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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ford's Focus: Ezio Carosielli

The stained-glass ceiling of the renovated Rialto

Ezio's in the House!
by Barbara Ford

What do passion, business acumen, patience, vision, flexibility, personality, charm, optimism, a healthy cash flow, child-like excitement and an adventurous spirit have in common? They are all embodied in Ezio Carosielli, the new owner, as of March 2010, of the Rialto Theatre. He and his kick-ass team have undertaken the mammoth challenge of restoring the 1924 neo-Baroque knock-off of the Paris Opera to its original grandeur.  The Beaux-Arts beauty was designed by architect Joseph-Raoul Gariépy, with its interior of dazzling plaster, wood, glass and stencil craftsmanship designed by Emmanuel Briffa, who was renowned at the time for his elaborate contributions to theatres throughout North American which, in addition to the Louis XVI motif adorning the Rialto, included interior treatments for the Seville, York, Snowdon, and Cinema V movie houses here in Montreal.   

Ezio Carosielli
The thirty years leading up to Carosielli’s purchase saw a steady decline of the 40,000 square foot cinema that originally housed 1,370 seats.  In its heyday the cinema was open from 8 AM to midnight with a continuous run of films and a live orchestra providing the musical back-up to the silent black and white classics. In an effort the keep the doors open as cookie-cutter multi-plexes lured audiences away, the Rialto went through several incarnations from short-lived dinner theatre to seedy porn flick cinema (some of the old reels are collecting dust up in the projector room as I write these words). Thankfully it was rescued from becoming a shopping centre (blasphemers!) and just two years ago a group of residents, including artists and heritage specialists, lobbied to keep it from being turned into a disco (double blaspheme!).  To facilitate the fluctuating identities, renovations were made with the best of intentions but frequently without approval from the appropriate agencies.

Stage right loges
Both lawyers who graduated from McGill University, Carosielli and his wife, Luisa Sassano own and operate le Groupe Merveilles, a chain of 10 day care centres peppered throughout the city.  Carosielli and his family have always been involved with real estate, owning and overseeing the operation of various malls and industrial buildings.  He spends a few hours every morning scanning MLS for interesting properties and when he saw the Rialto up for sale, he didn’t waste any time investigating the landmark building, one of only a handful designated as a heritage site by the municipal, provincial and federal administrations. Cognisant of the recent background and age of the building, Carosielli anticipated a complete wreck but once inside, saw it was not the dilapidated ruin he expected and immediately locked the doors to discourage other buyers, asking the owner what it would take to buy the building.  There was a short list of seven or eight conditions that Carosielli agreed to lickety-split and a deal was struck.  

Concession bar
Now that it was his, where to start?  Working with the Commission des bien culturels, only renovation designs that restored the building to its original glory were permitted.  That included removing all of the paint, (currently a garish though appropriately dramatic red, white and blue colour scheme to reinstate the muted green and beige palette), and re-installing an enormous stained glass ceiling into one of the domes. Portions of the walls still bare the original paint or stencilled murals and one of the two back-lit glass ceilings remains, providing valuable in-house references to guide the various architects, designers and crews.  

Painted ceiling
The balcony had been levelled to make a dining room so the raked seating and stairways were in the process of being re-constructed when I was there, only now that the average person is larger than in 1924, roomier and therefore fewer seats will have to be installed to deliver the comfort levels we have become accustomed to in our cinemas.  At some point the stage had been elongated over the now unnecessary orchestra pit, and raised, which effectively cut the two lower loges (recently converted into wine cellars) in half.  Carosielli plans to take the floor of the proscenium stage down to its original height, which could have presented a problem since the raked ground floor has also been levelled, but he assured me that the original height of the stage is sufficient for audiences to see.  Once he’s removed the ugly glass and metal railings in front of the four loges, two on either side of the stage mere inches from the action below, they will be the most sought after VIP seats in the house.   

I am delighted to report that the familiar marquee added in 1945 will remain, as will the concession stand, now a classy bar, at the back of the theatre with its red and gold circus-tent popcorn machine.  Vivid memories spring to mind of afternoons spent rapt in front of whatever childhood cartoon feature I had come to see, with that buttery aroma of popcorn wafting throughout the hall.  What marketing genius dreamed that up I wonder, as I recalled the constant stream of weary parents making multiple pilgrimages to the back of the theatre for yet another round of candy and soda pop. It’s more likely to be another round of martinis once the liquor license finally comes through but, a bit of a thorn in Carosielli’s side, the Régie des alcools is dragging its heels on that one.

