Renovated marquee spotlights big year for Ritz

Published 4:45 pm Monday, January 19, 2009

It’s been a part of the city’s landscape since 1935. Thousands of patrons came through its front doors, greeting their friends, inhaling the scent of hot buttered popcorn and knowing the tickets they bought at the front box office would take them on a journey.

Whether it was to the Wild West of olden days, an exotic South Sea island or Main Street U.S.A., the Ritz Theatre entertained generations of movie goers in Greenville.

“On Sunday nights when a really good picture was showing, people would sometimes be lined up all the way past Sunshine Cleaners (the former Jim Massey building) to buy their tickets,” recalls Emmie Lou Grayson, who worked as a teenager at the local movie palace back in the 1940s.

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The 500-seat theater also featured a hardwood stage, allowing for live performances. One local boy, Hiram “Hank” Williams Sr. gave a couple of concerts there.

“I really liked Hank. He was very nice, very soft-spoken. I always did love his singing,” Grayson remembers.

Changes came to the Ritz in the ’50s and ’60s: a lighted marquee to replace the original Art Deco fan design, a larger screen that engulfed the original stage, burlap over the painted walls.

The Ritz, its silver screen heyday come and gone, closed its doors in the late 1970s.

By the early ’80s, a new lease of life was obtained for the faded beauty when the fledgling Greenville Area Arts Council persuaded the City of Greenville to purchase the old theater.

With lots of elbow grease and determination, the Ritz was slowly transformed over the next quarter of a century, with an extended stage, new seating, restored Art Deco trim, replica carpeting, new heating/cooling and expanded dressing rooms.

The former barbershop and coffee shop flanking the theater were transformed into a conference room and reception room with a full kitchen as part of the Ritz Theatre Complex. Over the years, the theater has hosted numerous school plays and musicals, concerts, beauty pageants and the three to four professional productions brought to the city by the GAAC each season.

In 2007, the Ritz Players, made up of talents from across the community, launched the first annual musical fundraiser for the GAAC, “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

Now, the final part of the restoration is complete: the 1950s – era marquee has returned in all its glowing neon glory.

On February 9, those lights will shine for the next Greenville Area Arts Council production, the hit Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” The curtain goes up at 7 p.m. At 6:30 p.m., a special ceremony to celebrate the new marquee will take place in front of the Ritz.

“We hope lots of people will come early and join us as we celebrate this special occasion. The lights are just beautiful and it takes us back to the glory days of the Ritz,” said GAAC director Nancy Idland.

As part of the celebration of the new marquee, the GAAC is looking for photographs and memorabilia to display in the theater lobby. Anyone who has photos and other items they are willing to share with the community for the occasion should contact Mary Ann Hamilton at 382-8668.

And yet another community musical fundraiser is set for Spring 2009: “Shine!” This latest all-singing, all-dancing effort is set for April 23, 24 and 25. Open auditions for those who want to be a part of the show is set for January 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ritz.