Rio Theatre

435 W. Milam Street,
Wharton, TX 77488

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Frels Theaters

Styles: Streamline Moderne

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Rio Theatre

The Rio Theatre was a majestic brick building located just west of downtown Wharton, Texas. Opened on August 13, 1950, this building replaced the original Rio Theatre which had opened in 1935.

The exterior had a large vertical, wall-mounted sign bearing the theater’s name and a broad, burgundy-colored marquee with real milkglass. The neon on the marquee and the vertical sign glowed a mystic pink! The terrazzo floor outside the lobby was a seafoam green with two pink lines that curved towards the lobby.

The Rio Theatre was known as the home of the stars, and it was a favorite hangout of Wharton teens in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and early-1970’s. During these years the theatre was operated by the Frels Theatres chain, out of Victoria, Texas. The manager in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s was Mae Jensen. The Rio Theatre would show a children’s movie on Saturday mornings. Among the movies that made their Wharton debut at the Rio Theatre were “Old Yeller”, “Love Story”, “Shaft”, and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.

The Rio Theatre was closed on June 15, 1975. It was used as a church from 1976 until 1991. Left abandoned, it was demolished on November 20, 1997.

Contributed by Bob Machann

Recent comments (view all 16 comments)

sepiatone on November 9, 2010 at 3:56 pm

The Rio opened at 6:00 p.m. on August 13, 1950. The premier feature was, fittingly enough, “Nancy Goes to Rio” with Ann Sothern and Jane Powell. The Rio’s general contractor was James Kershaw, and C. Russell Lewis of Dallas, Texas supervised the artistic decorations.

sepiatone on January 7, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Are there any surviving photos of the Rio’s interior? There were bas-reliefs in the lobby and auditorium when the Rio was new. Did these survive a 1967 interior remodel? Does anyone know?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on January 16, 2011 at 12:33 am

Judging from the photo of the facade that CWalczak linked to above, this 1950 theater was not Spanish Renneissance in style, but thoroughly modern. Maybe it was the original Rio that was Spanish.

sepiatone on April 29, 2011 at 5:41 am

The last movie to show at the Rio before it closed was “Los Hombres No Lloran” with Jorge Rivero and Lorena Velazquez. That was on June 15, 1975.

Greg100 on November 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm

I was the general manager of the Rio Theatre in Wharton from summer 1972 untl June of 1975. I also managed the Plaza Theatre at the same time. It was during this period that the Plaza went through a major conversion from a one screen theatre into a three screen unit. When the Plaza opened as a three screen unit in June of 1973, the Rio was converted into a “R” rated theatre and remained so up until I left in June of 1975. I have pictures of the Plaza grand reopening that I will try and find and post. I remember we opened the Plaza with “American Graffiti”, but I cannot remember the other two features.

sepiatone on October 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm

I found the opening day information for the original 1935 Rio. It opened on Easter Sunday, April 21, 1935. The premier feature was “It Happened One Night” with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The original Rio was located in the Vineyard Building on the corner of Milam Street and Richmond Road. That building was demolished in December 1991.

Chris1982 on October 16, 2014 at 8:20 pm

sepiatoone you might want to create a page for the original Rio.

Ken Holmes
Ken Holmes on November 12, 2018 at 11:08 am


I remember when you opened the Plaza back in 72', before the conversion. I remember seeing “What’s up Doc” with Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. I also saw “The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County”, with Dan Blocker. And also lived across the hall from you for several months. I remember you were a true fan of Ray Price. Your post brings back memories. About that conversion, did you extend the balcony and put two smaller screens up there? That is how they converted the River Oaks Theater in Houston from one screen to three. ~ken

cleanmar on September 10, 2023 at 5:47 am

I’m sitting here in a hospital room, about to have Bypass surgery. The downtime has given me time to reflect on my old home town. The Rio theatre was once the heart of the small town of Wharton Texas. It was a time I still see through the eyes of the teenager I was some sixty years ago. My coworkers at the theatre, and my classmates will live forever young in my memory. It was a time of discovery and disappointment. It was filled with the hard truths that come with the coming of age. Death, first love, racism and elitism filled the pages in the book of my small town beginning. Through it all The Rio theatre provided the anchor of stability that helped me persevere. I have been the victim, perpetrator, and casualty in the struggling drama of my life, but there is much I gained in the transformative exposure to the art and music of movies. I now see everything through the lens of an artist. My paints are the insights I drew from my youth.

cleanmar on September 10, 2023 at 6:07 am

When I worked at the theatre I remember a short good looking baby faced college student trying to sell his original art. He soon became a local celebrity by forming the band Jeff and The Kickers. Time and the inability to get a music contract made his time and music disappear into a distant memory. I saw his obituary and I hardly recognized the old man in the picture. We come from nothing and we leave with nothing.

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