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Riviera Theatre - Charleston, SC

Riviera Theatre
225 King Street
Opened: January 15, 1939
Renovated as Conference Center: 1997

Built on the site of the Academy of Music, the Riviera opened on January 15,1939. When it opened it had 789 seats downstairs and 125 seats in the balcony for whites and 279 seats in the gallery for blacks. There was a separate entrance for blacks on the Market Street side.

Now generally regarded as Art Deco, the architect Charles C. Benton, described the style as "classic modern" in 1939.

An account in the newspaper the day the Riviera opened stated "...it is modern in style with classic proportions and Greek motif. The facade is of light stone trimmed with black. The building is of steel frame construction, fireproof. The vestibule and foyer are finished in black formica and chromium with background of flex wood. There is a mezzanine with grill, and opposite it a long mural depicting a scene of Lake Como. This was painted over a previous mural which was marred by the original artist in a fit of pique."

The Riviera had modem heating and a cooling system that circulated moistened air throughout the auditorium.

The theater had the latest projection equipment, an automatic drop curtain and organ. The organ was played by Mrs. James J. Harris during intermissions.

The manager of the Riviera when it opened was John Matthews.


The restored Riviera exterior in 1997

The first ticket was purchased by J. C. Long, son-in-law of Albert Sottile who was president of Pastime Amusement Company.

Admission prices were 25 cents for white adults, 10 cents for children and 15 cents for blacks.

The opening film was "Secrets Of A Nurse" with Edmund Lowe, Helen Mack, Dick Foran and Paul Hurst.

In the 1950's the orchestra pit was removed and the seating capacity expanded. The stage was widened to accommodate a new, wider screen.

By 1976, there were only two movie theaters in operation in downtown Charleston, the American and the Riviera. Films did return to the Garden Theatre in 1978, when Roger McNiven coordinated a film program for the Spoleto Festival. The Riviera was exhibiting movies that appealed mostly to black audiences.

Mr. George Meyer, city manager for Coastal Theaters, a subsidiary of Fairlane Litchfield Company, Inc., the company that operated the Riviera during this time, said, "We're going to try to bring in big, first run pictures that will appeal to a general audience. When such films aren't available, double features of older movies will be offered at $2 for two movies."

The Riviera closed its doors on September 5, 1977 leaving no motion picture house in operation in peninsular Charleston for the first time since the Theatorium opened in 1907.

The reasons given were the impact of television, the growth of the suburbs and their shopping center theaters, fear of crime in the inner city and the economics in general.

In 1979, the Riviera became a church. Lewrie Harmon secured the building from Pastime Amusement Company for the Community Baptist Fellowship. The agreement called for $600 a month for the first year and $1,000 a month for the second. Harmon came to Charleston from Macon, Georgia where he was musical director and part-time pastor of the One Way Baptist Church.

Asked at the time if the movie theater was an extravagant choice for the church, Harmon replied, "No, I don't think it's extravagant. The temple God had Solomon build would have cost $13 billion today."

The only physical change that resulted from its occupation by a church was the removal of the large plaster comedy and tragedy masks above the proscenium. After the two-year lease expired, the Riviera stood dark and empty again.

Above: The renovated interior showing the balcony and the new ballroom area. Beneath the ballroom floor are retail shops in the space that was the orchestra seating.

Below: the Riviera lobby with the restored Simplex projector.

In January 1983, the theater reopened briefly as a motion picture house featuring foreign and classic films. It closed again the following November.

In 1986, an investment group planned to turn the Riviera into a collection of shops, offices, a restaurant and night club.

John Burbage wrote an article on the editorial page of The News and Courier saying… “the optimists among us believe that a first-rate multiuse theater in the area could make a profitable go of it again. Surely it’s not to naïve to believe that – with the expertise in historic restoration that abounds in this city, the available tax credits, the right ideas and a strong spirit of cooperation – modern conditions may actually save, not doom, the Riviera."

In 1987, the Charleston Board of Architectural Review denied developers' plans to turn the building into a restaurant and retail space. The Summit Financial Group, Inc. had purchased a lease option but pulled out of the project after the Board of Architectural Review action.

Later that year, The Charleston Zoning Board of Adjustment approved a parking variance that would allow renovation of the theater for retail space without off-street parking. The B.A.R. gave preliminary approval to revised plans to transform the theater into a retail center.

A group of local citizens formed a special interest group and generated over 5,000 signatures on petitions to preserve the building as a theater.

David Schneider, of Preservation Consultants, Inc. and chairman of the group Friends of the Riviera expressed concerns that there were only 30 days in which to come up with an alternative plan. As it turned out the developer backed out of the project and the Riviera sat waiting in silence.

In December 1988, Pastime Amusement Company sold the building to Knight/Amherst/Riviera Joint Venture for $1 million. After some maneuvering, Mr. Raymond Knight, Jr. acquired individual ownership and began restoring parts of the theater. He completely restored the marquee and replaced the beautiful Carrara glass on the King Street exterior.

In 1989 Mr. Knight approached city officials about participating in developing the Riviera as a community asset. He bought the property directly behind the theater in order to allow space for expansion of the stage area in hopes the Charleston Symphony Orchestra would use the building.

Mr. R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, one of the world's foremost symphony hall designers, studied the Riviera and described it as ". ..an absolutely incredible opportunity." But, the symphony didn't agree and the City was obligated to other projects and could not afford to undertake the project.

Choosing not to undertake the renovation by himself, Mr. Knight put the property on the market in 1990. However, he continued to encourage the City to become involved.

The group Friends of the Riviera, now with Ralph Hicks as chairman, supported the idea of developing the building as a multiuse facility for conventions and trade shows. The group maintained that this would ensure at least a 90% preservation of the building's interior and exterior.

Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. announced that the city was interested in proposals to save the Riviera. "But, by all means, the city is not interested in a demolished theater," Mayor Riley said.

In 1993, City Council gave final approval to purchase the Riviera Theater which the city would lease to Charleston Place Associates.

In June 1994, Dean P. Andrews, managing director of the Omni Hotel at Charleston Place said that the Riviera would be capable of hosting film festivals. He mentioned that one of the old Simplex projectors would be on display in the lobby.

On Thursday, May 15, 1997, after a $4 million renovation, the Riviera opened as a conference center and retail space. More than 90 percent of the original interior has been saved. Even the Greek comedy and tragedy masks have been restored to their center position on the procenium arch. The beautiful murals were repaired or copied and the extraordinary plaster details look like they did in 1939.

While its days as a single-screen movie theater are over, the Riviera Theater's history is preserved. It continues to serve the Charleston community and its architectural beauty will enchant visitors for decades to come.

 

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