Souvenir of Rivoli, cinema palace in the city center

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As a movie buff, I was worried that the pandemic would cause our only movie theater to shut down for good. I was not alone. Over the past year, Hollywood has given a lot of thought to the future of distribution and exhibition. However, given the crowds I saw at a recent screening of “A Quiet Place Part II” at AMC, it looks like theaters still have customers! Despite all the glorious advancements in streaming technology, going to the movies, it seems, fortunately remains a part of America’s DNA.

This is evidenced locally by the many cinemas that once dotted the Delaware County landscape. In addition to the current AMC Muncie 12, moviegoers had the choice of Delaware Cinema, Northwest Cinema, United Artists, and Kerasotes / AMC7. The Muncie Drive-In and Ski-Hi offered movies outside. Even Gaston and Albany had small theaters during the last years of Hollywood’s golden age.

Although they did not all exist at the same time, Muncie town center was once home to many cinemas, including the Star (Hoosier), Strand, Wysor Grand, Uptown, Orpheum, Theatorium, Royal, Majestic (Liberty ), Vaudelle, Columbia, Cristal et Lyrique.

However, the Rivoli was Muncie’s flagship cinema in the mid-20th century. For 60 years, the Rivoli have screened films on the northeast corner of Mulberry and Adams streets. Construction of the theater began in 1925 by the Fitzpatrick-McElroy Company of Chicago. Exhibitors started in 1911 with a small open-air theater and grew through the Roaring Twenties, closely matching the exponential growth of early Hollywood.

The beginning of the Rivoli: “A bit of old Spain …”

Fitzpatrick-McElroy spared no expense in building the Rivoli. Just before the theater opened, the Muncie Evening Press wrote: “A small fortune has been spent just on lavish furnishings, and luxury surrounds it on all sides. … A bit of old Spain located in the center of Muncie, is this palace of images – and a palace that it certainly looks like when you step into the lobby, walking on soft velor rugs and gazing at the hung walls of the wealthy tapestries and adorned with Spanish tapestries. mirrors and beautiful wrought iron lamps … passing from the foyer to the auditorium, another image of extravagance presents itself to the eye, with the walls made up of a succession of arches, each hung with heavy silk hangings . A palace indeed.

Considering the use of flammable nitrate films in early Hollywood, Fitzpatrick-McElroy made a concerted effort to flame retardant the Rivoli. Although the developers used little wood, they doubled asbestos; known then as a safe flame retardant. The original screening room was also housed in a giant metal box with louvers that closed in the event of a fire.

In the early years, the Rivoli could accommodate 2,000 people in an ultramodern, air-conditioned auditorium. A huge 10,000-watt marquee stood above the entrance, announcing the weekly show times. Mornings and night shows cost 10-25 cents and Sunday movies 10-50 cents. The Rivoli was also a full-fledged theater hall, with a stage and rigging for vaudeville acts, which usually performed on Sundays. For music, the Rivoli was built with a $ 25,000 Wurlitzer Style E organ to accompany “silent” films. In two years, Fitzpatrick-McElroy updated the theater to add sound.

The Rivoli’s inauguration took place on Saturday April 16, 1927, with an extravagant program featuring the Five Anderson Sisters. The next day, Easter Sunday, the Rivoli opened with no less than five vaudeville acts. The first movie to play at the Rivoli was “The Perfect Sap”, a silent comedy starring Ben Lyon and Pauline Starke.

In 1929, all Fitzpatrick-McElroy theaters, including the Rivoli, were sold to Paramount Pictures’ exhibition subsidiary, Publix Theaters Corporation. However, rapid expansion and the Great Depression quickly forced Publix into bankruptcy. In 1933, the Rivoli and Wysor Grand, which Publix also owned, were sold to Theatrical Managers, Incorporated.

Theater managers (sometimes Y&W theater managers) eventually purchased the Strand, Hoosier and Uptown theaters; all were operated by a single city manager. A few years later, The Muncie Star wrote that at this time, the Rivoli was hosting premieres “with extravagant preparations, spotlights, dressy and tuxedoed guests, flowers, and remote radio shows that thrilled locals. clients of Rivoli “.