Because the Rialto was built as a moving picture cinema and is not a converted Vaudevillian or Burlesque hall, there are no wings for performance artists, but Carosielli, who says he knows nothing about the entertainment business, though I suspect he has an inherent understanding of it, is already looking at plans to connect the stage to the basement to create the equivalent of wings and a dressing-slash-greenroom for performers.  

Upstage hangs the mammoth hand-painted backdrop, replete with cherubs and the stencilled Asbestos logo, a ‘de rigeur’ item in the best movie houses to reassure audiences they were in a fire hazard free zone.  I can’t deny that standing up against the back wall of the stage, touching that 90-year-old backdrop and gazing up to the back row of the balcony, the hairs on my arm stood up.  Aside from an overwhelming urge to take a bow … a big, sweeping standing-ovation operatic bow, the palpable history of the place washed over me, instilling the same awe-struck reverence you might experience seeing the Coliseum or the Parthenon for the first time.  I know, I’m a sucker for mushy nostalgia but you can’t deny that there is a regal air about the place that suddenly made me very glad the Rialto’s future had been placed in Carosielli’s dedicated and caring hands.  I can’t imagine a more perfect ambassador to gently captain the Rialto into the second millennium where it will surely mark its 100th birthday in the grand style it deserves.

Because they are restoring the Rialto as a heritage site, Carosielli’s team of architects are applying for grants but unfortunately cannot get subsidized to correct the renovations that the previous owner made without permits, and some of those are both timely and expensive.  Massive plastic sheets drape elegantly from the ornate ceiling and behind them, workmen are busily sanding the stairs smooth up in the balcony. “It’s like an archaeological dig.  I imagine I will spend the same amount to restore it as I did to buy it” but the long-term, colossal undertaking and dizzying costs don’t faze Carosielli, as it’s clearly a labour of love.  

Attempting to create a steakhouse, the previous owner had installed a fully equipped kitchen and there are no plans to get rid of it, as Carosielli recognizes he will need it to attract corporate events and receptions to help bankroll the restorations.   Likewise, he will keep the semi-circular booths that line the circumference of the main floor à la vintage Vegas nightclub.  The day I visited, Carosielli’s brother Carmen was taking the kitchen accoutrements for a test drive, his culinary experiments permeating the hall with the most heavenly scents.  Naturally warm and welcoming hosts, the bothers insisted I stay to lunch which (my mama didn’t raise no fool) I was only too happy to do.  We sat down amidst the constant racket to a delicious plate of rigatoni in a dark, rich sauce with sundried tomatoes and slices of garlic-y thin-crust pizza. Hm-m-m-m … how to lure Carmen away from the Rialto to install him permanently in my kitchen? Any and all suggestions are welcome.

When he first took ownership, Carosielli hired someone to handle bookings while he focused on the renovations and his other businesses, but after six months he decided to shoulder that responsibility as well and soon discovered that with his friendly, open-door policy, the history and charm beauty of the hall attracted people organically.  “The Rialto has a lot of fans so people just walk in with an idea to use the space. The place sells itself.”  He hadn’t expected more than two or three events a month at the beginning but can already boast closer to ten or twelve and foresees no let-up.

Carosielli’s wife, with the help of her daughter Cara, runs Extravadanza, a dance school offering a wide range of classes to all ages.  Having already imported So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Mia Michaels for a wildly successful workshop with 200 students, the school intends to host regular competitions and special events, with the long-term view of moving into the premises and using the basement for classes and an alternative performance space and/or rehearsal hall.  With long-time tenant La La La Human Steps occupying the second and third floor of the building (all the tenants are staying) Carosielli and his wife are hoping to line up dance stars like Édouard Lock, Louise Lecavalier  and Michaels to sit on the adjudicating panels of future dance competitions.

Carosielli has assembled a crack team to deliver top-notch support for every conceivable type of event.  Laurent Magne, originally from France but now living a few doors from the theatre, is the Technical Director with vast techno experience on both sides of the ocean.  “I don’t know what I’d do without Laurent. He is part of the décor; I think he came with the building.”  Former Crescent Street club/resto manager, Marco Trejo is in charge of the house, now settled into and preferring the less stressful atmosphere and Barry O’Connell is the theatre liaison. Carosielli is fervent about supporting new and emerging performing artists by making the space available through reasonable rental rates and does his best to negotiate terms that satisfy everyone.  “You have to revive and restore internally but also externally.  Give back to the community.  Theatre especially seems to be the poor sister of the arts.  You have a lot of dedicated, intelligent, passionate people so I’d like to encourage that as best I can.” 

