It's coming up on my one-year anniversary of when it suddenly hit me that Chattanooga history was so very cool. I had always had a healthy interest in the past, but like my taste in collecting old stuff, my impulse acquisitions had been more eclectic than focused on one thing, era or item.
It all started with a link that appeared on my Facebook timeline from a friend of a friend. The link jogged memories from my early 20s, when I worked in a 1920s movie house that had found new life as a regional live theater in southern New Jersey, where I grew up. I was often charged with locking up after evening rehearsals. Sometimes, I'd take a quiet moment and sit dead center; and because I had convinced myself that I'm empathic, I would try to sense the countless individuals who cried and laughed in that one seat, experiencing iconic movies like "The Jazz Singer," "Gone With the Wind," "Citizen Kane" and "Cleopatra."
I was lucky to work in that old theater for several years and had been in many movie theaters built around the same era that were still being used when I was a kid. Sadly, many were converted into twin cinemas—their gilded and marbleized grandeur sealed up with acoustic paneling—and many were torn down for more profitable, mall-annexed multiplexes. A single-screen theater that can no longer afford to be a movie theater has little options for a purpose or future.
Back to the link: It had a photo of a very unassuming, weathered and distressed building with a faded metal sign; and the link was to Cinema Tour, a massive database of movie palaces both past and present—many with photos of theaters in their present conditions.
Below is the Rivoli at 2436 Glass St.
I began to take immediate interest. I asked myself how any community could let such a significant structure fall into decay. I could look at it and immediately imagine neighborhood boys in corduroy pants and felt beanies hurrying inside so as not to miss the first few minutes of the latest episode of a Flash Gordon or Hopalong Cassidy serial.
I started my research right away. One thing I found was that its history has been erased by time: the theater has been closed since the mid-'50s. I uncovered very little about who built it, when it was built and its chain of use. However, I did quickly realize that the Rivoli Theatre, out of a dozen or more area movie houses and theaters built between 1905 and 1960, is the only existing movie theater, other than the Tivoli, to still stand. Various sources such as The Public Library, Chattanooga History Center, the Mizpah Congregation and others could provide very little information.
The Rivoli Theatre was built by Abe Koblentz (1898–1988) and opened in 1926. The original plan was seating for 625. Koblentz also built an adjacent department store that was a satellite location to his store on Market Street, next to Loveman's. Koblentz was once a resident of East Chattanooga and has a circle named after him.
"Men of Steel" was perhaps one of the first silent movies shown at the Rivoli. Its plot was about a rugged steel mill worker who fights his way up the social ladder while balancing a love triangle and proving his innocence of murder. Sadly, no copy of "Men of Steel" exists today.
For as little as 9 cents, you could buy a ticket, popcorn and a Coca-Cola. Or you could redeem Double Cola and Pepsi bottle caps for admission.
Sometime in the '30s, ownership changed hands to Abe Borisky. Borisky managed the Rivoli until about 1950, when his interests leaned toward drive-ins. The theater was sold to Wilby-Kincey, a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures—"Wil-Kin" managed over 200 theaters in the South, including the Tivoli. The Rivoli would close its doors by 1956. It has since been offices and storage for several organizations and companies, and was briefly a teenage nightclub in the '60s. Today, it serves as general storage.
I reached out to many people to uncover the human story behind the Rivoli. Many people who remember the Rivoli from the '40s and '50s referred to it as the "Rat Hole." Apparently, it had arampant rodent problem. Many told the same joke of buying one bag of popcorn for yourself and one for the rats.
One amazing fact about the Rivoli is that it has only survived by filling a useful purpose over the years. Its local sisters, with the exception of the Tivoli, did not. It started with the flickering light and shadow of silent films, accompanied by the tinny sound of an upright piano, then changed with the times. The Rivoli has witnessed thousands of first date nights, scores of kids with sticky hands who placed their gum under their seats, working-class adults escaping into fantasies mass manufactured by Hollywood to curb the reality of depression and war ... and multiple generations of rats who survived off stray Cracker Jack.
Many of its original features still exist, such as the raked (slanted) house, a small stage, the projection room and vintage bathrooms. Although there are temporary barriers preventing a quick restoration or upcycle, this significantly historical space deserves to serve as something more useful to the community than general storage. With East Chattanooga on track for revitalization, the Rivoli becomes more endangered as progress is made.
My white whale
I tried so hard to find a photo of the Rivoli between 1926 and the '50s. The only one I could locate was a dark photo of the stage.
It's a fact: The photo crowdsourcing project Picnooga was born out of the frustration of not being able to locate a photo of the Rivoli Theatre. Somewhere, in a shoebox, album or old trunk, lies my white whale. If you have it, please email me.
David Moon is a marketing specialist and Chattanooga history enthusiast. This year, he started Picnooga, a historic image preservation project and Facebook page that digitally preserves and shares photos of Chattanooga’s past. Follow David on Twitter, like Picnooga on Facebook, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.