MPLS History – The Rialto Theater

A great place to research history is through the Minnesota Historical Society website. I spent a lot of time combing through the photo archives looking for pictures of recognizable areas near my house, but also for photos that were just plain interesting. That’s where I ran across these photos, circa 1920, of a theater after a fire had been extinguished. The caption called it the “New Rialto Theater” at 735 East Lake St. in Minneapolis. The event obviously occurred during the winter months because the theater’s exterior has been decorated with icicles as a result of the efforts to put out the blaze. It’s a strikingly beautiful sight. So I dug around looking for more information on this theater.  It turns out the theater had a fascinating arc of an existence.

The Rialto Theater opened sometime in the late 1910’s. The earliest photo I could find is from 1917 and could be a grand opening photo. It seems that the theater was later re-designed by the famed Twin Cities duo of Jacob J. (Jack) Liebenberg and Seeman Kaplan. This pair is responsible for a number of buildings in the area including the Uptown Theater (which is still operating), the Grenada Theater (now operating as the Suburban World Theater) and the Hollywood Theater on Johnson Street NE (which has been vacant for years, but is perpetually targeted for redevelopment). They also designed a large synagogue on Dupont Avenue that is now a Universalist church.

The Rialto Theater operated for years as a neighborhood movie house and apparently attracted some good business in that time. It had a single screen and about 750 seats for patrons. As I mentioned before, it also survived a nasty winter fire circa 1920, which yielded the beautiful pictures.

The story of the Rialto takes a dark turn sometime in the 1960’s. During this time, Lake Street began to turn into a more seedy place and drugs and prostitution began to put down roots. Also around this time, a man by the name of Ferris Alexander appeared. Alexander opened a newsstand downtown near Hennepin and 4th that sold adult books and magazines. This newsstand gained many customers and Alexander was able to build this modest (or immodest) base into a large, far-reaching porn empire in the Twin Cities. He opened a string of adult bookstores in the area and also purchased a few small theaters to convert to X-rated movies houses. The Rialto was one of those theaters.

So from the late 60’s to the 1980’s, the Rialto was a seedy adult theater. Alexander grew his empire to an astounding level during that time while always being the target of various city and community protests. Then, in the late 80’s, he finally found himself on the wrong end of federal charges of obscenity, racketeering and tax fraud. (Looking around at the landscape of media today, it seems amazing that the federal government leveled charges for “obscenity”.) Prosecuted by future Clinton prosecutor Ken Starr, Alexander was convicted and sent to prison for six years. His assets were seized, including $9 million dollars and 13 theaters and bookstores – including the Rialto.

Soon after the seizure, the Rialto was demolished and a parking lot was built in its place and remains today.

Ferris Alexander died in 2003 in a Wayzata nursing home at the age of 84 with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

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