Local film maker to document 'Ritz Theater stories' this weekend

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:02

Share your memories of the historic Newburgh theater on Nov. 5 and 6 Newburgh — Do you remember seeing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz perform on stage in 1941? Did you come to see Frank Sinatra on stage at the Ritz? The Ritz Theater wants to record your story or memory of the historic Ritz Theater. On Saturday, Nov. 5, and Sunday, Nov. 6, local film maker Lynda Parisi will be conducting video interviews as part of an important documentary project on the Ritz Theater. The history of The Ritz begins in the 1930s. In 1933, Eugene Levy purchased and renovated the theater and renamed it the Ritz. It was then that the theater began its most illustrious chapter, with big-name films and live performances by stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Mary Martin, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Dick Powell, Eddy Duchin, Red Skelton, Xavier Cugat, The Inkspots, Vaughn Monroe, Montana Slim, Ricardo Cortez, Les Brown and many more. “The Ritz Theatre, most modern and luxurious in the Hudson Valley, will have its premiere tomorrow night at 7,” read a story in the Newburgh News from Nov. 28, 1933. “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.” The origins of 'I Love Lucy’ During this vibrant time, New York City’s Paramount Theater regularly brought shows to the Ritz Theater to “test” them on Newburgh audiences before they debuted at the Paramount. Rumor has it that a sign posted backstage at the Paramount warned: “If you think this audience is tough, try Newburgh.” An unknown Frank Sinatra walked onto the Ritz Theater stage in Newburgh on Nov. 3, 1940. With Tommy Dorsey’s band backing him up, he captivated the young people who had skipped school to see Dorsey’s band. Lucille Ball made her stage debut at the Ritz Theater alongside her husband, Desi Arnaz, on Dec. 17, 1941. “Nervous as a kitten, Miss Ball was like a school girl with her first date as she prepared for her stage debut,” a reviewer for the Newburgh News wrote in a piece published Dec. 18, 1941. “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. 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.” Located on the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street in Newburgh, New York, the Ritz Theater is the last remaining historic theater in the city. Neglect and fire have claimed the others. More recent history The theater was purchased by Safe Harbors of the Hudson in 2002. Between 2004 and 2006, the original Ritz Theater lobby was renovated, along with The Cornerstone Residence next door. In 2008, Safe Harbors created the nonprofit Ritz Theater Newburgh, Inc. to focus solely on the restoration of the theater, which is estimated at $12 million. So far, the lobby has been renovated and a new box office has been constructed. The group’s goal is to create a venue for live performances, provide employment training and educational opportunities for the residents of our community and provide a home for local arts and performance groups. In that year, a new era of Ritz Theater programming began in the already-restored theater lobby, with performances from Tony Award-winning musician Levi Kreiss, Grammy Award-winning musician Pete Seeger and Odair Assad. In July 2009 Congressman Maurice Hinchey secured $400,000 in restoration funding for the Ritz, as a part of the 2010 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Bill. That same year, state Sen. William J. Larkin Jr. secured $250,000 in restoration funding for the theater. Share your story If you would like to share your story, call 845-784-1199 to set up an interview or e-mail film maker Lynda Parisi at elmparisi@aol.com or info@ritztheaternewburgh.org. Walk-ins are also welcome. Interviews will be recorded between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5, and Sunday, Nov. 6, in the lobby of the Ritz Theater, located at 111 Broadway in Newburgh. Bring any old photos, or newspaper articles or materials of any kind relating to the Ritz Theater that you may have. You will receive credit in the documentary for the contribution. For more information about the documentary project and the historic Ritz Theater, visit www.ritztheaternewburgh.org.