Travel back with us to December 1935. In the midst of the Great Depression, the City of Greenville eagerly welcomed its first genuine "movie palace." 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 larger-than-life figures on the silver screen. Not counting 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 "modernization" to improve theater acoustics, hangs forlornly from the walls. The dusty stage is barely visible beneath the 1950s 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.
"The place looked like something out of "The Addams Family." Before we could do anything with it, we had to clean it up," Roberta Gamble, better known as "Miss Bobbie," recalls. The "we" Gamble refers to was a small but enthusiastic band of arts supporters, who were determined to restore the aging theater.
Going into High Gear
Twenty-two years later the Greenville Area Arts Council and the restored Ritz Theatre have come a long way. Going into high gear. Once the City purchased the theater in 1982, the sweat equity put into the building rapidly escalated. After all, the Arts Council already had their first show booked and it 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 decor 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. Before the first season got underway, the city pitched in additional improvements including a new roof, dressing rooms built under the stage and a nine-foot extension of the theater's original hardwood stage.
In the 1980s, by means of grant funding, fundraising and city funds, the Ritz installed a new heating/cooling system as well as a much needed new ceiling. By the fall of 1990, the former movie palace was looking lovely again. The city and the arts council were not done yet, however.
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 "tea shop" ambiance. On the left is a conference room with mahogany table and chairs, decorated with Erte prints donated by the Greenville Area Arts Council (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.
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. 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 "to put on a show with style" in small-town Greenville has been realized. Now we have a place the entire city can enjoy and take pride in.