Ritz Theater Tour

Above you are looking at the back entrance (the only accessible entrance) to the Ritz Theater- the last remaining theater in Newburgh. It might look like a simple entrance to a grand theater but trust me, there is nothing simple about the restoration of the Ritz. I was given the opportunity to tour the theater, thanks to Kristen Cronin who has been my contact at Safe Harbors of the Hudson, the sister non-profit organization that is overseeing the restoration of the theater. You too can request a tour of the theater, but must at least call a day in advance for them to prepare.

If you are an old time Newburgher who remembers the theaters grand days, you might have a total different vision of what the theater looks like. I had seen some photos of the development, but not until I arrived could I really understand the mammoth task it will be to restore the Ritz. If you thought this was a project that just involved laying new carpet, restoring hardwood floors, polishing brass, and painting, you were totally wrong. Be prepared to see a bare bones space that literally has to be torn down first, then built from the ground up.

Let’s start off with the lobby. The original Ritz lobby was a gorgeous space. You can see varnished inlay wood, and an illuminated decorated tray ceiling. The top photo shows how you would enter the theater. The stairs to the right would take you up to the balcony, and the stairs to the left would bring you to the lower level of the theater. The bottom picture is of the lobby in 1941 opening night. In front of you is the street entrance, which was under the marquee, to enter the Ritz Theater. You can also see a concession stand to the right. So what does this space look like today?

Stairs to the left is the entrance to the famous night club, The Green Room

Unfortunately, not much was salvageable. This space was torn apart long before Safe Harbors of the Hudson came along. The space was totally gutted. Click on this link just to see how bad it actually was! Although the original hardwood floor is gone, and the tray ceiling replaced, what remains today is a clean, productive, and most of all, a habitable space. This space will become the lobby entrance once again when the theater is finally restored by making an opening in the wall or floor. They will also use the blank walls to pay homage and to highlight the theater’s past with artifacts and photos that patrons will be able to view before entering the theater. For now, the lobby is used as an intimate performance space that can seat up to 120 guests. They have held performances that included 2 Grammy winners and 1 Tony Award winner. Surely this is just a foreshadowing of the great performances to come once the theater is restored. After we left the lobby we head back out the building and enter the theater space through the brown doors you just saw above.

The back wall of Ritz stage

We enter into what is actually the stage. From the outside, you might think that the entire building (the former Hotel Newburgh and Ritz Theater) was made as one whole structure. In 1883 the original structure was built for the manufacture of overalls, plumbing supplies and cigars. Then in 1913 Cohen’s Opera House was created. These buildings were built one at a time, side by side. That is why you can see the bricked up windows. They had to seal them off for the next building being built. Then in 1941 a local engineer was hired to unify the façade of the buildings facing Broadway. They even added two floors. If you look at the back of the building facing Ann Street you can see that about 6 or 7 buildings had been unified together. The wall you see above is actually the back wall of the stage.

View of two level theater from walled off stage. Behind this broken wall,
there were two movie theaters above and two movie theaters below.
Peeping into movie theaters where Ritz auditorium seats would have been
View of second level of the movie theater from the ground floor of the stage. You can see the ends of the huge metal beams that support the second level of the movie theater.

When your back faces the stage wall, you see the three photos above. What you are seeing is the wall of the theaters that were carved out back in 1969. The entire auditorium and balcony were gutted and redesigned to have 2 floor levels. There were two movie theaters below, and two movie theaters above. The wall you see has to be taken down to open up the stage to the auditorium. The holes in the wall show that work has already begun.

Photo of original hitching post that had scenery attached to it. And, some kind of antique box that used oil. Click to enlarge the carving in the wood that says, “Artie Oil”
Some kind of original lighting
Last of seats that need to be cleared on the first floor
Level 1 of theater with seats removed from both movie theaters. When the theater is restored the seats will run left to right in the picture, facing forward

To access the first level of the movie theater, we walk back out the brown doors on to the street, and come through another door that brings us in where the screens would have been. As you can really see from the pictures, this is a bare space that had everything gutted out. No original seating, flooring, or anything remains. The person that made this into a movie theater also laid down a concrete floor with a bit of an incline toward the screens. This will have to be removed. The only thing that might be salvageable would be the Ritz stage flooring that will have to be inspected later on. You might look at this picture and wonder what exactly had to be done to make the space look like this? Check out the photo below to see the condition the theater was received in.

Imagine this picture times 4, and then you’ll be able to understand what condition the theater was in. As you can see, this looks like your regular modern movie theater down the block. The space was totally transformed from the grand Ritz Theater that once was. There is a drop down ceiling, paneling, and modern movie seats. Supposedly in 1999 the theater was opened for several months and this last transformation occurred.

