Route 66 has its share of ghost stories – mostly in the form of ghost towns out west that didn’t survive the changeover to interstates and modern living – and there are plenty of stories among the paranormal set of haunted theaters. But a haunted theater on historic Route 66? You bet: in Joliet, IL. It was even one of Al Capone’s favorite entertainment hangouts, though nobody’s seen the spirit of Scarface there, thank heavens.
The Rialto Theatre Building was pretty much a family affair, quite unusual for a real estate deal. All six of the Rubens Brothers – Maurice, George, Jules, Harry and Claude, led by Louis Rubens – were in on it when they built the Rialto back in 1926, along with two Rockey brothers, Ed and Frank. It was designed by yet two more brothers, Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp (C.W. and George). The Rubenses took a square city block and turned it into a multipurpose development, with a combined film theater and office building on the southwest corner of the lot at Chicago and Van Buren Streets and the Louis Joliet Hotel on the northeast corner at Clinton and Scott Streets (the hotel was built a few years later, delayed due to financing problems).
The Rialto Square Theatre end of the complex is still a functioning office building, home to the downtown campus of the University of St. Francis, among other residents. The hotel has been revamped into smart-looking apartments but, thanks to the recession and downtown Joliet’s lack of residential amenities, hasn’t done so well. Both structures are architecturally significant, being on the National Register of Historic Places, and have been rehabbed and restored in recent years; but it’s the Rialto that’s known as the “Jewel of Joliet.” It’s also the one that gets all the attention. How could it not?
Between the Rubenses and the Rockeys, they built 10 movie theaters in downtown Joliet between 1904 and 1926. Today, the Rialto Square Theatre is the only survivor, but my, how this dowager is deluged with gilt and glitz. To call the Rialto over the top or baroque would be gross understatement – there’s a clash of half a dozen styles here and borrowings from all sorts of famous buildings, not the least of which are the Pantheon in Rome, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. They didn’t call them movie palaces back then for nothing. Even the huge, crystal-heavy main chandelier is called The Duchess. In fact, the late Liberace (himself no stranger to gaudy excess) once remarked of the Rialto at a performance there, “Finally – a theater to match my wardrobe!” Indeed, his many closets would have felt right at home there.
But the theater is also home to other recurring performers: spirits. Oh, there are the usual reports of strange noises, visitors or staff feeling icy cold or like they’ve been jabbed by an unseen finger, and things that seem to move on their own, but we mean allegedly visible spooks with personality. There are the two dead youths up in the cheap seats – a swain and his girlfriend – who supposedly fell to their deaths from the balcony and insist on hanging around, perhaps awaiting an extra encore. Those two would be more than enough in any theater.
The star, however, appearing more often than the others is a nameless beauty who appears to be in her 20s, sometimes surrounded by hazy light, and who’s been seen floating around all over the theater by staff, workmen, and visitors. This mysterious and lovely specter is thought to have been an actress who performed there many years earlier, when the auditorium was both movie hall and vaudeville theater – and who so enjoyed tripping the light fantastic there that she just couldn’t bring herself to leave. Her spirit is reported to have been particularly active during the time that the Rialto was closed, before its 1980s renovation.
Some ‘professional’ visitors have seen others, including a tap-dancing ghost. Even SyFy’s Ghost Hunters have been to the Rialto. You can see their investigation yourself on the episode entitled “Curtain Call,” which originally aired last year on October 17, 2012.Alas, the lovingly restored theater doesn’t get used these days as often as it should. Except for a few viewings of classic films now and then, it no longer shows movies, though the beautiful white Barton Grande Theatre Pipe Organ does get an occasional workout when there’s a music recital. Mostly, the space is used for concerts and traveling shows, including musical theater, and is rented out for special events. Like most of downtown Joliet, it’s severely underused on evenings and weekends and looks aged and abandoned … which just provides that extra shiver of creep factor to the place.
There are daytime tours of the building, including a ‘paranormal tour’ – and if you’re in the area, do sign up for one. The docents are quite well informed. More information can be found on the theater’s website. And if you want to know more about what’s on Route 66 in the Chicago-to-Joliet stretch, where the historic road begins, be sure to visit CuriousTraveler66, Marie’s book blog for her upcoming book, The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago.
Until next time, stay spooky!