Historic Rialto re-opens with groundbreaking kayak film

The historic Bozeman Rialto Theater in its heyday. Photo provided by Pioneer Museum, Bozeman.

One of Bozeman’s greatest cultural treasures re-opens this Friday in true Montana fashion. The Rialto Theater will open its doors for the first time in seven years to showcase one of the year’s greatest outdoor films: “Congo, The Grand Inga Project.”

First erected in 1908, the Rialto building became a movie theater in 1934. Built in a classic art-deco design — a popular aesthetic among depression-era theaters — the Rialto became as much of a symbol of downtown Bozeman as the neighboring Ellen Theater. However, Carmike Cinemas closed the Rialto in 2005, seemingly sealing the fate of the historic venue.

In Nov. 2010, the Rialto was purchased by the music recording and publishing company Standing Room Only Live, the same company that now owns Butte’s Covellite Theater. The company immediately began fundraising for a proposed restoration project to re-open the Rialto as a theater, which pleased many Bozemanites.

Many local businesses contributed to the effort and in May of this year, the music company began its two-phase million-dollar restoration process. With that money, the Rialto was equipped with a new sub-floor, curtain and carpet while the electric, plumbing and HVAC systems were revamped to meet industry standards.

Although the restoration is not estimated to be complete until 2014, the theatre is now functional and will open Oct. 5, two months earlier than previously projected. To add to this noteworthy occasion, the film being shown marks another historical benchmark.

“Congo” is a film made by and featuring Steve Fisher, whom many consider the greatest kayaker in the world. The film shows Fisher and three other boaters attempting to ride the Congo River’s Inga Rapids. This 50-mile section of water is the most dangerous on the planet with a flow of nearly 1.5 million cubic feet per second (cfs), second only to the Amazon. For reference, the Gallatin rarely rises above 6000 cfs.

First discovered in 1482, the Inga Rapids have yet to be ridden by any boater and have claimed countless lives, but in the film Steve Fisher and his crew think they have a shot.

Todd Heath, founder of local Bomb Snow and Bomb Flow magazines, first presented the film to owner Steven Michael. “I let him know I was excited about the Rialto project,” Heath said. “I want to make this opening a reality, and I approached him with the film.”

For those who do not know much about kayaking, this is still a wonderful cultural opportunity.

“You don’t have to be a kayaker to enjoy this film; half of the film is really about the history of the region,” Heath said. Indeed, Fisher does an excellent job of portraying the local residents of the city of Kinshasa, including the companionship and camaraderie between the local fishermen and the kayakers.

If you are curious as to whether Steve Fisher makes it out alive, view the film this Friday at 8 p.m. at the newly opened Rialto Theater, located at 12 W. Main St. Drinks can be purchased in the lobby before the show. Tickets are $12 in advance at Bling Wireless and the Rialto Theater or $15 at the door.