The decline of the theater

City managers have made several modifications over the years, including a $ 20,000 curved panoramic Magniglow Astrolite screen in 1953, which was installed for “The Robe”. Another major renovation took place in 1968, which added a second auditorium awkwardly cut off from the main theater and part of the lobby.

Two years later, the Rivoli was sold to David Battas Jr., a former bailiff and city manager of Theatrical Managers. Battas operated the Rivoli until 1978 when he sold the theater under contract to Vore Cinemas, although he retained ownership of the building. Vore in turn sold the Rivoli to JCC Enterprises in 1980 and in 1981 it was sold back to Tudor Amusements. After Tudor’s failure, the theater returned to Battas, who then contracted with Bob Butler. But when the decline in ticket sales caused Butler to be late in paying, Battas closed the theater and sold the building. The last films to play at the Rivoli were “An American Tail” and “The Morning After” on January 11, 1987.

Minnetrista Corporation purchased the Rivoli de Battas and demolished it to build the structure that currently houses the Ball Brothers Foundation, the George and Frances Ball Foundation, and the Ed and Virginia Ball Foundation. Rivoli’s terracotta cockades have been incorporated into the exterior of the new building as a tribute. I should also note that Minnetrista Corp. had nothing to do with the Minnetrista we know today, but was an investment firm established by the heirs of Edmund B. Ball and named in honor of Minnetrista Boulevard.

Displaced anger

Back then and even occasionally today, there was an inappropriate public outcry over the loss of Rivoli and the unfair criticism leveled against Edmund’s heirs. At the end of the 1980s, the building in Rivoli was in poor condition and full of asbestos. In addition, the Munsonians did not visit the independent theater enough to keep it afloat.

The descendants of Edmund Ball, one of the many Ball families I might add, did what they always have; they have invested their resources to make Muncie viable and attractive. Their efforts at the corner of Mulberry and Adams saved us from another downtown parking lot. Frank E. Ball, president of Minnetrista Corp. at the time, summed up the family’s interests bluntly when he told a reporter, “We want to revitalize downtown. “David Battas even wrote a letter to the editor of the Muncie Star suggesting” To those who want to save the Rivoli from ‘evil’ businessmen, I suggest you could have regrouped, put your money as we have. done and buy it. “

The real culprit behind the disappearance of the Rivoli, as with much of downtown Muncie at the end of the 20th century, was us. It was the everyday Munsonians who put it aside for suburban theaters. We chose the “car friendly” culture of McGalliard, Tillotson and Madison over the radiant pedestrian blocks of Walnut, Main and Jackson. The blame for the vast tundra of parking lots that encrust the downtown core today lies entirely with us.

A modest dream

We cannot fix the mistakes of the past, but we can fix them in the future. For example, if I ever won the lottery, the first thing I would do would be to put the windows back in the Muncie Field House. My second attempt would be to build a downtown movie theater in one of the parking lots around Walnut Street. I would build the most ridiculous and ostentatious fine art cinema the 21st century has ever seen, mainly to make up for our lost courthouse in 1887. The entrance to this magnificent cinema would be flanked by oversized statues of Mary Jane Croft and ‘Emily Kimbrough.

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Croft, originally from Muncie, starred as an actress in the mid-20th century. She is best known for her role as Betty Ramsey in “I Love Lucy”. Emily Kimbrough, of course, was a famous journalist and writer from Muncie. His bestseller, “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”, was adapted in 1944 into a film of the same name.

I would call my theater the Cynda Williams Grand. As you probably know, Cynda Williams is the stage name of the very talented and strikingly beautiful actress, singer and writer, Cynthia Ann Williams. Williams ‘leading role was that of Clarke Bentancourt in Spike Lee’s 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues”. Granddaughter of the late Muncie civil rights leader, the Reverend JC Williams, Cynda spent part of her formative years in Magic City, graduating from Northside High School in 1984 and Ball State University in 1989.

The theater would be a fitting tribute to these three Muncie artists, while adding another convenience to the downtown Renaissance now underway in our beautiful city. I’ll let you know when Powerball luck hits, but until then we can all dream, right?

Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana”. For more information on the Delaware County Historical Society, visit histoiredelawarecounty.org.


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