Sprucing up the Ritz

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April 23, 2012
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter

When it was still a 900-seat movie theater back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Michael Rainville nervously went on his first date at the Ritz Theater holding his date’s hands despite his sweaty palms. It was the site of City Council Member Diane Hofstede’s first date with her husband.  

Rainville, now the chair of the Ritz Theater Board, says the 84-year-old Sheridan neighborhood fixture has come full circle. It was closed for 25 years and was nearly demolished in the mid-1990s. 

In April, over four decades after Hofstede and Rainville searched for young love, the theater was again attracting young people at a fashion ball that also served as a fundraiser for the Ritz. 

“It was the start of a lot of romances, and it still is,” Rainville said. “When we had a fashion ball there were a lot of young people there enjoying each other and it’s just great. This is an American success story.”

The Ritz’s success hasn’t come without hurdles, but today Rainville and Executive Director Michael Romens say the theater is coming out of the recession in good health and with a full calendar of shows that range from ballets to burlesque and concerts to corporate events. 

In early April, dozens of Target Corp. volunteers were inside the Ritz, installing carpeting, painting chipped walls, hanging a chandelier and cleaning 36-year-old seats for the first time since their debut in the old Guthrie Theater.   

Romens said Target’s contribution is estimated to total $100,000, based on the amount of time and products donated. 

Myron Johnson watched as Target volunteers laid carpet in the 250-seat theater. Johnson started the Ballet of the Dolls troupe back in 1986. After moving to a couple spots in the city, he eyed up the Ritz because of the theater’s charm and the Sheridan neighborhood culture. 

But it took years for Ballet of the Dolls to raise enough money to fix up the theater. It had been closed since 1982 and suffered extensive water damage caused by a leaky roof. The city acquired the property in 1993, and considered leveling the building to make way for a parking lot, but asbestos concerns kept the building standing. 

When Johnson fixed his eyes on the theater it was in rough shape. 

“People had been sleeping in here,” he said. “There were holes in the roof, so it was full of water that would freeze in the winter. It was dead, and the city wanted to tear it down to put in a parking lot.”

After raising $2.2 million, The Ritz Foundation, with Johnson as the driving force, purchased and opened a renovated Ritz Theater in 2006, reducing the seating by 650 to make more room for a stage and a rear studio.

Hofstede said the Ritz’s re-opening is a success story because of how the community came together to save the building. 

“Many people said it was beyond its useful life and it was on the list to be torn down,” she said. “It was really the community — especially the arts community — that came together with the neighborhood and said this is really a jewel and it’s worth saving and it will really set this area apart.”

At the time of it’s re-opening, the theater was still a work in progress, as the 1920s building needed lots of love. That’s why Johnson and Romens were so happy to get support from Target.  

“They’re doing all the things that when opening day came for this building we just didn’t have time to get to,” Johnson said. Target also donated new lobby furniture. 

An adapting theater in a thriving neighborhood

Romens says 2012 is shaping up to be the Ritz’s best year ever. The studio is booked solid with classes. Theater rentals are stable despite the opening of the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts downtown. Box office numbers have topped projections only half way through the Ritz’s fiscal year, he said. 

“We’re almost there in terms of paying off the construction loans, six years after doors opened,” Romens said. “It is a rather amazing timetable for a mid-sized nonprofit venue and prepares the Ritz Theater to offer even greater opportunities to serve the community.

Rainville attributes Ritz’s success to diversifying the theater’s offerings. Three years ago the theater began hosting burlesque shows. It also has ramped up rock concerts and corporate events, although dance — in particular Johnson’s Ballet of the Dolls — remains the theater’s mainstay. 

“We’re offering low-cost entertainment, a variety of entertainment and then we’re in this quirky middle class neighborhood,” Johnson said. 

State Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL-59A) said she’s noticed that the 13th Avenue and University area has become a destination.

That area boasts several popular restaurants such as The Anchor Fish and Chips, Modern Cafe, Peacock Lounge, Erte and the Northeast Social Club. Plus, the area is soon to be home to a taproom when Dangerous Man Brewing opens later this year.  

“Clearly, 13th [Avenue] has that wonderful mix of entertainment, dining options along with some really nice retail, particularly arts related,” she said. “It draws people from more than just the neighborhood now.”