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The Movies: When talkies came to Columbia's Rialto Theater

Jim recalls some great exhibitors who made the Rialto a great theater: R. L. Wethington, John Ritchie Walker, Clay Smith, Bunny Shively, Vernon Yarberry, Alfred Harper and F.X. Merkely
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By JIM

In the late summer of 1929, R.L. Wethington, who had managed the Rialto theater since its opening the year before, sold the operation to John Ritchie Walker and Clay Smith, those gentlemen taking over on the first day of September. Just over year later, Mr. Smith sold his interest to Bunny Shively, and the News reported that Messrs. Walker & Shively were "investigating talkie apparatus and may install such equipment in the near future." However, Mr. Shively's association with the entertainment industry soon ended, and by the time 1931 rolled around, Mr. Walker's partner was Vernon Yarberry.

Hardly had the new year taken its first full breath when the Rialto, then barely three years old, got a major make-over. The January 6 edition of the newspaper announced that Messrs. Walker & Yarberry had decided with certainty to drop coin on refitting their entertainment palace to show the newfangled talking photoplays.


The update entailed rewiring the entire theater, padding the walls to dampen echoes, installing new screens, and investing in a Photophone (brand name) audio-visual projector to play the up-to-date movies. By the time the announcement hit the News, the new equipment already was on order out of Indianapolis and due to arrive the following week, accompanied by "expert workers" to do the installation. (The Photophone was a recently developed use for a technology that had been around for a while; it had available commercially as a sound-on-film system for a relatively short time.)

The News, constitutionally unable to abstain from a bit of puffery, commended the owners for their foresight, then opined that such a modern set up was "assured of success;" that it would "eliminate a lower type of entertainment to which all small towns are subjected at times. . .;" and that "The opening of such a place of entertainment will be a distinct contribution to a bigger and better Columbia."

The article concluded by stating, probably quite correctly, that "the entire town and countryside can hardly wait to hear" the new marvel.

Apparently, the equipment arrived on time and the installation went smoothly, as the next edition of the News carried an ad proclaiming talkies would be shown beginning on Monday, January 19. At the time, the Rialto showed four different movies a week, once each evening (oft-times along with a short feature) on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, along with a Saturday matinee.

Unfortunately, the paper didn't report how audiences reacted to the first screenings, and none of the community correspondents made mention of it in the following weeks. However, in early May the paper commented that since the new equipment had been installed, "the crowds have been increasing all the time."

Each of the first two talkies shown at the Rialto (see accompanying ad) were produced in 1930. "Rain or Shine" (a farcical parody of the so-called "circus melodrama" genre) was directed by a then little-known but rising star in filmdom's behind-the-camera scene, Frank Capra.

In late April or early May, John Ritchie Walker sold his interest in the movie house to Alfred Harper, who then in late November sold his interest to F.X. Merkley.

For the record: the first known "talking pictures" in Adair County were shown as part of KaDell & Kritchfield's "big show" attractions at the 1910 fair. For the sum of 15c (or 25c for the better-heeled who wished to have a premium viewing position), one could marvel at ". . .the 'Camerphone.' This machine is almost life itself, and sings, talks and plays musical instruments with the pictures with a life-like reality that is almost uncanny. It is truly the acme of electrical appliances." So stated an article reprinted in the News (from the Taylor County Inquirer) just before the Fair started.

The very early talking picture shows such as those displayed by KaDell & Kritchfield were achieved by synchronizing a movie projector with a phonograph machine. Generally, both synchronization and sound quality left something to be desired--but still, it was screen motion accompanied by sound!


This story was posted on 2017-12-30 22:46:25
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Jim: Ad for Rialto first talking picture show



2017-12-31 - Columbia, KY - Photo from the collection of JIM.

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