Unfinished Business: Reviving the Rivoli Theatre 

The supposedly haunted theater is being transformed into a rehearsal and performance space for artists.

  • rivolitheatre.org

When I first heard about the Rivoli Theatre I was looking for a ghost story. After all, the historic theatre has been collecting them for nearly a century in the Near East side. Residents and written accounts tell the legend of “Lady Rivoli,” an apparitional patron who haunts the auditorium. Rumors of missing work equipment and even an Indian burial ground underneath the theatre have been attributed to the Rivoli’s history.

The biggest ghost of them all has unfortunately become the building itself. What was once the epitome of Hollywood glamor in the 1920s (later a musical hub in the 1970s) is now a vacant reminder of neglect. The empty marquee looks out at the 10th Street traffic, and behind the shaded windows in Spanish Mission style is the hollow auditorium that has been silent for over twenty years.

But there is more to the story than just folklore, and it isn’t over yet. The Rivoli is one ghost with some serious unfinished business, and members of the community are ready to get down to it.

The Rivoli Center for the Performing Arts has exciting plans to transform the Rivoli into a rehearsal and performance space for artists around the city. President of the Board, Jim Kelly, tells me they need to raise between $11-14 million to complete the project.

“It’s not saving a lost cause, it’s saving a landmark,” says Kelly. He grew up in the area and remembers when the theatre charged only fifty cents for a movie, popcorn and a soda. “And you always got a nickel back,” he laughs. His memories drive his passion and shared vision for the theatre.

The board has been working with East 10th Street Civic Association, Indiana Landmarks and the Arts Council of Indianapolis toward their goals. Once completed, the theatre will rent out rehearsal space for theatre and dance groups and provide about 600 seats on the floor and 150 or so in the balcony (roughly 750 total). The theater originally had 1,500 seats, but that number will drop because of ADA regulations. Renovation will extend to the 4 apartments above the building and the nearby Dearborn Building. All of this is part of a larger goal to turn East 10th into a hub for the arts.

As Kelly said, the Rivoli is a landmark in the memory of Indianapolis. Universal Studios built the Rivoli in 1927, making it the first in Indiana. The superior acoustics and lavish interior brought movies and musicians from all over the country. Gloria Swanson, Lynryd Skynyrd, Kansas, Bette Davis, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many others made appearances at the Rivoli throughout the years. But as the years passed, the theatre changed owners and became a venue for porn (“skin flicks”) in 1976 before it closed its doors in 1992.

Mark Dollase, Vice President of Indiana Landmarks, remembers concerts at the Rivoli and has been working with the Council for the past decade to bring it back and better than before.

“I think that everyone in the community has the potential to benefit if the Rivoli is repurposed and restored,” says Dollase. “The arts-driven community development that you see in Fountain Square and along Massachusetts Avenue can find a niche along East 10th Street. Historic preservation is about looking forward, not back.”

Things started moving in that direction in 2003 when advocates spoke out on behalf of the theatre. In 2004, the Rivoli made it onto the National Register for Historic Places and soon after received funding to replace the roof over the auditorium. But the work is far from over, and they need the support of the arts community to finish renovations. The board is looking for grant writers, advocates and artists to help bring life to the East Side.

“There are voices in this neighborhood, and we need to give them a stage,” says Kelly. One of those young voices speaking out for the Rivoli is writer and board member Dawn Olsen.

“Indianapolis has seen a lot of urban renewal over the last few years. Specifically, 10th Street has been boosted by the 2012 Super Bowl Legacy Project and the designation as a federal Promise Zone. However, the area still needs work.” says Olsen. “If the Rivoli were revitalized, it would be a cornerstone to an area that has seen a lot of blight over the years.”

It is a collaboration of history and art. Even for residents who were not alive to make those memories, the theatre still holds a sense of magic.

Olsen tells me her fascination with the Rivoli is in its history.

“When I think about what the theatre must have been like at that time, I think about the organ, the black-and-white movies, the mellow jazz, the marquee lights. It’s kind of dreamy, really, and it’s the type of nostalgia that makes people want to step into the past,” says Olsen.

As for the ghost stories that drew me to the theatre, they are not going anywhere.

“This time of year, we always hear about “Lady Rivoli”, an often discussed but rarely seen apparition—if only she came with a checkbook!” says Dollase.

If you are interested in learning more about the Rivoli or want to get involved, the Rivoli Center for the Performing Arts will have a vendor booth at the Irvington Fall Festival on Saturday, October 31st.

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