What Killed the Rialto?

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When I was a child in the 1970s I got to experience the cultural moment that every millennial dreams of. I saw  Star Wars — I refuse to call it “A New Hope” — in its original theatrical run. As an adult with more sophisticated tastes, I can easily point out why Star Wars isn’t a very good movie. But as a 10-year-old it got me so excited that, between the moment when Darth Vader choked the life out of the rebel captain to the destruction of the Death Star, I had to go to the bathroom at least 6 times. That feeling, that sense of a larger world opening up right before your eyes, was what cinema was all about. Had I seen Star Wars on a laptop via Netflix, or a cell phone, or even on a wide screen TV, I doubt it would have had the same effect.

Now the Rialto Theater in downtown Westfield, New Jersey, a small city of about 30,000 people 20 miles west of New York, is gone, probably for good. I saw better movies than Star Wars at the Rialto. I saw the original Rocky. I saw Saturday Night Fever, with my parents (it was rated R and after the horrific rape scene in the back of Tony Manero’s car, I think they were sorry they brought me). I was not allowed to see Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It was also rated R. The 18-year-old girl selling tickets refused to believe that I was a 23-year-old who had grown up in New York City and had never bothered to get a driver’s license. That was my story and I’m still sticking to it. Later, after I turned 18, I saw The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Amadeus, and a now mostly forgotten old film called The Mission that above all made me want to learn the Oboe. I never did. I remember seeing a revival of The Graduate sometime in the late 1970s. I was well under legal age, but somehow I got in.

To be honest, the Rialto Theater in Westfield never really meant very much to me. All through the 1970s and 1980s it was exactly what it is today, a rather full commercial film house that played conventional Hollywood blockbusters. What really excited me as a boy was getting on the train and going to Newark or Plainfield to see Kung Fu movies. They never played in suburbia. Bruce Lee was too hot for Westfield or Cranford, too radical, too ethnic. After they made the mistake of showing The Warriors down the road a few miles in Roselle Park, and it caused riots in some of the local high schools, the ticket takers in Newark and Plainfield even started checking IDs. There were over a dozen local movie theaters, and while you could see porn — the Five Points “Jerry Lewis” theater in Five Points in Union played the film Caligula for over a year — there was not a karate chop or a roundhouse kick to be had. Kung Fu movies had been effectively banned in Union County, New Jersey, not for me of course because I was an urban kid with no fear of the big city, but certainly for anybody in conservative, Republican Westfield. The rich, preppy kids in that town were afraid of anything with any melanin at all, even Italians.

Eventually, in the 1980s, the Westfield Rialto split up into a multiplex. That was probably the moment it was doomed. That glorious big screen that made Star Wars such a different experience in the theater than it was at home on HBO was gone, replaced by 6 smaller screens that could easily be replicated in the comfort of your home by a wide screen TV and a good sound system. I suppose that if the owners had transformed the Rialto into something like New York’s Film Forum, it might have worked. It’s almost impossible to see anything outside of the mainstream in suburban New Jersey, and going into the city adds a 16 dollar New Jersey Transit ticket to the price of the movie ticket. But there’s a reason the Film Forum is in New York City and not Westfield, New Jersey. The audience for “good” cinema these days is fairly limited. It takes a megalopolis of 7 million people, not a small city of 30,000, to generate enough ticket sales for a theatrical run of the latest high art film from Iran or Eastern Europe, or God, forbid, France. In the 2010s, the Westfield Rialto played exactly what they play at the multiplex on Route 22 in Mountainside or Route 1 in Linden, Marvel Universe comic book movies. It’s probably more fun just to play video games.

In the early 2000s, when they “revitalized” downtown Westfield by giving big corporate chains like Starbucks and Victoria’s Secrets tax breaks, and basically turned the whole town into a big open air shopping mall, they decided to to keep the Rialto around. My guess is they thought “well this is a real, walkable downtown so we need a real movie theater,” but it had long outlived its usefulness and nobody bothered making any repairs. These days, when those same corporate chains that grabbed so much market share in the 1990s and 2000s are giving way to Amazon and Grubhub, they’re also scaling back. Victoria’s Secret is gone. Starbucks is mostly a place to pick up mobile orders on your cell phone. The rents and property taxes are still high and its still almost impossible to find a place to park. So vacancies in downtown Westfield are on the rise. The final goal of neoliberal capitalism is probably for nobody ever to interact with anybody else in real life.

vacancy

But none of that is what killed the Westfield Rialto. It probably would have gone on forever showing men (and women) in tights getting into CGI fights if not for a greedy landlord. The landlord, who the media seems reluctant to name, stopped making repairs. The theater company stopped paying the rent, and that was that. I suppose they’ll replace the Rialto with mixed use condos. You can never have too many of those.

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