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The Beauty of Plaster

It’s no secret that the Rivoli was not as ornate as some of the other theaters of the time. That said, the facility had a fair amount of very detailed features on the walls and ceiling. A post from reader John Routh Jr. got me thinking more about the dexterity involved with creating these lovely pieces of art.

He wrote: “My father was a master journeyman plasterer and known for his craftsmanship— all the ornamental work on the walls and ceiling was done by him. The molds were made earlier — he told me they were made by molding plaster (called tabled) and then stuck on the walls and ceiling – as a young boy my father took me to the balcony and told me how he made the center piece — I never forgot it.”

I did some Google searching and found that there is quite an art to the creation of these plaster decorations, and for their present-day restoration. As you look at the picture below, the daylight coming in through the demolished south wall accentuates the decorative shapes and outlines on the upper east wall of the Rivoli’s auditorium. Click to enlarge, and look for the areas where the plaster has been broken away, and you can see what lies underneath. For me, it is fascinating to look at the areas revealed and to imagine how the ornamentation was constructed by skilled crafstmen such as John Routh Sr.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

I was particularly interested in the large medallions surrounding the ceiling dome of the Rivoli. (far upper right in the photo above) During the demolition process, most had been carefully removed and preserved for a purpose unknown to me. However, during one of my visits to the theater I spied a chunk of one of the discs that had fallen to the ground and broken. Here’s a photo of it, laying just in front of the Rivoli’s orchestra pit railing. Click to enlarge and you can see the marvelous detail.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

A crazy idea occurred to me- perhaps I could salvage this piece of history. Sure enough, after conferring with Ron Vollmar, owner of the demolition rig, we decided there would be no harm in me procuring the broken medallion. So, with quite a struggle, I hoisted this treasure into the back of my hatchback and took it home. Once there, I realized that I had perhaps been a little hasty. After all, how do you display something like this? It probably weighed 100 pounds and was pretty mangled around the edges. You can’t just hang it over your fireplace or mount it to the wall.

So…after much admiration, deliberation and inspection, (and, obviously, consulting with my wife) my precious treasure was promptly hoisted into the garage attic.

A few years later, I was rummaging around the attic entrance…and the medallion fell out, striking me in the head and nearly knocking me unconscious. Unfortunately, the fall broke it into several smaller pieces so I decided to lay it to rest.

So much for my stint as a historic curator!

So, plaster can be certainly be beautiful…but also darned painful!

-John Disher, November 2, 2011

Reflections

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Posting these photos has caused me to reflect a great deal on the creation of the key photo of the Rivoli’s Auditorium. When I set out to do this picture, I had never photographed an interior view of this size before. My inspiration for the final version of this image came from a conversation nearly three years before…

During college I studied photography with professor Richard Ware. Dick became a true friend and mentor to me (in later years, he hired me to teach photojournalism at Ball State) and he was also continually active in trying out new photographic techniques. During one of our conversations around 1984 we talked about use of time exposures and ‘painting’ a large surface with multiple flash bursts. I experimented several times on a small scale, but actually never had an opportunity to try the technique in a large scale setting…until my visit to the Rivoli.

So when I set out to do this photo I had only  a basic theory of what I would try to attempt. When I got the the film developed I was crushed when I saw this picture- I was totally disappointed that I could see my silhouette and evidence of the flash going off. It wasn’t what I had envisioned in my mind’s eye at all. It felt like a total failure.

Perhaps that’s why I filed these photos away for so many years, I’m not sure.

Flash forward 25 years or so…and I have a totally different perspective on this image. I look at it and I see a part of myself preserved in time with the Rivoli. Like some sort of graffiti scribbled on a wall…It says “John was here!”

It also brings me great joy to think of my friend Dick, who had such a positive influence on my photography. Dick passed away unexpectedly in December, 1996. I never showed him the Rivoli photos, but somehow, I think he would have liked them.

