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Rialto Theatre showcasing Tucson's concert history through photographers' lenses
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Rialto Theatre showcasing Tucson's concert history through photographers' lenses

Through their lenses, Tucson photographers C. Elliott and Mark A. Martinez have documented everyone from rockabilly giants Rev. Horton Heat and pop superstar Justin Bieber to Americana legends Lucinda Williams and Justin Towne Earl at downtown’s Rialto Theatre.

Hundreds of marquee-worthy national bands — The Chainsmokers, Talib Kweli, Modest Mouse, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Leo Kottke, Sonic Youth, Maroon 5, Matt Nathanson and My Chemical Romance to name a scant few — are among the rockers, country artists, blues belters and Latin giants that the pair has photographed since the early 2000s.

On Friday, April 2, the Rialto will kick off the monthslong Rialto Theatre Gallery Project showcasing the pair’s concert photos. Admission is free, although donations are accepted to support the theater, which has been closed since March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rialto officials have said they hope to reopen in late summer or early fall depending on the severity of the health crisis and securing funding under a federal relief fund aimed at helping independent venues reopen.

Until Martinez volunteered his services around 2006, the Rialto had never had a bonafide house photographer — a person who shot every show regardless of genre. Former owner Jeb Schoonover, who bought the historic movie house with partner Paul Bear in 1995 and turned it into a concert venue, said they had a couple of photographers who took pictures for the venue in the early years. But it was sporadic and inconsistent; one liked blues music and would shoot every blues show, and the other was a fan of indie bands and shot those shows.

“There is a lot of stuff I kinda wish we would have photographed because it was avant garde and interesting,” said Schoonover, who sold the Rialto, 318 E. Congress St., in 2004 to the City of Tucson as part of the Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project. The theater is now run by the nonprofit Rialto Foundation.

“The Rialto is the No. 1 place for concerts, so if you want to shoot bands, what a godsend,” he added. “I think the interesting thing about both Mark and Elliott is that they are both such music fans.”

“When we started going through Elliott’s pictures — she has 5,500 of them — we started realizing how many of these people are now major stars,” said Kip Volpe, president of the Rialto Foundation board that operates the theater. “Who is the next superstar who is going to play the Rialto? … It’s a lot fun and it’s really fantastic. It’s going to be a great event.”

HAVE CAMERA, WILL SHOOT

Martinez saw his first concert at 15 in his native Chicago and remembers that he wished he had a camera to capture the moment. So he bought one and taught himself photography. Combining his love of music with his self-taught love of photography was a no-brainer; the hard part was convincing the Rialto to give him a shot.

“I tried to bring my camera into a show, and they wouldn’t let me in,” Martinez, 60, recalled. “By chance I ran into a promoter of the show, and I told him they wouldn’t let me in.”

The promoter was game to give Martinez a chance and invited him to photograph the next show he held at the Rialto. That experience led him to land the house photographer job with City Limits, the long-closed venue on East Tanque Verde Road run by Cal Productions, which in the early 2000s was one of the top concert promoters of all genres in Tucson.

Even though he had a steady photography gig, Martinez kept bugging Rialto managers about shooting their shows. They finally relented in 2006.

“They admitted that they couldn’t afford me so I gradually reduced my rate until I was able to come in because I really wanted to shoot shows here,” said Martinez, who moved to Tucson in 1985 to escape the cold Illinois winters.

For nearly three years, Martinez shot every show at the theater, from the Afro-Cuban Mexican rock band Café Tacvba to Beck and Elvis Costello. One of his favorite shows was with My Morning Jacket in November 2008.

“It was an amazing show, and I’m really disappointed in Tucson for not showing up,” he said of the concert, which barely registered with ticketbuyers.

In addition to the Rialto, Martinez for several years moonlighted as house photographer for Casino del Sol’s AVA.

HERE COMES ELLIOTT

Elliott was no stranger to the Rialto or Martinez. She was like that little sister bugging her big brother to let her tag along with him and his friends.

“Elliott would show up a few times and kind of talk to me; how do I shoot this, how do I get involved,” he recalled. “She was a pest at first, but I admired her persistence.”

Elliott was already shooting concerts for the late Jonathan Holden’s Rhythm & Roots shows and for The Fox Tucson Theatre. But the Rialto was the prize, the venue in Tucson that had shows nearly every night by some of the most interesting national and local artists, from Latin rock bands to country singers and rockers.

