Getting on the Bandwagon: The Rialto Starts its Encore

The latest incarnation of the beloved Five Points theater brings the institution back to its musical roots.
By David Menconi  | Photography by Joshua Steadman

One of the all-time great rock-band movies was made in the Triangle nearly 30 years ago. Titled Bandwagon, it was released in 1996 and directed by original The Connells drummer John Schultz — featuring that band’s singer Doug MacMillan as a Zen-like road manager tending to a struggling young band.

Following a series of spectacular misadventures on the road, the protagonist band rolls back into town for a homecoming show where they have to confront the temptations of selling their souls for success. And the setting for the climactic confrontation is one of Raleigh’s grandest venues: The Rialto Theater, a classy home court to multiple generations of local bands.

“The scene where the band is pushing their broken-down van up to the front of The Rialto after driving a million miles, that just rings so true,” says Deep South Entertainment owner and artist manager Dave Rose. “It was the perfect place for them to come back to.”

Through the 1980s and well into the ’90s, the 432-seat Rialto served as a frequent concert venue, primarily for acts drawing more of a sit-down crowd. Its programming shifted to mostly movies later in the 1990s and stayed that way up until August 2022, when longtime owner Bill Peebles retired. 

The Rialto shut down, staying dark and quiet for almost a year. The hiatus was long enough for fans of the theater to fear the worst, given how many local landmarks have disappeared in recent years.

But The Rialto began stirring to life this past summer, when Raleigh native Hayes Permar bought it. A multimedia gadfly — sports reporter, podcaster, and P.A. announcer for the Carolina Mudcats baseball team — Permar has never run a theater before. But he has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, plus an informal circle of friendly advisors like Rose to coach him on the finer points of concert promotion.

“It feels like I’ve jumped out of a plane, the chute hasn’t opened yet and I’m free-falling,” Permar says. “We’ve got some good things planned, a lot of cool stuff. But I’ve never done this before and it’s scary. There are moments when it continues to feel like the right move. But it’s still scary as hell. Terrifying, even.” 

The reopened Rialto’s first live-music event was a daytime jazz show during last September’s Hopscotch Music Festival, which also served as a shakedown cruise to check the sound system (verdict: pretty good!).

Other shows during the initial fall run were singer/guitarist Sonny Miles, twisted folk-rock group Mountain Goats and Christmas concerts by the Durham Symphony Orchestra, singer-songwriter Jeanne Jolly and beach-music legends The Embers.

Music has also figured prominently in the reopened Rialto’s film programming, most notably showings of the 1984 Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense and longtime cult favorite The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The latter has been a Rialto staple for decades, so bringing it back was a no-brainer.

“People asked me, Are you bringing Rocky Horror back?” says Permar. “Hey, I’d be a fool not to!”

The Rialto has been a theater since 1936, when it opened in a converted grocery store at 1620 Glenwood Ave. in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood. Along with serving as the city’s primary art-house cinema, it’s always had an iconic stature among Raleigh’s musical population. Many local musicians and fans have a favorite memory set there.

“My freshman year of high school, my first-ever acid trip was at a Johnny Quest show at The Rialto,” says Chatham County Line mandolinist John Teer with a laugh. “And it was amazing for it to be there. The Rialto was always such a great venue and theater. Best popcorn in town, too.”

Chatham County Line will be playing an album-release show in February at The Rialto. The upcoming schedule also includes country singer Rissi Palmer and the musical King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running.

This past fall, the theater also hosted live comedy, screenings of FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer games and a video shoot for the NC State gymnastics team — all part of Permar’s idea of recreating The Rialto as a community center for a broad range of activities. “Any area of interest you can think of,” he says, “I’ve probably had a club involved in it reach out to me about an event. Photo groups, sci-fi groups into cult shows, everything.”

For now, the most eye-catching aspect of the new Rialto is the marquee’s bright blue paint job. Permar has some plans for the inside, too, to improve the sound system for live music and freshen up the lobby “so it looks a little more modern and sleek, and less like a popcorn stand.”

Admittedly, finding the right niche alongside other local venues will be a challenge.

“I’m not trying to compete with Goodnights [Comedy Club] or Lincoln Theatre or Cat’s Cradle or any other club or promoter,” says Permar. “I’d rather work with them, as collaborator and co-presenter. We want The Rialto to be a big collaborative thing for all kinds of different audiences.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.