Photo courtesy of Safe Harbors of Hudson
This flashback to December 1941 explores actress Lucille Ball’s visit to none other than the Ritz Theater in Newburgh for a memorable show.
Back in the 1950s (and for decades of reruns after), everybody loved Lucy. I Love Lucy was the top-rated television show, and Lucille Ball, until then a modestly successful comedian, model, and movie actress, became an adored American icon.
But none of that might have happened without Newburgh’s Ritz Theater.
The circa 1883 building began life as a factory that manufactured cigars, plumbing supplies, and overalls. Then in 1913, Newburgh businessman George Cohen transformed the space at 107 Broadway into Cohen’s Opera House with the goal of establishing “a standard for vaudeville in Newburgh,” to rival New York City according to the Newburgh Daily Journal.
Twenty years later it was purchased, renovated, and renamed the Ritz by local theater impresario Eugene Levy, who booked performances with many of the biggest stars of the day including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Prima, Red Skelton, and many more. Levy had connections to the Paramount Theater in New York and performers would test their acts out in Newburgh before they appeared in Manhattan. Rumor has it that there was a sign backstage at the Paramount that said, “If you think this audience is tough, try Newburgh.”
On December 17, 1941—just 10 days after Pearl Harbor—Ball made her first-ever stage appearance at the Ritz along with her new husband, Desi Arnaz. “Nervous as a kitten, Miss Ball was like a schoolgirl with her first date as she prepared for her stage debut,” a reviewer wrote in the Newburgh News the next day. “She wasn’t quite sure she was going to be a success, but it turned out that she and her husband scored a tremendous hit with Newburgh’s theater-goers. Their act was a bit like most vaudeville acts, but it was good. They did a piece of comedy, a little singing, a little dancing. The audience loved it.”
Many credit Ball’s Ritz performance as the foundation of what would become her beloved hit sitcom. The historic theater is getting some much-needed love now, too. Safe Harbors of the Hudson, a supportive housing and arts nonprofit, started the restoration back in 2002 with a lobby renovation. Then in 2019, the organization received a $1.7 million building project grant to replace the roof and stabilize the structure. Earlier this year, a schematic design for the theater as a state of the art performance and events venue was completed. Safe Harbors is hopeful that this month the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will approve a grant that will allow the theater to welcome audiences for the first time in nearly 25 years.