“The Fox and Rhythm & Roots have wonderful shows with a lot of the folk, roots and Americana artists that I love, but I wanted to be able to shoot a lot of shows, and the Rialto can have shows every night for a few weeks in a row,” she said. “I wanted to be immersed in concert photography.”

Elliott didn’t have a camera when she saw her first concert, Laura Nyro at the Cincinnati Music Hall, when she was 16. A week later, she saw James Taylor with a then unknown Carole King.

The next year, she shot the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead with a Kodak Instamatic.

“Back then in the 1970s, you could just walk in with a camera, no questions asked,” she recalled. “Looking back on it now, shoot, I wish I had done more shows. ‘Adult Elliott, tell your 20-something Elliott to take that camera with you no matter what.’”

Photographing those concerts was all about remembering the moment. The Cincinnati native had no illusions that her fascination with concert photography would become anything more than a pastime.

In fact, she didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life when she moved to Tucson with a boyfriend in 1973 to attend the University of Arizona. She had been to Tucson before as a kid; her grandmother and uncle lived in Nogales, Arizona.

“When I first came out here as a kid, stepped off the plane and looked at the sky, it was like, oh yeah, I’m home. I just knew it,” she said.

She lived in the dorms, but she spent most of her time in what she described as a hippy commune — the only woman with five male roommates living in a small green house on a patch of land that stretched from North Country Club to East Fort Lowell Road. She would hitchhike to campus for class, then back to the house for parties.

After a year, she and the boyfriend moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath adobe at East Fifth Street and North Fourth Avenue, where she lived for a year before the relationship soured and she moved on once again.

In 1977, Elliott earned her English literature degree. Not long afterward, she bought herself a Canon professional camera — a big leap up from her instamatic. She went on tour with a Cincinnati band for a couple of weeks and took some photography classes at Pima Community College with Louis Carlos Bernal, who founded Pima’s photography program. For a few years, she worked at a leather shop on North Fourth Avenue making belts and wallets. She later bought the shop and ran it for several years until the hippy leather fad had run its course by the 1980s.

She went back to school in 1990 to become a paralegal, then worked as a legal assistant for the Pima County Juvenile Court for years before leaving in 2003. She worked for a few years at a tattoo parlor and then felt the tug of concert photography. That’s when she landed regular gigs shooting shows for Rhythm & Roots and the Fox in 2008.

In late 2008, the Rialto promoted Martinez to house manager, opening the door for Elliott. She shadowed him for six months before she took over in 2009. The theater was in a financial downturn courtesy of the recession, so Elliott agreed to do the job with no pay so long as her photos were posted on the Rialto’s social media.

Before the pandemic, Elliott was averaging 260 shows a year including the 2010 show with a then-unknown YouTube star Justin Bieber. Some nights Elliott would photograph a couple of shows, bouncing from the Rialto to its sister venue 191 Toole or the Fox, shooting rock, folk, indie and hip-hop shows.

“I love the new hip hop. I love the new rap,” the 66-year-old said. “When they first start off, we had Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert and Childish Gambino, and they are so enthusiastic, and they encourage mosh pits, and you have these young kids on stage. I really enjoy the music. It’s something that I am totally drawn to and being able to combine the fact I can bring a camera and photograph it.”

GETTING BACK IN THE THEATER

Martinez has continued working at the Rialto throughout the pandemic, but it’s been more than a year since Elliott shot her last Rialto show. She stayed on the sidelines for much of 2020, but last fall she started photographing local artists’ shows on the Hotel Congress outdoor patio and the MSA Annex.

“One of the things that has been good about COVID is that I can focus on local bands,” she said. “I have really enjoyed getting back into the local music scene.”

Elliott has no idea which of her photos will be exhibited in the Rialto Theatre Gallery Project. She left that up to the organizers, who have been flirting with the idea of a concert photo exhibit for years but had never been able to find a time when the theater wasn’t booked.

“This was a great time when the Rialto is dark to use it and get people to see the Rialto and to see shows from the years,” she said. “It’s a win-win because the theater is dark for another few months.”

Martinez said he submitted more than a dozen of his photos including a Café Tacvba show that ranked as one of his all-time favorite Rialto shows alongside Beck, Elvis Costello and Tom Jones.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com. On Twitter @Starburch.


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