Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)
Thursday February 25, 2010
RITZ THEATRE KEEPS BLACK HISTORY ALIVE; SHOW MUST GO ON;
After surviving a budget scare, the LaVilla icon searches for funding to keep on entertaining and educating.
By CHARLIE PATTON
2009 was a strange year for the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum staff and supporters, a year of celebration mixed with anxiety.
In September they put on the Ritz, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of the building, which includes a history museum, art gallery and 400-seat theater.
But in late June Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton announced he would have to cut the city’s appropriation to the Ritz if the City Council didn’t raise the property tax rate. That would have forced the city-owned Ritz, which operates on an annual budget of about $850,000, to close the doors, said Carol Alexander, executive director.
“It gave us a scare,” said Cleve Warren, Ritz board chairman.
In the end, the Ritz got $1 million from the city.
In addition, the city funded a $3 million cultural services grant administered by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, which distributed that money to 24 nonprofit arts organizations.
There are those, like City Councilman Clay Yarborough, who question why the city gives money to any cultural institution, including the Ritz.
“I have nothing against the Ritz,” Yarborough said. “But I would prefer we not give taxpayer dollars to arts institutions.”
In the wake of the funding scare, measures are being taken to make the theater less reliant on city money, including instituting membership fees and forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that should help attract more corporate grants and private giving.
“Many have resisted giving because they see us as a function of the city,” Warren said.
He said it’s important to keep the Ritz in business because of its role as the “curator” of the history and culture of Jacksonville’s African-American community.
The history of LaVilla, once a thriving residential neighborhood with a fabled entertainment district along Ashley Street, is the focus of the LaVilla museum.
More than 5,000 items are on display, creating a facsimile of typical LaVilla scenes as a private home, doctor’s office, pharmacy, barber and beauty shop and office of the Afro-American Life Co.
At the museum’s entrance, a small theater presents an animatronic show on the lives of the brothers James Weldon Johnson and Rosamund Johnson, LaVilla residents who wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often called the national anthem of black Americans.
A visit to that museum in 2003 helped Phillip Miner to choose Jacksonville as his retirement home after a career as an academic administrator in Minnesota.
He felt the museum, especially the animatronic exhibit, gave him a link to Jacksonville’s African-American community that would make him comfortable here, Miner said.
Now he regularly volunteers, conducting tours and helping with the Along This Way project, an educational program offered to third- and fourth-graders that teaches them about African-American life in the early part of the 20th century. The program ends with a museum tour.
Miner said his greatest concern is that not enough people in Jacksonville seem to know what the Ritz has to offer.
Retired University of North Florida history professor James Crooks, who likes to take out-of-town visitors to the museum, agrees.
“I find the museum is a real jewel,” he said. “… But I think it’s under-utilized by the white community.”
“We present African and African-American art and history,” Alexander said. “But it’s not just for African-American audiences.”
Next to the museum is a large art gallery that has hosted about 20 exhibits over the past 10 years. The current exhibit consists of work by young artists and their mentors.
Then there is the theater, where musical acts and plays are presented, some by local groups, some by touring groups. It also is home to Amateur Night at the Ritz, a monthly entertainment competition on the first Friday of each month.
On the first Thursday of each month, the museum hosts a night of spoken word, the term given to performance poetry. And on the first Saturday of each month, the lobby is turned into a jazz club for the Ritz Jazz Jamm.
Barbara Jones, a member of the Ritz board, said she and her family are art lovers who value all of Jacksonville’s cultural institutions. She and her husband have helped sponsor an exhibit at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.
“But art and cultural heritage is important to us,” she said, explaining why the Ritz matters. “… Most of the programs are different and diverse, from musicals to plays to spoken word. And there’s such quality, such talent, both local and national.”
That’s why September’s anniversary celebration struck her as a time for both celebration and sadness.
“I felt like we were sitting in a theater in New York City, a theater on Broadway,” she said. “But you looked around and there was such a small crowd. It broke my heart.”
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PUTTING ON THE RITZ
A historical time line of the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum:
1929: The Ritz opens as a movie theater. At the time, LaVilla is a thriving residential community with a fabled entertainment district along Ashley Street.
1971: The movie theater closes.
1986: Anthonee Patterson forms Ritz Theatre District and announces plans to buy and restore the old movie theater.
1987: The old theater sustains $50,000 in damage in a fire set by arsonists.
1990: Bill Cosby performs at the old Jacksonville Coliseum as part of an ongoing series of Ritz fundraisers.
1992: The state Division of Cultural Affairs demands the return of $66,554 in grant money, saying the money had been misappropriated.
1993: Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance project includes $8 million for the Ritz restoration.
1997: City officials announce a plan to tear down most of the original building and replace it with a 32,000-square-foot building. Only two walls and the original sign survive.
1999: The building, rebuilt at a cost of $4.2 million, opens Sept. 21 with Mayor John Delaney doing a symbolic ribbon cutting.
2009: The Ritz celebrates its 10th anniversary.
PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES TO TAKE STAGE
When Bob Hayes was finally elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, it was a reminder that even in the era of segregation, Jacksonville produced a succession of great African-American football players.
As many as 20 former pros who came out of Jacksonville schools and went on to success in the professional game are expected to be on hand at 7 p.m. today at the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum for a Panel of Pros: Jacksonville Professional Black Athletes.
“These are guys who represented their cities and high schools well,” said Ed Hayes, who graduated from Douglas Anderson when it was a segregated black high school and spent the 1970 season as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Sometimes your home does not celebrate you enough,” said Carol Alexander, the Ritz’s executive director, who said she hopes tonight’s event will help right that wrong.
Hayes, a Jacksonville diversity consultant, will moderate the panel with James Day, a former high school coach.
Tonight’s program follows one held last September that honored many of the coaches who worked at segregated black high schools in Jacksonville.
Hayes said that in his era – he was born in 1946 – football coaches served as important mentors to young black men. His coach, Nathaniel Washington, is still his mentor, he said.
Both September’s event and tonight’s are part of an ongoing effort by the Ritz to document the impact of athletics in Jacksonville’s black community. An exhibition on the subject will open next November.
Among the former pros expected at the event, which is free and open to the public, are Harold Carmichael, Larry Brown, Al Denson, Derrick Gaffney, Terry LeCount and Calvin Muhammad.