Center Stage

NB|AZ® helps historic theater breathe new life into downtown Tucson

As the sun descends in the western Arizona sky, the lights on Congress Street flicker and, just like that, downtown Tucson comes alive. In the past decade, new businesses—from restaurants and bars, to retail shops and art spaces—have cropped up along the busy thoroughfare, breathing new energy into this college town turned cultural landmark.

At the heart of the Tucson’s renaissance is the historic Rialto Theatre, which will celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2020. Impressive, especially for a small community theater that was nearly demolished in 1984 when a boiler explosion caused serious damage to the building.

“The theater had been condemned, but was then purchased by some investors in the mid-1990s,” says Julie Ragland, development director of the Rialto Theatre Foundation. “They reopened it as a concert venue, but it wasn’t in the best shape and was in desperate need of improvements.”

In 2004, the City of Tucson purchased the Rialto Theatre (under the auspices of the Rio Nuevo revitalization project), which then underwent an extensive renovation. The building was then leased to the Rialto Theatre Foundation, which was founded in 2005 and continues to operate the theater today.

“We’re so fortunate the theater was saved, especially now that downtown has experienced a renaissance of art and culture and food, and is really being revitalized,” Ragland says. “It’s wonderful that we still have our historic theater here.”

The Rialto Theatre showcases artists across many genres of music and performance, from rock and electronic, to indie and folk, to comedy and country. The theater also hosts a number of national acts—such as Ben Folds, Regina Spektor, and Elvis Costello—thanks to its high rankings in polls for the Top 100 Major Club Venues, 100 Greatest American Music Venues and top venues by ticket sales.

“We’re ranking above a lot of similar size venues in bigger cities, which is indicative of the amount of programming we’re doing,” say Ragland.

The Rialto Theatre’s impact on downtown Tucson can best be seen in the amount of people it brings to the city. According to Ragland, an estimated 120,000 people come to downtown annually. “The impact of this has been significant,” she says. “It’s been great to see the community come together and get really excited about what we’re doing. The Rialto is an exciting place for people to visit and it’s an exciting part of what’s going on downtown.”

The foundation is in the beginning stages of launching a capital campaign to raise funds for major improvements, including renovating and expanding interior areas, reconfiguring the bars, moving the sound mix to improve sound quality, and improvements to the venue’s floors.

Ragland credits the purchase of the Rialto Theatre from Rio Nuevo as a significant step in the evolution of the theater and the foundation. “With financial backing from National Bank of Arizona, the foundation was able to pay off the lease around 50 years ahead of schedule,” she says. “This has allowed us to be autonomous and do these improvements and renovations we’re raising money to do.”

The capital campaign will run for three years, culminating with the theater’s 100-year anniversary in 2020. Ragland says there will special events and concerts to honor the occasion, as well as an opportunity to support local artists.

“It’s a special time for the foundation right now. We’re under the leadership of a strong board of directors and executive director Curtis McCrary,” she says. “We’re on the up and up, and NB|AZ has really helped us get to this point.”