RALEIGH, N.C. – If you’ve ever dreamed of owning a historic theater, now could be your time. After more than three decades, the owner of Raleigh’s historic Rialto Theatre is selling the business.
What You Need To Know
Bill Peebles bought The Rialto Theatre in the early ’90s and restored it
Peebles is retiring and wants to sell the theatre to someone who will honor its legacy
Peebles hopes the next owner will continue to run it as an independent community theatre
“It’s mixed. Emotionally, it’s like I don’t want to go. Intellectually, I go, ‘oh I got to go.’ So it’s a mix of feelings,” Bill Peebles, the owner of The Rialto Theatre, said.
Imagine pouring your heart and soul into something for 32 years and then walking away.
“I know it’s time to retire. I just don’t have the energy I used to. If I were 30 years old like I was when I first started this, I would keep going,” Peebles said.
Peebles bought The Rialto Theatre in the early ’90s.
“It’s a hobby that got out of control to be honest with you. I put myself through college working as a projectionist at the Cardinal Theater in North Hills. Then after I graduated, and I went to work for Nortel, and I had 40 hours a week, I would work with them and the rest of the week I was bored, so then I opened the Studio 12, which led to the Colony, which led to the Rialto,” Peebles said.
His first mission was to bring The Rialto back to its glory days.
“It would’ve been cheaper just to bulldoze it and start over but that would not be right,” Peebles said. “What we did was we had to go back and find out what colors were in vogue in the 1940s. You can go to a new theater, and they look great, they really do, but if you want to go and have an experience, go to an old theater.”
Even after all that restoration work, Peebles says it’s still a lot to keep up with.
“It’s just not showing a movie, it’s maintaining the building, keeping it clean, keeping it presentable, finding wonderful people like Wes. There’s a lot more to showing movies than just pushing a button,” Peebles said.
Over the years, including through COVID-19, Peebles has come up with out-of-the-box ideas to compete with chain theaters.
“I have to pay for the lights and utilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Peebles said. “Why not host a birthday party at 10 o’clock on a Saturday or Sunday morning? Why not host an anniversary party some other time?”
They even offer popcorn pickup because there’s nothing quite like it, and they show movies that aren’t new to the big screen, like “Ghostbusters” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“Rocky is interesting to say the least,” Peebles said. “I can’t save the world, but I can keep a good group of kids off the streets one night once a month. It used to be every Friday, but now it’s just the last Friday of each month.”
Peebles says movies have always served a greater purpose.
“You can be having a terrible day, and you sit down and you watch a movie, it’s very uplifting and feel good movie, and you walk out with a smile on your face. I have positively affected you,” Peebles said.
While Peebles isn’t climbing up the ladder to change the marquee anymore, he’s going to do all he can to make sure someone else carries this historic theater forward.
“Well, I am very adamant that I want an operator in here to continue to operate it like we have. To show really good art independent movies, to be a service to the theater community,” Peebles said.
“My grandfather said, ‘Show people a good time and they will come.’ And that’s what we’ve tried to do,” Peebles said. “This is going to sound fairly trite, but it’s almost a legacy. What I’ve built in the last 32 years is, I think, pretty awesome. I would hate to see someone come in and totally wreck it.”
As for the timeline of The Rialto, Peebles says people are interested in buying it, but he’s holding out until he gets the right person or group.
According to a 2021 report by Screendollars, of the almost 5,800 movie theaters in the country, about a quarter of them have stayed closed since the pandemic started.