Ritz Theatre

The Ritz Theatre in Talladega, Talladega County, is an historic movie theater and performing arts center constructed circa 1936. The theater is considered one of the best surviving examples of the Art Deco downtown theaters that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s in the state. Located on the Talladega town square, the theater was the centerpiece of a five-year revitalization effort of downtown Talladega. On February 16, 1998, the Ritz was formerly reopened, serving as one of the premier performing arts center of east-central Alabama. It also serves an important function in the area hosting events and raising for funds for local charities.

Historic Ritz Theatre in Talladega The theater was built in 1936 at a cost of $4,500 and came to embody the Art Deco architectural and design movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The style’s distinguishing features include simple, clean shapes with a sleek façade and geometric ornamentation intended to symbolize wealth and sophistication. The building’s façade was constructed primarily of opaque structural glass called “Vitrolite” and features bright neon electric signs. Owned by Martin Theatres, a chain predominantly centered on Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, the Ritz was considered to be the most modern theater of Martin’s chain of approximately 52 theaters when it opened. It included cold water fountains, air-conditioning, and even a hearing aid system. The building’s main theater included a 16- by 22-foot screen that was considerably larger than the average movie screen of the period. By the early 1990s, the theater was rundown and being used for church services; the stage had been partitioned for small Sunday School rooms.

In the mid-1990s, the city purchased the theater for $103,000. The non-profit organization Antique Talladega spearheaded the effort to renew the downtown Courthouse Square Historic District, particularly the Ritz with a two phase plan. The first phase involved purchasing and structurally securing the building and renovating the first floor. Renovations included adding a new roof, refinishing the original stage, building a new proscenium (the arched structure that generally frames the stage), expanding the lobby, overhauling the 430-seat auditorium, and making upgrades to comply with safety and handicap codes. This phase was completed in 1996. Later, new lighting and sound systems and fly loft and curtains were installed and the nearby Otts Building was purchased for additional space. The theater’s “Vitrolite” façade was restored by renowned St. Louis artisan Timothy J. Dunn. This restoration project was funded by the Talladega Pilgrimage Council which hosts the annual April in Talladega historic pilgrimage and has provided funds for the preservation of important historic sites throughout the city. Because no photographs of the theater’s original interior are known to exist, it was designed to the specifications of the 1930s Art Deco period by Anniston, Calhoun County, architect Julian Jenkins. In 1998, the Ritz Theatre officially reopened as a performing arts center with a performance by the Washington D.C.-based National Symphony String Quintet. Since then, thousands of guests have attended plays, community events, and movie screenings in the theater.

In 2005, Antique Talladega launched a $7 million campaign to include new facilities such as meeting rooms and banquet rooms. In 2016, the theater received a $35,000 grant from a private family trust in Birmingham that enabled the theater to purchase a new automatic large movie screen, a surround-sound system, a digital projector, and a sound board in order to show feature-length films once again. In 2018, the Ritz Theatre launched a fundraising program to raise $120,000 to buy new seats for the auditorium and by mid-year began replacing the theater’s historic seats.

Since the renovation and its reopening, the theater has also hosted performances by the Montana-based Missoula Children’s Theatre, which is the nation’s largest touring children’s theater. Additionally, the Ritz hosts an annual Fall Residency program in conjunction with the Missoula Children’s Theater and the Callie Kid’s Foundation, a local nonprofit arts program for children. The collaboration hosts an open audition and casts 50-60 local students to perform in a production. Each summer, the Ritz also hosts a Missoula Children’s Summer Theatre Camp, which is a six-day theater camp for local youths that includes public performances. Thousands of area students have been involved in professional and curriculum-based arts education initiatives through the Ritz Theatre. Other performing arts events include performances by the Birmingham Children’s Theatre. The Ritz Theatre hosts an annual faith-based Afternoon of Praise musical event in August to benefit the local nonprofits Red Door Kitchen and Samaritan House that provide services for the needy. According to Talladega First Inc., another charity that raises funds for the theater, the Ritz has provided an economic impact of more than $1 million annually to the Talladega area since reopening.

The Ritz is primarily supported by private donations, ticket sales, grants, and fundraising through a variety of community events. The largest event is an annual Mardi Gras Gala and Art Experience, which includes a parade, art auction, and gala ball. (It is the largest Mardi Gras event in northern Alabama.) The theater also hosts an annual Low Country Shrimp Boil and Drawdown at the nearby Talladega Superspeedway race track. Proceeds from the shrimp boil go towards underwriting school performances at the Ritz Theatre over the following year.

The theatre is located at 115 Court Square North (North Street East on Google Maps). It is in the Talladega Court House Square Historic District established in 1972 for its significance as an industrial boom town. The district consists of numerous buildings mostly constructed in the latter decades of the 1800s and into the early 1900s, including an opera house and a hotel. The Court House, which faces the theatre, was built soon after the county was established in 1836 and is the oldest continuously operating court house in the state. The former railroad depot (ca. 1906) at the southeast corner of the square houses the Greater Talladega Chamber of Commerce. Nearby is Jemison-Carnegie Heritage Hall, an art space and local history museum located in a former Carnegie library (ca. 1906).

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