The Biggest Little Theater in PennsylvaniaJan 01, 2023 09:56AM ● By Karey Solomon
To enter the historic Rialto Theatre on Main Street in Canton, you must step across the Centennial Memorial Plaza, an apron of commemorative pavers whose sections are inscribed with the names of those who contributed to the renaissance of this community icon. That, in part, explains what the Rialto means to the borough. It took sweat equity, creativity, creative funding, community support, and a lot of heart to revive this much-loved icon.
When it opened as the Crawford Theatre in 1912, movies were silent, save for the orchestral accompaniment and various vocalizations from the often awe-struck audience. (Those movies are coming back May 4, 2023, for you nostalgia buffs, BTW.) Back then, some who watched The Perils of Pauline and other cinematic dramas of the day were the locals who worked in logging. Others had come by train to imbibe the mineral-rich waters of nearby Minnequa Springs, named for a Native American maiden who was healed from a serious illness after drinking this water. Some were members of Chas Lee’s London Show, a traveling circus whose acrobats, gymnasts, trapeze artists, and clowns spent their winters in Canton, along with their performing dogs and horses, who were presumably less interested in movies. Some locals ran away to join the circus. Some performers retired in Canton.
For thirty-five years of the “talkie” era, the theater, renamed the Rialto, was owned by Lou Smithgall Anderson. Known as “Aunt Lou” to much of Canton, as well as to her real niece, Mary Beth Schoonover, she was known for her kindness and insistence on strict decorum while movies were being shown. Mary Beth’s father was a projectionist—at that time, in order to work the complicated equipment, which included preventing hot lights from igniting the flammable celluloid, movie projectionists needed training and certification. Back in those days, a dime would get you into the movie with a glass of soda and some popcorn to enjoy while you watched the film. Then, as now, the price of admission barely covered a theater’s operating costs, so an audience who visited the concession stand helped the bottom line.
As a high school student, Mary Beth worked as an usher. She was equipped with a flashlight to show patrons to their seats, and was charged with interrupting over-enthusiastic courting couples and intercepting spitballs before they could be launched to damage the movie screen. If rowdiness persisted, Aunt Lou would stop the film and emerge to quell the disturbance.
“She was a tiny woman, but a force to be reckoned with,” Mary Beth remembers.
By the 1980s, when Bridget Callahan, the Rialto’s current manager, was growing up, the theater had been shuttered. Those in search of a movie on the big screen had to travel to Elmira or Williamsport. In the 1990s, the Bradford County Regional Arts Council took over the Rialto and two other theaters. The group accomplished major renovations, including moving murals by Scott Griswold depicting Canton’s history from the Packard Hotel to the Rialto’s walls. Scott, who died in 2015, was a Canton-born artist who painted portraits of the rich and famous (Bill Clinton and Secretariat) as well as homegrown Bradford County scenes.
“They were wonderful stewards and did so much,” Bridget says. About a year ago, a local 501(c)(3), Rekindle the Spirit, took over to make the Rialto a hometown attraction for a new century. Mary Beth’s husband, Tom, heads up the board of directors. Everyone insists Tom’s the best popcorn maker. Bridget, who’d worked as a booking agent for musical groups, was hired as manager.
New seating was installed, with seats offset so everyone gets a great view in this 152-seat venue. Placards on most seats commemorate contributors who made the renovation possible, one piece at a time.
As the theater once again becomes a hub for the community, it’s become the venue for more than movies, though those are again shown every weekend. For Thursday evening Girl’s Night Out events, the Rialto partners with eateries in Canton and Troy. A popular chick flick film is the main attraction, likely to be accompanied by a wine-tasting courtesy of a local winery.
“Women say they can guarantee they’ll laugh and have a good time,” Bridget says.
On Mondays, gamers can plug their systems into the big screen to compete with larger-than-life digital foes. It’s popular, to say the least, so reservations are required.
The theater becomes a concert hall February 17, 2023, when internationally-known blues guitarist Gabe Stillman will take the stage. The headliner at the Norwegian Bluesfest, Stillman was the youngest recipient of the Gibson Guitarist of the World award. In March, local star Ike Bowers will perform, and Elvis (impersonator, Rubin Castillo) will be “in the building” in April. Silent movies return with the Silent Movie Paragon Ragtime Orchestra on May 4. Holidays are celebrated with annual events like the Halloween movie Scare-a-thon and a batch of family-friendly activities centered on Christmas. Small theater groups have used the stage for performances. Many of these events happen because a business or individual helps underwrite or sponsor part of the cost. Tickets are available at the Rialto, at Schoonover’s Plumbing and Heating in Canton, and at Hoover’s Hardware and the Clothing Store in Troy.
Between times, community members may rent the Rialto for business meetings and parties, corporate gatherings, family celebrations, and classes. The area destined to become a mini movie museum currently serves as a small meeting room, and it’s also where wineries set up for tastings.
“I don’t know whether we’re the biggest little theater in Pennsylvania or the littlest big theater,” Bridget jokes. Whichever, the board feels passionately about the value of this community gem, and they, along with a crew of volunteers, work hard to continue enhancing it.