-John Disher, October 24, 2011

My first blog…

Well, since going live with this blog site I’ve received a number of positive comments about the pictures and blog. Many people have also shared their memories of the Rivoli: from the Star Wars movies in the 80’s to ten-cent matinee’s in the 30’s; many of us share in the magic that was the Rivoli Theater.

While not as ornate as other showplaces of its era, the Rivoli was a truly a place of wonder and fun. I feel truly blessed and privileged to have been able to document its final days. I’m also embarrassed that I’ve kept these treasures hidden away for so long….so I hope this site makes up for lost time and people are able to enjoy them for many years to come.

Please feel free to email me directly if you have any questions about these pictures. I’ve still got more to scan and post, particularly of the demolition. Viewing the demo pics is both incredibly painful…and delightfully informative; because while documenting the end of our favorite theater, they reveal so many hidden details about the Rivoli’s impressive design and construction.

Regards,

John Disher

jddisher@comcast.net.

Last Days of the Rivoli Theater – The Tour

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

In January 1987 I approached Thomas Ratliff, assistant manager at the Rivoli Theater in Muncie Indiana, about the possibility of photographing the theater prior to its sale and demolition. He and the staff graciously allowed me access to the theater on its last weekend of operation. The following photos are from my tour of the Rivoli, literally from top to bottom. The most challenging and ultimately rewarding picture was this one, a view of the Rivoli’s main auditorium. My Nikon FM2 was tripod mounted and positioned on the stage. A long time exposure (about 30 seconds if I recall) plus a small aperture opening were used to capture the available lighting in the dome and under the balcony. During the time exposure I ran at breakneck speed from point to point around the main floor, up the stairs and into the balcony, ‘painting’ with light by rapidly firing a Vivitar 285 flash unit. My silhouette  is visible in three locations, a sort of self portrait. I did this about 3 times, but this frame was the best. Can you find my 3 ‘appearances’?  Read a 1987 Ball State Daily News article about the closing of the Rivoli.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

The Rivoli really had a beautiful ceiling. I can remember attending movies and staring up at the ceiling in wonderment. Tremendous craftsmanship is evident throughout the theater.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

I set up in the balcony for a view of the main stage. The 2nd theater , built in the 70’s, is visible on the right hand side of the frame. While sitting in the balcony I paused, and tried  to imagine what it was like when the Rivoli was first constructed. I used a couple of 1000 w/s flash heads with 24″pan reflectors to illuminate the room, both were positioned to the right, on top of the roof of the second theater. In this frame I picked up a tiny amount of lens flare on the right side of the image. Ever wonder about that domed ceiling? Check out the pictorial of my climb into the dome…

Photograph by John D. Disher c1987

Wide view of the auditorium, illluminated by the 1000 watt worklights.

 

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

A closer look at the details in the asbestos curtain (for fire protection) and decorative proscenium arch. When watching a movie at the Rivoli, one could rarely see these incredible details clearly because the room was so dark. If you click to enlarge and look closely at this image you can see the word “asbestos” on the bottom edge of the curtain. For years I never saw this lettering until it was pointed out to me recently in this photograph. This 1987 BSU Daily News editorial criticizes the decision making process behind the Rivoli’s demolition.

Photograph by John D. Disher c1987

Close-up detail of the Rivoli’s asbestos fire curtain.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

One of the twenty decorative wheels inset into the outside edge of the Rivoli’s ceiling dome. Note the intricate plaster work. I did not measure one, but I did get to see a broken one up close during the demolition and I would guess they were about 4-1/2 feet in diameter. They were made out of plaster, with some sort of fabric embedded inside, perhaps for strength. The demolition workers removed many of them intact; I’m curious to know where they ended up.

Photograph by John D. Disher c1987

Detail of ornamentation on the side wall of the Rivoli. Check out the wonderful comment by reader John Routh Jr. at the bottom of this page, where he describes his father’s involvement in the creation of the plasterwork inside the Rivoli!

