My interest and activities in Chattanooga history and preservation started with a single photograph that flashed on my Facebook feed in 2013. The image of a neglected old neighborhood movie theater in East Chattanooga triggered nostalgic moments from my early 20s when I was employed in a circa. 1927 movie house that had found new life as a regional live theater in South Jersey.
I worked at the Ritz Theatre for several years and up to that point in my life old theaters and movie houses built around the same era were still standing, but only a few were actively being utilized for showing films. Sadly, my generation saw many of these former palaces converted into twin cinemas in the 1970s and ’80s. Their gilded and marbleized grandeur sealed up with thick acoustic paneling or eventually torn down when mall multiplexes became more popular with theatergoers and profitable for operators. There came a time when a single-screen theater could no longer afford to compete with multiple screens and Dolby Sound leaving the aging movie palaces of the past few options for repurposing.
I began to take an immediate interest in this sad little theater, trying to imagine how a community could let such a seemingly historically significant structure fall into decay?
Initially, I had a hard time finding more about its history or any information it existed. But in time, and turning to sources beyond the Public Library and the Chattanooga History Center, I was able to find out who built the theater, when it was built, and how it had been used.
The Rivoli Theater was one of a dozen or more area movie houses built between 1905 and 1960. It’s one of four buildings used as theaters in the Chattanooga area that still stands. The Tivoli in Downtown Chattanooga is the only theater to survive intact as an entertainment venue.
The Rivoli was built by Abe Koblentz (1898-1988) and opened in 1926. Its original seating plan was for a capacity of 625. Mr. Koblentz also built an adjacent department store that was an additional location to his men’s store on Market Street.
“Men of Steel” was the first silent movie 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.
Sometime in the ’30s, ownership changed hands to Abe Borisky. Borisky managed the Rivoli until about 1950 when his business interests leaned toward opening 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, downtown. 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’s mostly empty and in a condemned condition.
I reached out to a handful of people who lived in East Chattanooga or regularly attended movies at Rivoli. Many remember the theater from the 1940s and ’50s referred to it as the “Rat Hole,” because of its rampant rodent infestation. Many shared the same joke of buying one bag of popcorn for yourself and one for the rats. Also, in the late-1940s and ’50s, 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.
Many of the Rivoli’s original features still exist, such as the raked (slanted) house, a small stage, the projection room, and vintage bathrooms and fixtures. This significantly historical property 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.