JOLIET – The Rialto Square Theatre has 21 shows booked for 2018 so far, a sign of the progress being made since a year ago when the future of the theater was in doubt.
The theater for months in 2016 stopped booking shows altogether amid a financial crisis that created a backlog of bills and a sour relationship with the city of Joliet, the primary source of outside funding for the Rialto.
The Rialto had become so inactive that the city made its annual $500,000 contribution contingent upon the theater meeting a quota of shows.
But 2017 looks to have been a comeback year for the Rialto.
“I think they’re making significant progress. It’s definitely trending up,” said Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, a critic of Rialto management before the entire board was overhauled in early 2017.
O’Dekirk said he’s happy with the new board members – many of whom he appointed. But he also thinks they’ve helped make the Rialto a place that brings people downtown again, spending money at the bars and restaurants.
“I haven’t heard any complaints. People are very positive about the Rialto,” he said.
The Rialto still has challenges, and many of them are financial.
The theater projects a $488,000 deficit for its fiscal year, which ends in June. That deficit would be covered by the city’s annual $500,000 contribution, which was put into the city budget this month without the kind of controversy that occurred a year ago.
The Rialto still does not have money for major maintenance and repair projects.
And board members have been trying to solicit support for some kind of steady source of outside funding, which could mean a tax.
But the show business side of the theater seems to be back on track.
“We had about 35,000 people come to a variety of things [in 2017],” Rialto Executive Director Valerie Devine said.
Appearances by legendary composer Yanni, rock band Three Dog Night and comedian Ron White were all sell-outs or near sell-outs, Devine said.
“Could you think of three more diverse acts? Yet, they all were the same in selling seats,” Devine said.
Other shows that sold out or came close were Olivia Newton-John and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
There’s a bit of a lull in show announcements now, Devine said, because agents take the holidays off. But they get together for a big conference in January, when bookings heat up again, she said.
Devine is an employee of VenuWorks, the theater management company that the previous board hired in 2016. It was the first time that the Rialto brought in a third-party manager to run the theater.
VenuWorks came in with certain strengths, including a centralized booking system that was able to call upon its resources to sign up acts with which the company had relationships.
“We’re very excited about the new year and the horizons ahead of us,” Devine said. “The staff is very excited. This has been a year of transition.”