Ritz Theatre

267 W. Central Avenue,
Winter Haven, FL 33881

Unfavorite No one has favorited this theater yet

Ritz Theatre exterior

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Opened in 1925 as the Williamson Theatre in the heart of Winter Haven’s business district, the theater was originally designed for both live stage shows and motion pictures.

Inside, the auditorium held a balcony, a small orchestra pit, dressing rooms and an organ.

It was remodeled in 1932, and also renamed the Ritz Theatre, and became strictly a movie house from then on.

In the 1950’s, high school students with an ID card could get in for 15 cents to see a feature, though regular admission was only a dime more.

In the mid-1980’s, the Ritz Theatre shut its doors after almost 60 years of continous opearation. However, in 1989, it was reopened, less its auditorium seats and its floor made level as a teen dance club called Off Limits. Within a few years, the club also closed, and the Ritz Theatre remained empty until 1997 when the non-profit group The Ritz Theatre 100, made up of concerned citizens determined to save and reopen the historic theater, bought it.

In 1999, the State of Florida awarded the group a grant of nearly $250,000 to begin the restoration of the Ritz Theatre, while meanwhile, the drive to raise more funds for the theater continues.

It is hoped the theater will be reborn as a venue for film, performing arts, children’s theater and civic and religious events.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 12 comments)

Patsy
Patsy on February 7, 2005 at 9:35 pm

“Inside, the auditorium held a balcony, a small orchestra pit, dressing rooms and an organ.” Is the organ still there?

Patsy
Patsy on February 7, 2005 at 9:37 pm

And thank you, State of Florida for the money grant to help restore this theatre for future generations to enjoy! I know after being a member of Cinema Treasures that they all can’t be saved, but this one will be! :–)

Patsy
Patsy on February 7, 2005 at 9:42 pm

The curved ‘window’ in the old photos of the Ritz reminds me of the curved ‘signature’ window in the now demolished Tivoli in Mishawaka Indiana that was recently taken down by a mean wrecking ball! If I ever find myself in Mishawaka Indiana I will stand before that former theatre’s location and have a moment of silence THEN pay the Mayor a visit!

Patsy
Patsy on February 7, 2005 at 9:43 pm

Simply said……….restore NOT destroy!

Patsy
Patsy on February 14, 2005 at 9:58 am

TC: Thanks for the vintage Ritz photo.

DonLewis
DonLewis on October 5, 2009 at 11:35 pm

From the 1940s, a postcard view of the Ritz Theatre and Central Avenue in Winter Haven.

CSWalczak
CSWalczak on May 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm

A picture of the theater when it was the Williamson: View link

LouRugani
LouRugani on October 11, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Fun of Seeing Movies in Grand Old Theaters Can’t Be Duplicated

By BOB SWIFT (The Ledger, Wednesday, July 19, 2006)

