about cities, labour, and public health" during a period where there was “tremendous anxiety in Canada about the speed and shape of globalization”.[14] Using this framework, we can perceive how the Rialto provided a distraction and escape for Montreal citizens during a time of rapid industrialization. As McKinnie suggests, the lavish architecture was “naively reassuring” and allowed people to more easily accept the developments of the neighbourhood.[15] While its ownership changed hands many times, the overall design and purpose of the Rialto remained largely consistent all through the 1930s to the 1970s.[16] In the 1970s, the Rialto catered to an influx of Greek immigration and became a Greek theatre, but this period was short-lived due to the theatre’s impending decline.[17] 

By the 1980s, the Rialto was mostly vacant and beginning to decay, like many movie houses during this period which were in decline due to the lack of renters and the rise of at-home television entertainment.[18] It was very clearly neglected but still considered a landmark.[19] Other theatres throughout the city were bought and gutted to serve other purposes. For example, the Monkland Theatre was turned into a commercial centre and the Rivoli was made into a drug store as well as an office space.[20] Another theatre, the Outremont, which is located near the Rialto, was sold during this time, but the community protested, and it was decided that it had cultural and architectural value and was thus preserved.[21] This brought local press attention to Montreal’s theatres.[22] The public sentiment seemed to be that theatres should be preserved as they added cultural value to the city.[23] This is reminiscent of what would happen to movie theatres later in the late 1990s and into to the early 2000s. In "Haunted places: Montreal’s Rue Ste Catherine and its Cinema Places," Charles Acland outlines the history of Montreal’s cinema palaces which were mostly opened in the 1920s like the Rialto.[24] Much like the traditional theatres in the city, these were all in very close proximity and most had a slow decline and eventual closure except a few, such as the Imperial and the Forum, which were considered iconic.[25] This is very similar to the Rialto’s history, and demonstrates how the Rialto’s purpose needed to be re-signified to adapt to a changing historical context. This new significance was acquired with the push for historical preservation, after a period of contention surrounding the Rialto’s purpose. 

At the end of the 1980s, public opinion began to more explicitly favour the preservation and/or reuse of the city’s remaining theatres.[26] A campaign by the Mile-End Citizens Committee quashed a plan to turn the Rialto into a shopping centre, which subsequently resulted in a city hall designation of the theatre as a cultural object in 1988, followed by heritage status from the provincial government in 1990, and the federal government in 1993.[27] The owner shifted plans to reopen the site as a repertory theatre/art house cinema, promising a mixed lineup of programming that would allow moviegoers to support local cultural heritage.[28] However in 1997, after years of experimenting with programming with no real success, the owner sought to renovate the space into a discotheque, despite historic site designation by all three levels of government.[29] A movement to “save the Rialto” soon sprung up, on the grounds that the discotheque would stray too radically from the theatre’s original identity and undermine its cultural heritage status.[30] These plans were temporarily delayed due to the rejection of an alcohol permit.[31] During the same time period, a new rail line built in the late 1980s resulted in a temporarily thriving Garment District in the Mile End.[32] By the late 1990s, the clothing industry had declined, resulting in a number of abandoned rail houses and industrial buildings that could provide cheap rent, venues, and studio spaces for struggling artists.[33] These conditions would sow the seeds for Mile End’s revival as an artistic hub where the Rialto could once again prosper as a cultural venue.[34] 

The early 2000s once again witnessed failed attempts to revitalize the space of the theatre, first as a nightclub, then as a short-lived steakhouse.[35] In 2010, the Rialto was sold to new owners, Ezio Carosielli and Luisa Sassano, who undertook a massive restoration project with the aim of approximating both the theatre’s original Beaux-Arts façade and Briffa’s exuberant interior decoration.[36] In addition, state-of-the art sound and lighting systems were installed.[37] Reinstating the cultural vocation of the theatre as a host to the arts, the renovated Rialto now makes use of its original multi-purpose design: A venue for private and corporate events, it is also a site for the arts, including live music, dance performances, and film screenings.[38] While the building itself evokes the theatre’s history as a magnificent movie palace, its current function reinforces the contemporary identity of the Mile End. Since the influx of artists and creative industries to the neighbourhood in the 1990s, the Mile End has been regarded as a major centre for cultural production within the city.[39] As Alan Blum notes, creative city programs that focus on the formation of gentrified cultural neighbourhoods can also have the effect of eradicating the very creativity they intend to represent, replacing it instead with a sanitized form of cosmopolitanism and conventionality.[40] While the new owners intend to preserve the theatre’s history, this historical preservation risks undermining the Rialto’s multi-faceted and highly changing nature with the aim to promote the creative city. Although gentrification of the Mile End has set in, especially with the arrival of the tech sector, many proposed developments have been met with opposition from the community.[41] The Mile End Citizen’s Committee, which had earlier fought for the preservation of the Rialto, has proposed various actions to safeguard the neighbourhood from gentrification, such as the conservation of studio space for artists, as well affordable rent for residential and commercial properties.[42]

The Rialto’s role as a performance space bolsters the dynamic, eclectic, and creative identity of the neighbourhood. Throughout its history, the theatre has been marked by diversity and fluidity, which has facilitated its adaptability to changing historical contexts. Unlike so many of the city’s historic movie palaces, it lives on as a historic artefact that communicates a claim to local heritage whilst fulfilling its contemporary role as a site of artistic production and entertainment. A key landmark on Park Avenue, the theatre continues to be shaped by the social character of the community into which it is embedded, and simultaneously contributes to the Mile End’s identity.

