The rebirth of the Historic Ritz Theatre may serve as the ultimate tipping point for downtown Corpus Christi. And it may change your life.
By: Monica Sawyer
Corpus Christi is finally tuning in to the fact that the restoration of the Historic Ritz Theatre is something special. It’s not a “let’s keep a pretty building” kind of special. It’s more like a “change your life” kind of special. There are many important projects going on in Corpus Christi, but the Ritz will prove to be a sparkling, signature piece to our big puzzle of progress that is sure to change your life and mine.
The Ritz Theatre opened to huge fanfare 85 years ago on Christmas Day, 1929. As it was the first “talking” movie theatre in South Texas, the community was star struck and the sidewalks couldn’t hold the crowds flocking to downtown on a nightly basis. Actors and dignitaries (and we hear even a president or two) warmed the seats at many movie premieres hosted by “one of the finest theatres in the state.”
Howard Hughes listed the Ritz on his roster through his United Artists Corporation. Our soldiers were honored during USO celebrations, and patrons escaped their daily grind through films and vaudeville comedy.
Then rock ‘n’ roll came to town. Before anyone was freaking out about him, Elvis played a free show at the Ritz after his show at the Centre Theater sold out (according to a firsthand account from a past Ritz employee). Fast-forward to the ‘70s when the Ritz (then called the Ritz Music Hall) supported up-and-coming artists like the Pointer Sisters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Rush and more.
By the late ‘80s, after years of community drama performances, the Ritz was worn out, shut down and forgotten. The community had given up on downtown by then, and this sad state of affairs lasted almost 20 years. Thankfully, by the time I discovered the Ritz, downtown was experiencing what is still a slow and difficult, but worthy revitalization.
So why is the Ritz going to change things? Let’s put aside the fact that restored historic theatres have proven to bring in major dollars (billions) in economic impact to cities like ours (and some in worse shape than ours). I won’t focus on the 60 percent of our needed funding that waits in opportunity for us once the community helps us raise the first 40 percent. (It’s like the government put theatre restoration on sale – but for a limited time! Must act now!) What is already tipping the scale is the wealth of connections wrapped up in the Ritz, and the resulting impact the city will experience from those connections.
Discussing the Ritz as a tipping point for Corpus Christi can be quite a debate. If you are an analytical person, you might say, “you can’t quantify inspiration, pride and hope!” And you might be right. Some people want guarantees. “How do I know it’s going to work?” you ask. Ultimately, there are no guarantees. But if you look closely, you’ll understand that the restoration is already working. The Ritz is already elevating and changing lives.
Historic theatres, especially fancy “atmospheric” theatres, have the unique ability to be relevant and exciting to every age group, interest and income level. For example, guided by the leadership of architect Laura Bennett, Del Mar College created an architecture and drafting class around the Ritz. Students crawled into every nook and cranny to redraw the plans for the building (which we didn’t have and desperately needed). Thanks to Bennett, the plans will be housed in the national Library of Congress.
From an entertainment perspective, almost every musician croons over all the big talent who once stood in the very same spot on the Ritz stage. Clarissa Serna, who appeared on NBC’s “The Voice” this year, has already been a catalyst for progress in just a few short months. She connected us to Chicas Rock, a local music camp for young girls. Watching the impact the Ritz had on these rockin’ kids made it crystal clear how important it is that the landmark be restored.
Once restored, the Ritz will again be a home for film, comedy, dance, drama and especially music. The dynamic programming being planned means something will always be going on. Imagine drama classes for our students, vintage and independent film festivals and up-and-comers and icons gracing the stage to perform in an intimate setting with history all around you.
With its sparkling marquee visible as you drive in from the highway, the Ritz will be a solid connection between the hotels and restaurants and the SEA District, beckoning visitors to explore and inspiring them to keep coming back. The Ritz is an icon for hope, change and the rebirth of our downtown. It will change your life if you let it.