I suffer from the old-age syndrome that makes me constitutionally unable to believe that a hot dog should cost more than 10 cents, a Coke more than a nickel, a bag of popcorn, a dime or a movie more than a quarter. Movies cost a dime when I was a little kid, a quarter when I was a bit bigger. Actually, I recall a time when the price of a ticket was 9 cents, and when it was a dime, the manager bumped it up to 12 cents. Today, you’d stand in line to see a flick that cost 12 cents. I’ve seen people stand in line for two hours, in the hot sun, waiting to buy a movie ticket. They did when “Star Wars” came out. I wanted to see the movie but I hated standing in line. It’s a thing about ex-GIs. I can’t recall ever standing in line for a movie when I was a kid, except when I went to the Ritz Theatre with my mother to see “Gone With the Wind,” or perhaps at a Saturday matinee at the Grand Theater when they showed a double feature: Gene Autry AND Roy Rogers on the same bill. Wow! Heaven can wait. The Grand Theater was what they called the second-run theater. It was “across the tracks,” that is, a little bit west of the old Atlantic Coast Line railroad tracks that ran from north to south through the middle of the park. It was on Winter Haven’s Fifth Street Northwest, just before it angled off toward Lake Howard as Grand Avenue, which is now called Pope Avenue. The Grand Theater was at the end of a block which included the A&P, the Whiter Haven Pharmacy, George Kalogridis’s beer joint and pool room, and the wood-floored newsstand that later became Charlie’s News, when Charles Goshorn left the News-Chief (there was a hyphen in it then) and bought the newsstand. I knew about the newsstand and the A&P, but until I was a senior in high school and a member of John’s Mob, I never got into the pool room. But in 1945 and ‘46, Tony Kalogridis, also in John’s Mob, would take us to shoot pool on Sundays when the pool room was closed and his dad blissfully ignorant of his offspring’s adventures. The Ritz Theatre was on Central Avenue, flanked by clothing stores, across the street from Roby’s Book Store, the W.W. Mac 5 and 10, and the Seaboard Air Line ticket office. The Ritz was the first-run theater. It had cushioned seats, whereas the Grand had bent plywood seats. The Ritz had carpeting in the lobby. The Grand’s lobby was floored with gum. You went to the Ritz to see Linda Darnell or Joan Crawford emote in all-white rooms, wearing white satin pajamas, talking on white French telephones with 20-foot cords. You went to the Grand to see Adele Jergens in harem pants. You went to the Ritz to see William Powell and Franchot Tone, wearing tuxedos and tapping cigarettes on silver cigarette cases. You went to the Grand to see the Bowery Boys, with Leo Gorcey’s malapropisms and Huntz Hall’s slapstick. You went to the Ritz with your parents. You went to the Grand with your rowdy pals. The Ritz showed what they called “A” movies: Betty Grable musicals, Errol Flynn pirate pictures, Shirley Temple’s bouncing curls, Wallace Beery’s expressive face, Lana Turner’s sweater, Humphrey Bogart’s sneer. The Grand showed “B” movies: Chester Morris as Boston Blackie and Tom Conway as The Falcon, The Three Stooges twisting noses, Dennis O'Keefe sailing a copra schooner, Maria Montez charming a cobra, Ann Sothern as a wise-cracking reporter. Sometimes, after an “A” movie had played the Ritz, it would return to the Grand for a “second run.” If you were patient, you could see the “A” movies at the Grand, much cheaper, plus the other half of a double feature, which might be something like “Invasion of the Crab People.” On Saturday afternoons, the Grand was bedlam, full of kids brandishing cap pistols and sticky candy, cheering Lash LaRue or Charles Starrett. The audience often got into the spirit of things (“Look out, Gene! He’s in the hayloft!”). On Saturdays you got to see a western or two, Chapter 7 of the “The Lone Ranger Rides Again” serial, Woody Woodpecker cartoons and a musical short featuring Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. The Ritz offered a lot for your money, too. Besides the feature, you might see previews of coming attractions, a Donald Duck cartoon, a March of Time or John Nesbitt’s “Passing Parade,” a Movietone newsreel (war clouds over Ethiopia), the latest hi chapeaux from Paris, water skiers at Cypress Gardens and chimpanzees riding tricycles while Lew Lehr intoned “Monkeys is the kwaziest people …”, a Traveltalk (and so, as the sun sinks slowly in the West, we say a fond farewell to the beautiful island of …), a Pete Smith Specialty, an Andy Clyde two-reeler, a short featuring Horace Heidt or Xavier Cugat … and the theater manager, who came on stage to ask your indulgence when the film broke. Not only that, but you could see it all again by just remaining in your seat. You could see it all a half dozen times for the same ticket. Some parents used to park their kids in the movie house in lieu of a baby sitter. All for a dime, kids. When I’m in a modern movie theater, I can’t help wishing I was in one of the old-time movie palaces instead. And I don’t mean just New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the queen of them all. Going to the movies in any good-sized town was a class act. In the first place, a movie theater was