The Riviera Theatre
The Riviera Theatre first opened its doors to the public on December 23, 1925. It was neither the first nor the only movie house in Three Rivers – historical records indicate that there were several movie theatres operating in the early 20th century in Three Rivers as patrons flocked to see the new ‘moving pictures’ and the ever-popular vaudeville acts. The movie shown at the Riviera on opening night was “The Lucky Devil”, starring Richard Dix. There was also a performance by McDonald’s Music Mixers, a group that played a large variety of instrumental selections and comedies. Advertised as “Southern Michigan’s Most Beautiful Amusement Palace,” the Riviera was, without doubt, the grandest and most ornate facility in the area, rivaling similar venues in the much-larger cities of Chicago and Detroit in style if not in size.
In April 1925, the Lintz building (women’s clothing store) was razed on the site to make room for the new theatre under the ownership and direction of the Fitzpatrick-McElroy Company of Chicago. Already having a presence in Three Rivers via ownership of the Rex (later Rialto) Theatre across the street from the site for the Riviera, the Fitzpatrick-McElroy Company successfully owned and operated many theatres throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Local businessman Luther Warner, then manager of the Rex Theatre, was instrumental in helping design the new theatre along with local architect J.C. Brompton. Mr. Warner was hired to manage the Riviera; he continued to manage both the Rex Theatre and the Riviera Theatre until his death in 1946.
The Riviera Theatre was constructed and furnished in just eight months. Every detail seen and experienced by the public was meant to invoke a sense of comfort, grandeur, and prosperity: from the plush carpeting throughout the lobby and aisles, to the modern heating and cooling system that conditioned the space year-round, and the gilded ornamental plaster utilized throughout; the result was spectacular. A great Kimball pipe organ created the mood during silent movies and provided lively entertainment during intermissions and special concerts. In addition to housing the theatre, the building was also home to other businesses. The area above the theatre was initially occupied by the Three Rivers College of Music and Fine Arts, which was affiliated with the University Extension Conservatory of Chicago, and offered certification in musical education and “thorough instruction in all departments of art”, according to an advertisement. It is not clear how long the school occupied the space. Throughout the years, other businesses such as various professional offices, a beauty parlor, and the local radio station WLKM would call this location home.
In 1927, Butterfield Theatres leased the Riviera Theatre and continued its successful operation for many years. Since opening in 1925, there have been two major building projects: in the mid-1940s, a major remodeling took place to include new seating and decoration inside the theatre, as well as the replacement of the original marquee with a new ‘Hollywood’-style marquee above the main entrance; in 2006, restoration began to bring back the original 1925 ambiance as much as possible. A new bar/concession area was added in the storefront next to the entrance, which once was home to such businesses as the Riviera Soda Grill and King’s Café. Minor projects over the years include the installation of a large, non-movable ‘Panoramic’ movie screen in 1954 (which made the stage no longer usable and eliminated the Kimball pipe organ, which was given to a local church), and various upgrades and additions to the projection equipment and sound system.
The Riviera Theatre has served patrons almost continuously since 1925, closing for only a few years between then and now. The new owners and management look forward to bringing to the area excellent and varied entertainment options: movies, live music, stage productions, magicians, and comedians, as well as other possibilities. The theatre is also available for rentals, and so far has enjoyed hosting weddings, class reunions, presentations, birthday parties, and many other events. Welcome back to the Riviera Theatre!
- Fitzpatrick-McElroy Company built their first open-air theater.
- Luther Warner worked in the printshop of the Three Rivers Commercial.
- Warner also worked at the Vaudette located in the old Smith building.
- The Fitzpatrick-McElroy company bought the Rex theater.
- July 28– E.J. Miller came to visit the theater and check up on the building process- the inspection went well.
- Dec. 17– seating and carpets were being installed into the theater, green and gold drapes were soon to be installed.
- Dec. 19– ad for the Three Rivers College of Music and Fine Arts Affiliated with the University Extension Conservatory of Chicago.
- Dec. 23– theater officially opened. Run by the Fitzpatrick-McElroy Company (at the time they owned 45 theaters) and managed by L.H. Warner. Richard Dix in “The Lucky Devil” was the opening film.
- Theater was leased to W. S. Butterfield of Butterfield Theatres (from Detroit).
- ‘Goodfellows Club’ raised funds for kids with holiday paper sales and treated them to a movie at the Riviera.
- Riviera was the site of “Vodvil Frolic” New Year’s Eve, featured act was “the 9 Rudkers”.
- Dance Recital at the Riviera, one of the dancers was Jane Pritchard.
- Butterfield Theaters purchased the Rialto.
- L.H. Warner remodeled and installed new signs.
- Blackouts were being practiced.
- Warner presented $250 in war bonds to Paul Cassault.
- March 18– Riviera Beauty Shop ad printed next to the Riviera Soda Grill ad.
- Chandeliers were replaced and new air-conditioning ducts were installed in time for the 25 yr. anniversary.
- Warner was appointed county chairman of 6th war loan drive.
- The 19th annual Kiddie’s Christmas Show was sponsored by Three Rivers Service Clubs, Three Rivers Commercial, and the Riviera.
Ted Tobler was named new manager of the Riviera (March).
Ted Tobler elected chairman of the March of Dimes.
- Dec. 22– Riviera Theater’s 23rd annual Kiddie Christmas Show attracted 1500 kids, they crowded the lobby and theater.
- ‘Now Showing’ “Sign of the Ram” starring Alexander Knox.
- Liberty Bell Replica came to Three Rivers and was on display at the Riviera. The event opened the American Legion Bond Drive.
- Dec. 23– Celebrated 25th anniversary with 700 kids attending the annual Christmas Party by the Three Rivers Commercial and the Riviera. Roy Rogers starred in the feature and Santa passed out sacks of candy. Anniversary shows included Fred Astaire and Betty Hutton in ‘Let’s Dance’.
- Current Marquee was installed.
Organ was removed and donated to St. John’s Lutheran Church.
- The last year that the stage was used (TRC, 6/25/05/05).
- Bigger, wider screen was added along with a more modern sound system.
John Wendt obtained ownership of the Riviera until 2000.