By Alexia Carrasco
The Ritz Theatre in Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood was once a hub of activity for people from the surrounding black community.
In the 1950s, Flora Parker, a Jacksonville native, remembers that people of all ages would crowd the theater on Saturdays.
“There were four black theaters, but we always preferred the Ritz. And on Saturday we met up with to see certain friends to socializes,” Parker said. “We didn’t have shopping malls back then. So, we went there to congregate, and it was great. It was a treat being able to go to the movies and being able to hang with friends and see the features.”
During the afternoons families would take their children to see movies like “Stormy Weather” and “Joan of Arc.” As the day rolled on teenagers would come to the theater to catch up with their friends and enjoy a film.
Once the sun went down adult would dress in their finest clothing and make their way down to Davis Street to end the night with the latest movie.
The smell of popcorn and hot dogs would draw people to the concession stand, Parker said. Candies like Mr. Goodbars, Sugar Daddys and Tootsie Rolls would help satisfy a customer’s sweet tooth.
The Ritz was a place that made people feel welcomed. A great part of that welcoming feeling was due to the theater employees, Park said.
“The workers there were just so kind to us and so friendly, they were never grouchy with all the teenagers.” Parker said.
The building’s façade lent to the magic. It was one of the first places in Jacksonville to have neon lights so the theater shined. The architecture also made it stand out.
“It had an unusual architectural design and mixed all kinds of motifs — Egyptian and Mediterranean styles,” said Joel McEachin, a historic preservation specialist at the city planning department.
The Ritz’s grandeur was magnified by the fact that by mid-century, it was all that was left of what was once a lively LaVilla scene.
“It was the only (theater) that survived,” McEachin said. “All the other theaters that were around had been torn down by the ‘60s except the Ritz.”
Today, within the walls of the Ritz Theatre and Museum, some of that history of the old theater and the neighborhood that surrounds it still lives – accounts of Jacksonville’s past unknown by many of its current residents.
Here the stories from what was once known as the Harlem of the South come alive. While some may have forgotten the rich history of black life that once lived in the city, the Ritz remembers and tells those stories.
But the theater wasn’t always what it is today – a museum and entertainment venue for live shows.
When the Ritz first opened its doors in 1929 it was a movie theater for blacks who, due to segregation, couldn’t watch movies with white people. It became one of the hotspots for blacks intent on catching the latest films.
Unlike some of the other theaters in LaVilla, the Ritz only showed movies and was not a place for entertainers to perform, according to the Ritz Museum Director Adonnica Toler.
“I’ve asked individuals ‘well who did you come see’ and they would tell me you would go to the Strand to see a performance and movie,” Toler said. “The Ritz was strictly a movie house.”
The theater became a big part of people’s lives in LaVilla. Children and teens would save up their bottlecaps knowing they would get a special deal into the theater.
On the weekend many people in LaVilla made sure that all their chores were done so they could spend the day watching movies and hanging out at the Ritz.
Although the Ritz played an important part of LaVilla until the late 1960s desegregation meant that other theaters were now opened to blacks and LaVilla as well as its signature movie theater began to decay.
New opportunities and possibilities drew blacks away from LaVilla into other parts of town. The area, once so full of aspiration and community, began to crumble.
Around 1972 the Ritz was closed and boarded up.
However, in the 1990s a group of individuals took it upon themselves to save the building. They conducted fundraisers and even invited entertainers like Bill Cosby and Gregory Hines to raise money to save what was left of the building.
“There was even a commercial of Bill Cosby talking about supporting the Ritz,” Toler said.
Some $4 million were raised in the fund-raising effort.
The first thought was to turn the building into a performing arts center, according to McEachin, but that attempt failed because of lack of funds.
It was several years before a group solidified to save the building, but by that time the building had disintegrated further.
“They could only save the little corner,” McEachin said. “That’s the only thing left from the original.”
In 1999 the museum was reopened. Originally the museum was going to be built across the street but it was eventually moved into the building so that before and after the shows in the Ritz’s revamped theater, people could stroll through the museum.
The Ritz continues to keep Jacksonville’s black history alive today with its cultural offerings and museum. The museum introduces visitors, from children on school field trips to people with a sense of curiosity, to a history of black Jacksonville that has largely been ignored for the past decades.
Everything that is seen in the museum came straight from LaVilla natives.
“The items come from people from the community,” Toler said. “Town hall meetings and requests in the newspapers, announcements were made to get these items.”
Inside one of the rooms in the museum an animatronic version of Jacksonville’s James Weldon Johnson comes to life to narrate the story of how he and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, wrote their song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
Another museum exhibit gives visitors a sense of what old LaVilla used to look like during the 1920a. Exact replicas of a 1940s barbershop, classroom and other buildings are displayed.
Someday, Toler hopes the Ritz will become a household name. She hopes that when people hear the name that they think about Jacksonville.
“Many people say there is nothing to do in Jacksonville, that it’s boring here and I think that because they don’t know what’s here,” Toler said. “Peoples’ perspectives of the city would change if they realized what some of the history is and how rich it is.”