big. You had the feeling that you had been transported outside your mundane surroundings to a fairy tale land of magic and illusion. You see, you didn’t have television at home, or air-conditioning. The theater had the air-conditioning (a banner ran around the marquee, depicting blue icicles and the legend, “Twenty degrees cooler inside.”). It’s rather depressing, to me at least, to pay top dollar and then sit in a theater modeled after a Thorn McCann shoebox. I know, the sound is first class and there’s “stadium seating,” which is quite comfortable. There just isn’t the sense of adventure, or a sense that you’re really doing something wonderful when you go to the movies. Not so back then. Most theaters in the old days (I’m talking 1930s, '40s and '50s here, folks), had real balconies, where, after your hormones had grown into their teens, you could shyly, or slyly, slip your arm around Mary Sue’s shoulders. If you were in the very last row you might try a more complicated move. If Mary Sue’s wit and coordination were in tune, what you would grasp was her floating rib. Many theaters, such as the Polk in Lakeland, had lofty, vaulted ceilings and ornately plastered walls. The walls, especially those flanking the screen, bore fake balconies and arches of Moorish or Spanish design. These were back lighted with glowing red and orange. Carved sconces lighted up elaborate draperies and cast triangular shadows. You had the impression you were in the courtyard of a mansion or castle. Gazing about, munching on popcorn flavored with real butter, you expected Ronald Colman to swing from a balcony on a string of onions, rapier in hand. The entire theater, lobby, corridors, stairways to the balconies, even the rest rooms, carried out the same romantic theme. And there was an extra special touch that the real, true, deluxe movie palaces possessed. I remember some examples: the Fox Theater in Atlanta, the Olympia hi Miami (now Gusman Hall), and the Polk in Lakeland. Each had a soaring ceiling that, wondrous to behold, was covered with twinkling lights and cloud effects. When you looked up, you felt as though you were gazing into a star-filled sky that stretched into infinity. The Polk in Lakeland has been restored to its former glory and they’re trying to restore the Ritz. Alas, the Ritz was ruined, as a theater, when they turned it into a teen hangout years ago. It isn’t the only building that’s been ruined or torn down. As Pete Hamill says of Henry James, “… he mourns those buildings of his childhood that had been replaced, for vulgar commercial reasons, by structures of inferior quality.” So do I. I speak of Winter Haven High School, for instance, or the old City Hall. Some have been remodeled badly: the First Baptist Church, the Publix Supermarket across from the church, the Roseart Hotel on Third Street at Avenue B. Or the Ritz Theatre. Ah, well. I was speaking of movie palaces. In the poshest of the posh, such as the big New York movie houses, the mighty Wurlitzer organ held sway, booming out before and between shows. Was it actually a Wurlitzer? I don’t know. But it made a mighty roar! O, glorious sound! The Ritz in Winter Haven wasn’t quite elegant enough to have a booming organ, although it was elegant enough. When I was about 2, my father was a sign painter. A few years later he would become director of exhibits for the Florida Orange Festival, and later a drugstore owner and real estate broker. But one of the things he did as a sign painter was make showcards for the Ritz, when Byron Cooper was the manager. A perquisite of the job was that my Dad and his family got into the movies for free, so I grew up seeing many, many movies at both the Ritz and Grand theaters. And in later years, when Frank Sparrow was manager, my best friend was a ticket taker at the Ritz so I often (don’t tell anyone) got in free. All in all, the air-conditioning, the added attractions, the decor (I guess I’m not talking about the Grand, here) added up to … what? … an experience, a romantic outing. You really got your money’s worth in romance in those theaters of the past, even before munching your Good 'n’ Plentys or seeing the movie. Seeing the movie? Heck, for the price of a ticket you got much more than a movie. You even got uniformed ushers with discreetly dimmed flashlights, who escorted you to your seat, found errant children after they had seen the movie twice, and warned rowdies to be quiet or else. And all for one thin dime, or a quarter … or … I guess the price kept going up all the time and we didn’t realize it. Or perhaps we didn’t notice because we were looking at the starry ceilings, or Woody Woodpecker, or Mary Sue’s blue eyes. Nowadays, it’s big bucks. The popcorn costs a fortune. The soft drinks come in large, extra large and super colossal large. You have your choice of movies, but all you get to see is the film you chose, previews of coming attractions and a lot of advertising. No Porky Pig. No water skiers. No Pete Smith Specialty. No March of Time. Besides, the management throws you out when the film is over.

(Bob Swift is a resident of Winter Haven.)

You must login before making a comment.

New Comment

Subscribe Want to be emailed when a new comment is posted about this theater?
Just login to your account and subscribe to this theater