  1. Deborah Leslie and Norma M. Rantisi, “Materiality and Creative Production: The Case of the Mile End Neighbourhood in Montreal,” Environment and Planning 42 (2010): 2829, doi:10.1068/a4310.
  2.  “The Rialto Theatre to be Opened Tonight; New Luxurious Movie House,” Montreal Daily Star, December 27, 1924.
  3. Alexandra Heather Gibb, “Beyond the Decline: Revaluing Montreal’s Movie Palaces, ” PhD diss., McGill University, 2015, 134.
  4. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 136.
  5. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 133.
  6. Dane Lanken,“Montreal Movie Palaces,” Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 14, no. 2 (1989): 40.
  7. Lanken, “Montreal Movie Palaces,” 40.
  8. Lanken, “Montreal Movie Palaces,” 41.
  9. Lanken, “Montreal Movie Palaces,” 41.
  10. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 137.
  11. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 134.
  12. Lanken, “Montreal Movie Palaces,” 41.
  13. Michael McKinnie, “Good Times, Inc.: Constructing a Civic Play Economy in the Entertainment District,” in City stages: Theatre and Urban Space in a Global City (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007). 63.
  14. McKinnie, “Good Times, Inc.,” 63.
  15. McKinnie, “Good Times, Inc.,” 63.
  16. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 139.
  17. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 135.
  18. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 140. 
  19. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 141.
  20. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 141.
  21. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 142
  22. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 142.
  23. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 143.
  24. Charles Acland, “Haunted Places: Montréal’s Rue Ste Catherine and its Cinema Spaces,” Screen 44, no. 2 (2003): 144.
  25. Acland, “Haunted Places,” 138-139.
  26.  Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 144.
  27.  Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 157.
  28.  Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 145.
  29.  Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 162.
  30.  Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 162.
  31.  Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 166.
  32.  Chloe Nevitt, “The Mile End’s Musical History,” The McGill Tribune, 2 November 2015, Accessed November 24 2021.
  33. Nevitt, “The Mile End’s Musical History.”
  34. Nevitt, “The Mile End’s Musical History.” 
  35. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline,” 167. 
  36. Gibb, “Beyond the Decline, ” 167.
  37. Rima Elkouri, “Des lumières sur la marquise,” La Presse, 28 avril 2010,
  38. “Halls,” Théâtre Rialto, accessed October 28, 2021,
  39. “Halls.”
  40.  Leslie and Rantisi, “Materiality and Creative Production,” 2824.
  41.  Alan Blum, “The Imaginary of Self-Satisfaction: Reflections on the Platitude of the Creative City,” in Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture, eds. Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010), 67-73.
  42.  Leslie and Rantisi, “Materiality and Creative Production,” 2839.
  43.  Leslie and Rantisi, “Materiality and Creative Production,” 2839.

Acland, Charles. “Haunted Places: Montréal’s Rue Ste Catherine and its Cinema Spaces.” Screen 44, no. 2 (2003): 133-153.

Blum, Alan. “The Imaginary of Self-Satisfaction: Reflections on the Platitude of the Creative City.” In Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture, edited by Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw, 64-95. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010.

Elkouri, Rima. “Des lumières sur la marquise.” La Presse, 28 avril 2010.

Gibb, Alexandra Heather. “Beyond the Decline: Revaluing Montreal’s Movie Palaces.” PhD diss., McGill University, 2015. 

Lanken, Dane. “Montreal Movie Palaces.” Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 14, no. 2 (1989): 40-44.

Lanken, Dane. “The Rialto.” In Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938, edited by Dane Lanken, 108-115. Waterloo: Penumbra Press, 1993. 

Leslie, Deborah and Norma M. Rantisi. “Materiality and Creative Production: The Case of the Mile End Neighbourhood in Montreal.” Environment and Planning 42 (2010): 2824-2841, doi:10.1068/a4310.

McKinnie, Michael. “Good Times, Inc.: Constructing a Civic Play Economy in the Entertainment District.” In City stages: Theatre and Urban Space in a Global City, 48-70. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. 

“Representative Jews Pay Tribute to Jewish Daily Eagle at Dinner.” The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, September 16, 1927. 

“The Rialto Theatre to be Opened Tonight; New Luxurious Movie House.” Montreal Daily Star, December 27, 1924.

Théâtre Rialto. “Halls.” Accessed October 28, 2021.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

"Théâtre Rialto, Montréal." BAnQ numérique, accessed Nov. 21, 2021.

“Superb New Rialto Theatre Fills Long Felt Want In North End District.” The Standard, Montreal, Saturday, December 27, 1924. For transcript of the article celebrating the theatre’s opening, see

“Representative Jews Pay Tribute to Jewish Daily Eagle at Dinner.” The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, September 16, 1927. Google News Archives, accessed November 21, 2021.

"Théâtre Rialto, Montréal." BAnQ numérique, accessed Nov. 21, 2021.

Lanken, Dane. “The Rialto.” In Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938, edited by Dane Lanken, 108-115. Waterloo: Penumbra Press, 1993, p. 114.

"Halls." Théâtre Rialto,

"The Best Montreal Movie Theatres for Your Next Night Out." TimeOut,

"Montreal's Most Interesting Neighbourhoods." CNN Travel, accessed Nov. 21, 2021,