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

An even closer view of the side wall and ceiling edge details. Incredible stuff.

Photograph by John D. Disher c1987

View of the decorative arches that were located on both sides of the auditorium. The Battas family re-painted the walls when they purchased the theater in the early 1970’s, Wanda Battas recalled the earlier paint scheme to be more of a light tan color.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987              

As a child I always marveled at the Rivoli’s ticket lobby ceiling…it seemed as if it went up into infinity, with only a hint of colored light to define it. The sign on the ticket desk lists 3 movies playing: American Tale, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and The Morning After. Matinee ticket price listed is $4.00 for adults and $2.50 for children. To the left, 2 frames display old tickets, handbills and other memorabilia unearthed from a trunk in the basement, in honor of the Rivoli’s last days. Posted on the door leading into the theater is a handwritten note asking patrons to sign a petition to save the Rivoli. Click here to read a Muncie Star newspaper article about the petition and drive.

Rivoli Ticket Lobby

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Reverse angle view of the ticket lobby, facing west. Note the ticket booth on the west wall. The floor tiles were installed over the top of the original floow after Dave Battas Sr. bought the theater in 1971. In 1998, the Muncie Star Press published an article describing the experiences of former Rivoli employee Richard Leitch (1938-41). Great write-up by Muncie historian Bill Spurgeon.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Check out the marble wall tiles and ornate trim. The Rivoli was a truly classy lady! The day after the Rivoli closed, The BSU Daily News published this heartfelt article by reporter Diane Goudy.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Decorative stonework outside the theater lobby.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Decorative flowers inset into the brick exterior of the Rivoli. These were removed during demolition and integrated into the new Ball Associates facility built on the same site as the Rivoli.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

View of the main theater lobby and west staircase leading to the balcony area. You can see a patron in the ticket lobby examining some of the memorabilia adorning the wall. The red doors lead into the main auditorium. The doors were not added until the 1970’s, prior to that there were curtains covering the doorways. This had to do with early air conditioning techniques which relied on evaporative coolers (rather than freon and compressors) and were prone to humidity problems unless there was a constant flow of air through the building.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Concessions stand and view of the theater intermission lobby looking east, note the east staircase and next to it, the projection booth for the modern day 2nd theater within the theater. Dave Battas Sr., owner of the Rivoli when the second theater was added, created the see-through projection room, much to the delight of patrons. To the right, holding some of my camera gear is Thomas Ratliff, Assistant Manager, and two other unidentified employees. Check out this link to see a picture of the Rivoli’s lobby back in 1927. It was extremely opulent.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom invited me into the Rivoli’s projection booth. Wow, the sense of history here was palpable. I couldn’t help but think of all the movies that passed through this room. Although the film platters in the foreground are modern technology, the room appeared much like it was when the Rivoli was first constructed. Notice all the metal and steel in this room? It was originally designed with fire protection in mind, as the early motion picture film stocks known as “nitrate” were extremely flammable. The projection room openings into the main auditorium were equipped with shutters that would drop and close in the event of fire. Read more about nitrate film stock here.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Closeup of the film editing bench, where previews are added to the feature attraction.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

View of the projection room for the 2nd theater, which was carved into the lobby and main theater….note the blacked out ornate trim from the original lobby at the top of the room. To the left you can see the glass that allowed patrons to observe the projection process.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Thomas Ratliff perches on the edge of the Rivoli’s roof, looking west over downtown Muncie, IN. This was the area above the stage-house, the tallest portion of the theater. We are at a height of about six stories. The only way to reach this area was by climbing an iron ladder up the outside of the building.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

View of the east stairwell from the balcony hallway. The first door leads to what was originally the city managers’ office.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

The balcony hallway, 2nd floor. Restrooms were located on this floor.


Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom took me into a second floor office, underneath the balcony. Various posters and other vintage items populated the room. The panelling was not part of the original theater.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

This was a second floor storeroom under the balcony. Note the concrete forms outlining the balcony tiers at the top of the photo. The shelves are filled with press-books and advertisements for movies. The valuable ones were long gone but there were a lot of ads from the 60’s and 70’s. Most of these were bulldozed into the rubble during the demolition. During one of my visits to the demolition site in later days, I found several of these ads in the wreckage.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Time to check out the basement. Tom led me down a set of stairs that was covered with plaster falling off the walls.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

The basement of the Rivoli consisted of a number of concrete rooms, many with heavy steel doors for entry such as this electrical room.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

This basement room contained all of the letters used for the marquee sign on the front of the building. Note that someone has tried to spell out “the once and future Milo”, a reference to former Rivoli projectionist Milo Snell, who several employees told me haunted the theater. When we exited this room, we left the light on. When we came back, through, the light was off. Perhaps Milo was playing a trick on us?

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom Ratliff takes a moment to write a message on the basement wall. The concrete wall to the right is the exterior, outside wall of the back (north) side of the Rivoli. This is a large area with workbenches for set construction and maintenance. Joy Disher helped me with my lighting gear and is pictured here with a camera bag.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Some of the basement wall graffiti left by employees…

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Remember the memorabilia on display in the Rivoli’s ticket lobby? Those items came from these two trunks, which had been residing in the basement for nearly 60 years. Tom thought that many of the items were collected by former theater projectionist Milo Snell, who died in the 1970’s. The trunks were full of handbills, programs, newspaper articles, and tickets to actual performances (not just movies) such as “Dr. Neff’s Madhouse Mystery” dated 1948.

Dr. Neff's Madhouse Mystery 1948

Muncie Goes Manhattan 1948

Las Vegas Scandals - undated

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom took me into a steel-walled ventilation room, part of the massive heating system for the Rivoli. Inside the room was a single light bulb, illuminating these 2 chairs. Tom told me that many employees believed this was a popular hangout for the ghost of Milo Snell; indeed, they theorized that this was his personal projection room chair. Funny story, a couple of weeks later after the salvage company had removed all the seats and valuable fixtures, they held a public salvage day. I made my way to the basement, and much to the surprise of a couple of antique-hunters, I opened the door to this chamber and plucked out the chair on the right. I paid $2 for it and still have it 25 years later. Learn more about Milo Snell, Tom Ratliff and the final days of the Rivoli by reading this Muncie Star article from January 12, 1987. Please note that several people have told me that Milo never lived in the basement as stated in the article; instead, he kept a workshop area in the basement and he would often pluck parts from his workshop and take them to other theaters to fix equipment.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Moving back up the the Rivoli’s auditorium, this is a backstage view of the lighting controls for the stage area. Note the visqueen to the left, the backstage area was sealed and unheated to keep utility costs down.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

The Rivoli was built with a fully functional theatrical stage, complete with weighted stage rigging for lights and curtains. This view is looking straight  up into the back of the theater, perhaps 5 or six stories tall to accommodate the tall curtains and lights. A wall mounted steel ladder allows access to the catwalk above for maintenance of the rigging.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Backstage view. To the left is the back wall (north) of the Rivoli, to the immediate right is projection screen and seating area. Note the ladder which goes all the way up to the catwalk above this portion of the theater, probably 5-6 stories high. This picture also reveals an early fire prevention feature of the theater no longer in use–the weight hanging from the pulley would be released when fire melted a connecting rod, the the weight would pull a fire door shut. Similar mechanisms were installed in the Rivoli’s projection room, as the early  film stocks known as “nitrate” were extremely flammable.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Backstage rigging equipment which is used to raise and lower curtains, backdrops and lighting gear for theatrical presentations.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Final view after the last showing of “The Morning After” at the Rivoli.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c2011

This is the Ball Associates building that replaced the Rivoli. I’ve been in it many times, and it is a beautiful building. Note the light-colored squares on the exterior…those are from the Rivoli’s exterior. They were carefully removed and incorporated in the new facility. Nice touch of class!