1 S. Washington Street,
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Architects: James Hallowell Lynch
Firms: J.H. Lynch & Son
The year 1927 was important in movie history. In Hollywood, Warner Brothers released the first talkie feature movie, “The Jazz Singer”. That same year, about 65 miles to the south of St. Louis in Farmington was when work began on its new showplace, the Ritz Theatre with 1,000 seats, served Farmington’s metropolitan area of approximately 3,000. George Karsch owned the theatre for two decades before selling his chain of eight area movie houses, including the Ritz Theatre, to Tom Edwards and Harold Harriss, the latter who soon sold his share of the partnership to Frank Plumlee. With these new owners, the Ritz Theatre would be the flagship of the Edward & Plumlee theater group.
Work began on the Ritz Theatre in 1927 soon after its predecessor, the Monarch Theatre, located across the street (which is now the location of the Ozarks Federal Savings & Loan parking lot) was destroyed by fire. From the start, the Ritz Theatre was intended to be the showplace for this part of the state. In addition to its unusually large seating capacity, the new building featured a 65-foot wide stage along with an orchestra pit, dressing rooms below the stage for vaudeville actors, and a large loft above the stage from which scenery could be lowered. In 1939 a Hammond organ was installed for live music performances following the showing of feature films on Thursday and Sunday nights. In 1935 the theatre’s large sign, featuring a running string of electric lights, was installed over the Columbia Street entrance. The theatre’s grand opening, complete with numerous vaudeville acts, was held on April 9, 1928.
Originally the theatre could only show silent films. Early in 1930 the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system was installed. That method of producing sound was constantly nagged with technical problems as delightfully noted in the MGM musical comedy film, “Singing in the Rain”. The following year these problems were solved when sound-on-film equipment was installed. By the mid-1930’s Karsch further updated the projection booth with top-notch projection equipment that increased light output to the screen by 60%. CinemaScope was introduced in 1954.
Thanks to its large stage, the Ritz Theatre proved to be an important gathering place for numerous events, including variety shows, club meetings such as the Roy Rogers Riders group, square dances, church services, and even a monster show featuring a local actor named Bozzie who wore a monkey suit. During World War II, Twentieth Century-Fox stars Gene Tierney and Anthony Quinn took the stage to sell war bonds.
For years the front part of the building facing Columbia Street housed a rental store owned by the theatre. On May 27, 1964, that store, occupied then by the P.N. Hirsch Co., was destroyed by fire. The 5-alarm fire, one of the largest in Farmington history, also damaged several other stores on Columbia Street and closed down the theatre auditorium because of water and smoke. The theatre never opened again. Its last show was “Fancy Pants” with Bob Hope. In the end the seating had been reduced to 672.
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