Ritz Theater, Newburgh: Renovation and Restoration in 2013

Puttin’ on the Ritz: The Ritz Theater in Newburgh

The November 28, 1933, edition of the Newburgh News sang the praises of the city’s next big thing. “The Ritz Theatre, most modern and luxurious in the Hudson Valley, will have its premiere tomorrow night at 7,” it gushed. “Behind that simple declarative statement lies this miracle: Eugene Levy, Newburgh theatre owner, recently bought the old George Cohen Theatre on Broadway, and converted that playhouse of a gaudier era into an institution where cinematic and variety productions of the highest standard can be presented with amazing skill, and affording the fascinated beholder the ultimate in comfort and convenience.”

My word! But then, that’s what theaters meant to towns like Newburgh before television (never mind the Internet).

This particular theater actually had a more mundane start. It was built in the late 19th century as a factory, and for several decades it churned out such nonentertainment essentials as overalls, plumbing supplies, and cigars. In 1913, Newburgh businessman George Cohen opened Cohen’s Opera House within the building, and, as an ad in the Newburgh Daily Journal (yes, there were competing newspapers! What a time it was!) put it: “The opening of Cohen’s Opera House Monday night means much to the citizens of Newburgh… Monday night we establish a standard for vaudeville in Newburgh… We want to impress upon you the fact that the show for Monday night is the best for the money that can be produced.”

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ritz theater constructionThe 1969 wall, built to separate the Ritz’s stage from the rest of the house, is removed during the renovation

Vaudevillians continued to tread the boards into 1926, when a new company took up residence and changed the name to the State Theater. In 1933, Eugene Levy — a local theater impresario with connections to New York’s Paramount Theater — bought, renovated, and renamed the theater, beginning its life as the Ritz. “It was a ‘tryout house’ for the Paramount,” says Tricia Haggerty Wenz, the executive director. Performers would test their acts here before they opened in the city. “The old rumor is that there was a sign backstage at the Paramount that said, ‘If you think this audience is tough, try Newburgh,’ ” she says.

In the ’30s and ’40s, some of the biggest stars of the day “put on the Ritz” in Newburgh. Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Mary Martin, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman, Dick Powell, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddy Duchin, Red Skelton, Les Brown… even a relatively unknown young crooner called Frank Sinatra, who walked onto the Ritz stage with Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1940, just before his national popularity exploded. And on December 17, 1941, only 10 days after Pearl Harbor, an actress named Lucille Ball made her stage debut, joined by her husband, Desi Arnaz.

“Nervous as a kitten, Miss Ball was like a school girl with her first date as she prepared for her stage debut,” the Newburgh News wrote 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 theatergoers… They did a piece of comedy, a little singing, a little dancing. The audience loved it.” (Many credit this performance as the genesis of what would become I Love Lucy. Indeed, in 2007 Parade magazine bestowed upon the Ritz a “History Happened Here” award — one of only 10 sites chosen out of a pool of over 2,000 applicants — for serving as the birthplace of the show.)

ritz renderingA rendering of how the theater will look when complete (top); and the lobby (bottom), where performances are being held during the ongoing construction

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Rendering art by Westlake Reed Leskosky

ritz lobby

The performers who played there already knew of the Ritz’s historical importance. The late Bill Yost, former artistic director of Eisenhower Hall at the U.S. Military Academy, once told Wenz a story. “When Red Skelton played at Eisenhower Hall, he asked Bill to drive him by the Ritz in Newburgh,” Wenz remembers. “Bill didn’t even know it existed, but they sat in front of it and Skelton told him stories about how that was the first theater he ever played in.”

Like every high point, though, this one ended. First came World War II, then television, and finally urban flight. The stage was blocked off in 1959 and the Ritz became a movie theater with four screens. After the construction of Interstate 84 and the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, the downtown was, for all practical purposes, dead.

The Ritz closed in 1969; the stage was walled off from the house, and Cinemas I and II hung on until 1981. After what turned out to be its final screening (Superman II), vandals did $15,000 worth of damage and the owner walked away, leaving “one more gap in a depopulating downtown commercial zone that some merchants feel will be a long time in recovering,” wrote the Saturday Record. A former owner tried reopening in 1999, but drew only 700 customers in 17 weeks, then closed the Ritz for good.

tricia haggerty wenzTricia Haggerty Wenz, the founder of Safe Harbors of the Hudson and the driving force behind the theater’s revival

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Or so it seemed, until Wenz and Safe Harbors of the Hudson stepped in with other ideas. Wenz founded Safe Harbors in 2000 as a nonprofit organization that proclaims that it is “committed to transforming lives and building communities through housing and the arts in the City of Newburgh.” Wenz is a civic leader of the first order. She was chosen as one of Orange County’s 40 under 40 Rising Stars in 2009, has been awarded Orange County’s Social Justice Award, named a Woman of Achievement by the Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson and the YWCA of Orange County, and received a Women of Distinction Award from the New York State Senate. A native of New Jersey, she moved to the Valley in 1997 (she now lives in Connecticut) and took Newburgh on as her project. “I wanted people to come downtown again,” she says. “We wanted to make people feel safe there. I knew we had to restore the theater and housing first.”

Safe Harbors bought the Ritz in 2002 and began raising the money needed to restore it. The original lobby was renovated first, along with the Cornerstone Residence next door. “We wanted to start building an audience right away,” Wenz says. “And so far we have presented amazing musicians here. This sounds totally made up but it’s totally true — we’ve had two Grammy winners [Pete Seeger, Arturo O’Farrill], and one Tony winner [Levi Kreis].”

The theater has continued to put on shows in the lobby while raising money to restore the main theater. In 2009, Congressman Maurice Hinchey secured $400,000 for restoration, and State Senator William Larkin snared another $250,000. In 2010, the Ritz received $200,000 in funding from a state urban initiatives program. That all goes toward the $12 million capital campaign. The theater will need every penny.

“It’s just a shell right now,” Wenz says. “The biggest expense will be engineering. We need to take the beams out carefully to keep the old brick walls from collapsing.” When finished — and that could still be a year or two away — the new theater will have about 825 seats. The original had 1,300, some of which were found during construction. “They dated back to 1913 and to 1933,” Wenz says. “They were beautiful, really ornate, and we are planning on incorporating them into the new theater somehow.” The Ritz is partnering with the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie to book acts. And when they do, the entire area will benefit: There is “clear, concise data,” Wenz says, that cultural activity is an engine for economic and social growth. “We shouldn’t undervalue what the arts can do,” she says. “They are a critical component for the vibrancy of communities.”

» See all Hudson Valley theater renovations in 2013

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