The Rivoli Theatre was built in 1927 under the watchful eye of Carl Laemmle Jr., President of Universal Pictures Corporation and its movie theatre division, Universal Chain Theatrical Enterprises, Inc, as the first Universal Studios owned theatre in Indiana.
The Rivoli opened on September 15, 1927, managed by Willis W. Grist Jr. The city of Indianapolis witnessed a new era of entertainment with the grand opening of the theatre. The Inaugural Program proclaimed the Rivoli would be a "new home of happiness for the entire family."
When it opened the Rivoli was a beauty to behold. The theatre was designed by architect Henry Ziegler Dietz in the Spanish Mission Revival style, including iron brackets, small second floor faux balconies and the pent roof of red clay tile. The theatre was truly a beautiful structure and easily showed the $250,000 that was spent on her creation. The architect paid attention to detail, using brick, Indiana limestone, fine sweet gum woodworking, leaded glass windows with upper window sashes and solid brass door fittings. Each one of the upper window sashes above the front doors to the theatre contains a calligraphic "R" for Rivoli.
A beautiful interior
A spacious vestibule led to the highly decorative lobby in which the terrazzo floors were made of Georgia white and Riviera black marble. The auditorium had five aisles that divided the seating. It was built to accumulate 1,500 patrons, which even today is considered large for a neighborhood theatre.
The seats were originally upholstered with leather backings and cushions. The iron stanchions of the seats featured two neoclassic pilasters, adding to the overall style of the auditorium. The walls of the auditorium were finished in a gold decorative plastered egg and dart pattern in soft green and gold. Draperies of olive green trimmed in gold were hung in panels in the side walls.
There was a dome in the auditorium, which had a diameter of 55 feet and the height of 7 feet. The dome had a tulip pattern bordered around the edge and small lights, which flickered to resemble starlight and two organ chambers, located just off of stage right and stage left, that had intricate wooden and plaster grillwork covering their fronts. Under each organ chamber was a faux balcony supported by scroll-like brackets.
Not only was the theatre designed for showing motion pictures, but also for theatrical stage production, having the largest stage in Indianapolis at the time of its construction, back stage area, dressing rooms beneath the stage and an orchestra pit located in front of the stage.
The acoustics were second to none. The famous organist Desa Byrd found the acoustics to be so extraordinary that she recorded two albums in the Rivoli.
The Rivoli Theatre itself is located in a large building, which includes four storefronts, two on each side of the theatre entrance, and four apartments upstairs. Above the outer lobby doors is a three sided marquee suspended from the second floor by iron braces attached to the facade.
Above the marquee is another vertical marquee (called a "blade" or an "upright") reading Rivoli along with the classic Tragedy and Comedy masks. Although the vertical marquee is not original to the theatre, it has become a historically significant part of the exterior of the building.
The Rivoli has been closed several times during her lifetime and has survived several private owners. Universal sold most of its theatre holdings, including the Rivoli, in 1937.
Universal sold the theatre to Joseph Cantor, who operated the theatre for live performances and showing motion pictures. Mr. Cantor owned the Rivoli until 1952, when the theatre was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Forest Kraning, who showed second run movies and concerts on the stage. They added a new ticket office, repainted the interior, redecorated the lobby and restored the marquee. Mr. and Mrs. Kraning owned and operated the theatre until they sold it to Thomas Ferree in 1970.
Mr. Ferree installed the new 1,247 pipe organ in 1966 while the theater was still owned by the Kraning's and the organ music inspired him to purchase the theatre when it was available for sale. Mr. Ferree remodeled the stage in 1972 to better accommodate live concerts.
During these time performers such as Climax Blues Band, Kansas, Golden Earring and Lynyrd Skynyrd appeared at the Rivoli. In November of 1974, screen legend Gloria Swanson made a personal appearance at the Rivoli to talk about her 60 year film career and also to introduce the film "Queen Kelly", the last silent movie she starred in 1929.
In 1976, Mr. Ferree sold the theatre to Charles Chulchian. Mr. Chulchian operated the theatre as a movie house and eventually closed the theater in 1992. The Rivoli Theatre was acquired by the Rivoli Center for the Performing Arts, Inc in 2007, and restoration efforts started.
The future of the Rivoli is to once again be a cultural center for the city of Indianapolis, bringing culture and revitalization to the Near Eastside on the East 10th Street corridor.