Gadsden’s historic Ritz Theatre: Reviving ‘the last icon of a storied past’
by Brooke Carbo
Jul 15, 2011 | 8558 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
People line up to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the renovated Ritz Theatre in Gadsden. Photo: Alison Gene Smith/The Anniston Star
People line up to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the renovated Ritz Theatre in Gadsden. Photo: Alison Gene Smith/The Anniston Star
The marquee of the Ritz Theatre in Gadsden has defined the Alabama City historical district since being erected in 1928. As a young boy growing up in the cotton mill community of Alabama City, Gadsden Councilman Johnny Cannon spent every Friday night at the theater watching cowboy movies with his dad.

At Monday’s ribbon-cutting to mark the theater’s reopening, Cannon shared his memories of the neon landmark.

“I knew it wasn’t time to go until the light came on,” he recalled. “From the road around the cotton mill I could see the sign and I would stand there and say, ‘come on light, turn on.’ Then I could run tell my daddy it was time to go to the picture show.”

Bob Van Schaik is the president of the Theatre of Gadsden, the production company that calls the Ritz home. He told attendants of Monday’s ceremony that the downtown district was once a center for entertainment with as many as six theaters at one point.

“All but one has disappeared,” he said. “This is the last icon of a storied past.”

Gadsden officials hope the refurbished Ritz will revitalize the Alabama City community by bringing in businesses and tourists. The historic venue was closed in 2008 to undergo extensive renovations to “restore her to her proper stature,” Van Schaik said.

The Theatre of Gadsden is kicking off its first season in the now thoroughly modern structure with a production of the Tony award-winning musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The show opens July 22 and will run for two consecutive weekends.

Auditions will begin Aug. 1 for TOG’s production of Steel Magnolias, scheduled to run in September. The remainder of the 2011-2012 season is slated to include:

Rocky Horror Picture Show in October 2011

Harvey in December 2011

On Golden Pond in February 2012

Charlotte’s Web in April 2012

The Complete History of America (Abridged) in July 2012

TOG season passes are on sell now.

Besides being a venue for live theater, Van Schaik said the Ritz will host late-night movies for adults and Saturday morning cartoons for children and will be available to the community for events including city functions, dance recitals, lectures, ceremonies and actor’s workshops.

“We want to make sure this venue is used on a weekly basis,” he said.

TOG’s production of “Crimes of the Heart” was produced in the Ritz earlier this year to ensure the venue was ready for its close-up. Renovations included a sprinkler system mandated by the state fire marshal, a new roof and a historically accurate restoration of the art deco interior and terrazzo floor. Two aisles were inserted into what were continuous rows of seats and five energy-efficient air-conditioning units replaced a cooling system that Van Schaik said obstructed the view from the balcony and often kicked on with a loud roar at inopportune moments of a performance.

Amy Bennett, who plays Millie’s Miss Dorothy Brown, has been with TOG since auditioning for The Sound of Music in 2002. When she walked through the doors of the improved facility for the first time for a performance of Crimes of the Heart, she said she burst into tears.

“It was beautiful to see it filled with music again,” she said.

If you go:

What: Theatre of Gadsden’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”

Where: Ritz Theatre, 310 Wall St., Alabama City Historic District of Gadsden

When: July 22-23 and 29-30 at 7:30 p.m.; July 24 and 31 at 2:30 p.m.

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