Once the drop ceiling was removed, the ceiling that is the floor to the second level of the theater was revealed. That must come down in order to make the two levels one. This is an extremely huge task because on top of what you see here is a thick layer of concrete. Also, the large and heavy beams must be safely removed out of the brick walls with out making the whole structure fall down on itself. Click here and here to see how the beams are embedded into the walls.

We then proceed to walk up a staircase to the second level which, also housed two movie theaters. There are many theater seats still up here. The entire floor you see needs to come out to join the two levels into one space.

This picture shows the opening in the wall that has been made already. The large hole peers into the stage space below. Eventually that hole will be made bigger, and the stage will be opened up.

Here you can see some wording on the walls. I’m sure nobody has a clue what “Two-Tone” means. Notice the filled in holes in the wall that were supports for original structures to the theater.

If you turn around you will see the projection room. There is one of these on the first floor as well. These projection rooms must also be taken down, and are also supported by huge beams and constructed out of cinder block.

Inside the projection room, looking out to the theater through the holes where the projectors would have been.
An emergency exit facing the east side of the building.

That rounded up our tour of the theater space. Trust me, I looked around for any signs of original molding, lights, theater props-anything. But there isn’t much. You definitely get the feel that you are in a building that touched a lot of peoples lives. You can’t help but try and bring yourself back to 1940 when the theater was booming and alive. I thought about how Lucille Ball and Ella Fitzgerald had been standing in the same spot I was standing in. I think those feelings and memories that this theater evokes is what makes it such a phenomenal space. You can’t help but feel it when you walk in. You can’t help but envision it. But now for a little fun and mystery.

One of the things I noticed when we came in was the staircase that you see to the far right on the stage’s edge. I instantly wondered where those stairs might lead to? An underground passageway? My suspicions were correct. However, those stairs were too dangerous to walk on, so I didn’t get to go down in the basement. Later own, Kristen went on her own adventure to see what lurked under the Ritz’s stage, and it was pretty amazing!

©Kristen Cronin
Click to enlarge any photo

Covered in decades worth of dust, Kristen found the old kitchen that used to service the Hotel Newburgh, which was located right next to the Ritz Theater. In there she found random spoons, knives, tea cups, an old coke machine, walk in freezers, ice boxes, signage, shelving, china, mixers, a meat grinder, and some pineapple looking tiki glasses or glass holders. Strangely she said there were lots of small glass or possibly acrylic roses. Any clue what those were for? So if downstairs was the kitchen, where were the dressing rooms? Kristen informed me that for actors to get from their dressing rooms to stage left they used to have to walk outside and then into the back entrance to get to the stage. That became really inconvenient. So, a path was made for them through the Hotel Newburgh’s kitchen. They would go down a hall, through the kitchen, through a freezer, and then down another hallway to access the stairs that could bring them to stage left! Some of the rooms below the theater have collapsed. The dressing rooms are no longer there. Check out flickr for the full collection of photos of the basement.

Now, to the future. This is the part we are all anxious for. When can we hope for its completion? A hopeful projection says 2 years. Once completed the theater will seat 825 people. Several nonprofit performing arts organizations hope to make the renovated Ritz Theater their permanent home. The Greater Newburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Opera Company of the Highlands, and the Newburgh Performing Arts Academy. This October will also bring the third installation of the Tom Humphrey Guitar series. The first two have been very successful, and have raised funds towards the theater’s restoration. Is it the organization’s hope that the theater will become the epicenter of art and culture in Newburgh and the surrounding area, and an anchor for the community.

By this point you should fully understand how huge and complicated the task of restoring the theater is going to be. The Ritz did recently receive a $400,000 grant for the theater from Congressman Maurice Hinchey, and a $200,000 grant for the building of the box office space that will occupy the commercial space adjacent to the theater on Broadway. However, it’s going to take a lot more than that to get the Ritz up and running. The Ritz Theater will soon have it’s own independent website in the late summer of 2010 where you will be able to make electronic donations towards restoring the Ritz. I have already discussed the impact 825 sold out seats could have on Newburgh. Neighboring businesses will benefit greatly and many jobs will be created out of this. Everyone talks about how Newburgh needs more arts. Well here is your chance. Go to www.ritztheaternewburgh.org to see if the site is live where you can make an electronic donation, or you can mail a check to:

107 Broadway Newburgh, NY 12550

(845) 784-1199


One Comment

  • What fond memories of the old Ritz Theater where we usherettes
    were borrowed from the Broadway Theater to seat patrons when
    big bands and singers, such as Dina Shore, Mel Torme, who slid onto stage singing, “Johnnie One-Note” and so many others of the
    Peggy Lee wore the same 2-piece black sequined sheath in all the shows. The talent scout from the NY Paramount asked if she had another gown, but no, she didn’t change. Dinah Shore wore a different gown each show and one had round mirrors on the wide skirt which shown in the audience’s eyes as she moved.
    the Ritz, Broadway, Cameo and the Academy theater across Broadway and south of Grand Street or just north of it.