A veritable cornucopia for fixer-upper addicts, Carosielli is fully aware that the work can only be accomplished slowly and in stages if he is to keep the Rialto operational during the re-building, which is his intention. In the past eight months alone, while undergoing the preliminary phases of its facelift, the Rialto has hosted successful Big Band dances, upheld the traditional weekend run of the Halloween favourite The Rocky Horror Picture Show, sold 650 tickets to a one-off event with time-travelling troubadours, The Unsettlers, and produced their first in-house theatre spectacle: the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.  The brain child of Barry O’Connell, it was a fundraiser directed by Kevin Saylor starring Frayne McCarthy (Les Miserables) that collected $10,000 for the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Sun Youth Foundation and the Mile End Community Mission. The show was so popular that Carosielli intends to remount it annually, so if you missed it this year, fear not: it’ll be back next Christmas and for a longer run.  Carosielli’s approach to leasing is pretty straightforward: “I’ll try anything once.  If it works, we’ll do it again. If it doesn’t, we won’t.” You can’t quibble with that.

As a businessman who understands how to blend artistry and commercial appeal, Carosielli is doing a bang-up job, both in his approach to programming and on the aesthetic front with the reno.  He must completely rewire the facility to provide the power he needs for the latest sound and lighting equipment, without compromising the authenticity of the interior design … no mean feat.  “You gotta go vintage.  Old style … a place like this doesn’t deserve any new imagination.  Whoever did it, did it this way and you have to respect it.  If you want to use your imagination, build a new building!”  

In acknowledgment of a bygone era, Carosielli would like to bring back Sunday afternoon double bills and organize film noir and horror mini-fests and has Philippe Spurrell (Rocky Horror Picture Show organizer for the past 12 years) as the film consultant. One of the few remaining operational 35 mm film projectors still resides in the upper projection room.  Spurrell himself has an impressive collection of old black and white films and on occasion Carosielli has had McGill music students perform the musical accompaniments for the silent flicks.   

Aside from maintaining audiences from the surrounding neighbourhoods Carosielli is also shooting to attract people from the burbs. “People know the Rialto and when we say we’re open, they come.  I’ve bought a building and a beautiful brand” which made him a bit leery about hosting the Rocky Horror weekend, but out of respect for an established tradition, he decided to go ahead with the annual event and now sees no reason to change that.  

The growing versatility of the space along with the experienced and obliging staff position the Rialto for a wide range of entertainment possibilities and Carosielli invites ideas from anyone who is dedicated to their vision.  He’s cooking up something special for Valentines weekend, both for those who love it and those who revile it, and is also talking about a remount with the people who brought The Beatles to the Corona Theatre.  

The construction crew wrapped up their sanding in the balcony just in time for the opening of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Absurd Person Singular, playing until Jan. 23 (look for Elizabeth Johnston’s review on this blog) which leading actor and producer Kevin Kibbey is presenting in the round in the centre of the ground floor.  Kibbey’s seating plan accommodates 100 people but there’s lots more chairs waiting in the wings so come one, come all.  In April, Village Scene Productions brings the dark psychological yarn, Equus, with a huge cast directed by Paul Van Dyck, to Park Avenue.

The doors are open most days at 5723 Park Avenue (corner of Bernard) if you’d like to drop in and check up on the status of the renovations or meet the affable owner, but if for some reason you can’t make the trip, you can take a virtual tour courtesy of the online La Presse article by Rima Elkouri. 

Next week in Ford’s Focus: Andrew Cuk, Artistic Director of Canis Tempus whose play, Sala XVIII, is currently playing at Theatre-Ste-Catherine until January 22, 2011. 

See also Elizabeth Johnston's review of the inaugural production of the new house, Absurd Person Singular


  1. Thanks, Barbara, for a marvelous article about a worthy contributor to Montreal culture. Mr. Carosielli is an admirable citizen indeed! Thanks to him, our heritage is being respected; let's relish the grand old Rialto in its reborn glory. I'm looking forward to those Sunday matinees!
    --Jane Gilchrist


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