A small, but striking piece of Dublin’s cultural heritage was sold recently for 2.7 million to an unnamed European family. Rialto’s art deco cinema has lain in a state of disrepair for several years. Patrick McCusker takes a look.
It’s been stripped of a marquee, and a vulgar façade festooned with fly posters hides the entrance and windows where once tickets were sold. A fire gutted the interior in 2015.
The only indicator it was ever a cinema are its steeped motifs and the fading letters RIALT above the boarded windows and “SOLD” sign advertising its potential to investors. The “O” not being replaced is the final indignity for such a once-proud building. Even now, in its state of ruin, it looks utterly alien amidst a row of terraced redbrick houses, takeaways and phone repair shops. What must it have looked like when it opened on the 5th of November 1936 to great fanfare and the billing of “Dublin’s Suburban Super Cinema”?
It could seat 1,600 people and provide parking for 200 cars and 100 bikes. All of this was in the heart of a bustling community housing hundreds of thousands of people. It wasn’t even the only cinema in the neighbourhood, with the Leinster Cinema in Dolphin’s Barn opening just two days prior. The first movie was a wholesome big band musical called Everything Is Rhythm, which only adds to the feeling it could never happen now.
However, even at the time the Rialto was acknowledged as something special. The opening was attended by Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne, and the cinema was described by one contemporary reporter as “one of the most original and attractive schemes, combining outline, character, comfort and beauty with the dignity and strength of modern architecture”. Situated as it was amidst a working-class area at one of the most difficult and impoverished times in Irish history, even sitting there to see a film must have felt like an escape from a dreary and restrictive routine regardless of what was on the screen.
Unfortunately, the Rialto couldn’t survive the general decline in picture-going which saw most of Dublin’s cinemas close down between the 1950s and the 1980s. Even the last movie shown there reflects changing times and tastes – Heroes of Telemark was a violent WW2 drama starring the boozy Richard Harris.
It had a second life as a car showroom for William Morris, and later, Nissan for many years. However, they too eventually moved on and left a gaping hole in the area. Once big enough to hold 1,600 people and later a full car showroom, it was inevitable that it was going to be conspicuous once it fell vacant.
It’s hard not to greet the news of its sale with mixed feelings. The days of beautiful Art Deco picture houses may have gone the way of cowboy films and second features, but their glamour remains. The selling agent Conor Mulcrone of BNP Paribas Real Estate’s pitch to prospective buyers claimed that it would suit retail or residential purposes, offices, a hotel or medical use.
All of these have their place, but the Rialto is one of the few Dublin cinemas from the golden age of the movies to survive the bulldozer. James Joyce’s ill-fated Volta is now Penney’s on Henry Street, and the Rialto’s one-time neighbour the Leinster Cinema on Dolphin’s Barn is now housing.
This is to say nothing of the many lost fleapits which are now a backyard, a shop or even driven over by cars. The most startling insight in George Kearns’ and Patrick Maguire’s exhaustive The A-Z of Dublin Cinemas is just how many have left no trace whatsoever bar the records of a cinema licence, tax receipts and ads for screenings. In some cases nobody can even remember a cinema being on the site, let alone having seen a film there.
If the Rialto is demolished to make way for apartments or a supermarket, so does part of Dublin’s architectural heritage and a reminder of the ambition and vision that once saw a touch of glamour and escapism come to a part of the city that badly needed it.