Historic theater enjoying renaissance

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2004

Travel with us back to December 1935. In the midst of the Great Depression, the city of Greenville eagerly welcomed its first genuine &uot;movie palace&uot;.

The brainchild of local attorney Calvin Poole, the new Ritz Theatre was a place where everyday worries could be put aside as patrons marveled at the antics of the large-than-life figures on the silver screen.

Not counting its balcony seats, the new movie house could seat 500 cinema enthusiasts. It also boasted a hardwood stage to host traveling vaudevillians, and floors covered in beautiful multi-colored wool carpet imported from Belgium.

Throughout the new theater, patrons were greeted by the geometric patterns and brilliant primary shades of Art Deco design.

The stylish interior made a visit to the Ritz a treat for the eyes long before the lights dimmed and the projectors started rolling…

House of horrors

Fast forward into the early 1980s.

A far different sight greets visitors to the Ritz. Sagging, rotten burlap, a product of a mid-century &uot;modernization&uot; to improve theater acoustics, hangs forlornly from the walls. The dusty stage is barely visible beneath the 50s-era screen.

Sharp springs protrude from the theater’s shabby seats.

The once-proud movie house’s lovely carpeting has long since disappeared. Colorful Art Deco moldings and accents are buried under grimy coats of institutional paint.

What a difference several decades can make.

&uot;The place looked like something out of ‘The Addams Family’. Before we could do anything with it, we had to clean it up,&uot; Roberta Gamble, better known as &uot;Miss Bobbie&uot;, recalls today.

The &uot;we&uot; Gamble refers to was a small but enthusiastic band of arts supporters, including Mayor Protempore Charles Kennedy, Carol MacArthur, Pat Jenkins and Magoo Hamilton, who were determined to restore the aging theatre.

Twenty-two years later the Greenville Area Arts Council and the restored Ritz Theatre have come a long way.

Let’s put on a show

It hasn’t been a smooth road to success for the GAAC.

&uot;A group of us really wanted to see the arts promoted in Greenville, but we needed a place to do that,&uot; says Gamble.

A fledgling arts council had been organized in the 1970s, but later died out largely due to the lack of staging opportunities. &uot;The town had several gymnasiums, but nowhere to put on a show with style,&uot; Gamble explains.

In 1981, owner Poole decided to put the Ritz up for sale. Gamble and her friends were among those who fought hard to convince city fathers to buy the property. The group vowed to officials they would restore the long- neglected movie house.

Even before they officially organized into an arts council, future GAAC members could be found at the old theater, trying to restore to the &uot;uninhabitable&uot; building some of its former luster.

Gamble likens those early efforts to an old MGM Garland-Rooney musical.

&uot;A whole bunch of folks just banded together and decided they were going to turn this old movie house into a theater,&uot; she jokes.

Going into high gear

Once the city purchased the theater in 1982 for $75,000, the sweat equity put into the building rapidly escalated. After all, the new arts council already had their first show booked, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s touring production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – and that premier production was scheduled to take place a scant three months later.

The council, keeping in mind their promise to the city to restore the Ritz, researched the original d/cor of the 1935 theater. With only black and white photos to go by, the group had to search through period books to select appropriate colors.

Gamble recall how delighted members Pat Jenkins and Sandra Wise were to discover how closely the vivid yellow, red and turquoise shades they had chosen matched original interior colors, rediscovered beneath layers of paint.

Before that first season, the city pitched in another $63,000 worth of improvements to the theater, including a new roof, new dressing rooms built under the stage and a nine-foot extension of the theater’s original hardwood stage.

&uot;After we cleaned the theater up and made those changes, we used it like that for a long time,&uot; Gamble explains.

A star is reborn

With no air-conditioning, a 1940s-era heating system &uot;that clacked like a locomotive,&uot; making it too noisy to use during performances, duct-taped seats and floors covered with donated carpeting, a downtown star (albeit one in need of further &uot;facelifts&uot;) was, nonetheless, reborn.

In the early years of the organization, patrons filled the well-worn seats and hand-fanned their way through classic works such as &uot;Romeo and Juliet&uot;, &uot;The Glass Menagerie&uot; and &uot;Hamlet&uot; along with ballets, musicals and concerts.

In that first year of existence, the Greenville Area Arts Council – the small town group with the patched-up old movie house – was selected most outstanding arts council in the entire state.

&uot;If you look at photos of the theater prior to 1990, it wasn’t necessarily pretty – but, my dear, it worked,&uot; Gamble says.

A glorious restoration

The dream to fully return the Ritz to its former glories never died, however.

In the late 1980s, courtesy of a grant written by Gamble, fundraisers and &uot;a little begging&uot;, the GAAC managed to raise enough money to provide a new heating/cooling system for the theater. The city agreed to provide a much-needed new ceiling.

Volunteers painstakingly worked to restore the Art Deco designs to the walls. Additions to the theater, such as the lobby concession stand and door to the old coffee shop next door, were removed and sealed. The &uot;killer seats&uot; were replaced with 450 comfortable new ones.

Gamble stumbled upon an old, dirty piece of the original carpeting in the balcony, brought it home &uot;and scrubbed it until you could see the original colors.&uot; A Dalton, Georgia mill was able to replicate the carpeting for the Ritz.

By the fall of 1990, the former movie palace was looking lovely again.

The city and the arts council were not done yet, however.

The complete package

In recent years, the Ritz restoration project has expanded to include the two buildings flanking the theater.

On the right, a spacious reception room, complete with a full kitchen and additional restrooms, now welcomes visitors. Furnished with gold and silver two-person tables and chairs, the Ritz reception room offers a cozy &uot;tea shop&uot; ambience, says Gamble.

On the left is a conference room furnished with mahogany table and chairs, decorated with Erte prints donated by GAAC members Janis Odom and June Bell.

The rooms’ gleaming hardwood floors were provided by the city, with the GAAC funding the striking Art Deco light fixtures and furnishings for both rooms.

&uot;We have to give credit to the talents of Mary Ann Hamilton and Karen Rainey for creating, in these two rooms, the same vibrant Art Deco theme found in the restored theater,&uot; Gamble points out.

The new rooms have been used for a variety of functions, including after-performance receptions, catered meals for performance attendees, GAAC meetings and as jury rooms for beauty pageants.

The Ritz, which continues as the site of three to four GAAC productions each season, also hosts dance recitals, school plays and a variety of other programs, including the pilot for a television talk show this past spring.

History with style

The Ritz Theatre and its conference and reception rooms all blend together into what the GAAC believes is a unique and historic civic auditorium, a true downtown gem. That long-ago dream of a place &uot;to put on a show with style&uot; in small-town Greenville has been realized.

While Gamble candidly admits it would cost &uot;a not-so-small fortune&uot; to return the present Ritz exterior to its original Art Deco fa?ade, she is proud to point out the theater’s interior &uot;now looks as much as possible like it did when it opened in 1935.&uot;

All the blood, sweat, tears, bother and begging have been worth it, Gamble says.

&uot;We had a hard time convincing the city to buy the Ritz, and it took years to fully restore it – but we did it. We have a place the entire city can enjoy and take pride in.&uot;