RITZ THEATER I
by Ann Angel Eberhardt
For this month’s blog, let’s go to the movies again! When the request went out for remembrances of Sharpsville, PA, in the 1950s-60s, three stories about the Ritz Theater were submitted, evidently a popular memory for us old-timers. And no wonder! What glamor, high jinks and an array of adventures awaited us on that silver screen!
RITZ THEATER I
Many years have passed since the curtains closed on the stage of the Ritz Theater in Sharpsville for the last time after an afternoon or evening of entertainment, but the memories live on.
Although the Hollywood films shown by this little theater were mostly low-budget, they were so much a part of our lives during the 1950s and 1960s that they likely formed some of the values we hold today. Of course, we had other choices of motion picture venues nearby, such as the Reynolds Drive-In Theatre in rural Transfer, PA, and the several larger and fancier downtown Sharon, PA, theaters which ran premieres and first-run movies. However, the Ritz was just around the corner from our house and much cheaper to attend.
The Original Owners
Charles E. Gable (1859-1945) was said to be the original owner of the Ritz. According to the 1920 U.S. Census, Charles, age 60, and his wife Florence Archer Gable (1861-1932), lived in the “Hotel Gable” on Railroad Street, Sharon, PA, and his occupation was theater owner. The theater at that time may have been the Gable Theater located in either Sharon or Farrell, PA. (Charles and Florence Gable graves are in Oakwood Cemetery, the same place where Julia and Frank Buhl are buried, near Thornton Hall in Sharon.)
Irene Caldwell O’Neill (SHS 1960) submitted this newspaper clipping, from The Sharon Herald, 07 August 1942:
Birthdays Today: Charles E. Gable
Usually active at the age of 83 is Mr. Gable, proprietor of the Ritz Theater, Sharpsville, whose birthday is on this date. A Herald photographer caught him in a hearty laugh on his anniversary. Mr. Gable is one of the best known men in the county, having been actively identified with the growth of the Shenango Valley. For many years he operated the Gable Hotel, which had a national reputation for the excellence of its meals.
The year that the Ritz Theater was established is unknown but the theater was considered “new” in 1936, according to an excerpt of a speech given by Peter Joyce (owner of the former Isaly’s Dairy located on Third and Main streets) to the Sharpsville Service Club in 1979. In honor of Dr. Nelson Bailey, Mr. Joyce reminisced about Sharpsville:
…[L]et’s wander back 56 years and look at the Sharpsville of that time and some of the people who have gone to their reward, whom Dr. Bailey first met. …Then, on down to First Street to the new Ritz Theatre with Charles Gable and his diamond rings and a powerful hoarse voice which we heard later in his famous nephew, Clark Gable…. http://www.sharpsvillehistorical.com/documents/Reminiscences.pdf
The following blurb in the September-December 1936 issue of The Film Daily (Vol. 70) also mentions “C.E. Gable” in connection with the Ritz in Sharpsville (and states a different relationship with Clark):
Sharpsville, Pa.— C. E. Gable, operator of the Ritz Theater here and nephew of Clark Gable, is leaving for Florida next week on his annual winter vacation. http://archive.org/stream/filmdailyvolume770newy/filmdailyvolume770newy_djvu.txt
According to my brother, Mike Angel, “I believe a Mr. Belonax owned, or at least managed, the theater during our time period [1950s]. Cost for a Saturday matinee was 20 cents and if you didn’t have enough money Mr. Belonax would let you in anyway.” [Helen Belonax owned and operated a beauty salon a few doors down from the theater.]
If Mr. Belonax did indeed purchase the Ritz, he may have done so by responding to this classified ad “for Business Opportunities” in The Pittsburgh Press, April 16, 1950:
Ritz Theater, Sharpsville, Pa.
370 seats, drawing population 10 to 12 thousand, no competition, always a money maker.
Reason for selling: To settle Estate. Address: Trustee, 919 Koppers Bldg. Pittsburgh 19, Pa.
Exterior of the Ritz Theater
The Ritz, located in a one-story brick building on the corner of First and Main streets was one of many neighborhood movie theaters that once existed in towns and cities across the United States. Only a few have managed to still be in operation, such as another Ritz Theater, also on Main Street, that I attended while living in Muncy, PA, in the early 1980s.
We kids enjoyed several evening and matinee movies a week at our little neighborhood movie theater. And we did so without adult supervision. At the time I didn’t wonder why our parents would let us attend so often, but now I think it may have been a convenient, sure, and safe way to get us out of their hair for a few hours.
I believe there was a red neon sign, indicating “RITZ,” above the front of the theater that was lit up when the theater was open for business. Decorating the facade of the Ritz’s portico were colorful posters promoting current and upcoming feature films and about eight stills of the movie that was currently playing. The ticket booth with its glass window was inside the east wall of the portico to the right of the doors.
Entering the Ritz Theater
After purchasing a ticket, we walked through the entrance doors and, if we had an extra nickel, we would make a stop at the candy machine in the foyer and select our favorite candy, such as a box of Raisinets, JujyFruits, Good & Plenty, Mike & Ike, Milk Duds, Sugar Babies, or Dots. Or maybe a 5th Avenue or Butterfinger candy bar. Popcorn must have been available as well, perhaps at the ticket window, because to this day the odor of popcorn reminds me of the cozy dark interior of the Ritz.
The Ritz Theater featured a narrow inner lobby which ran behind the auditorium seats. The wall that separated the inner lobby and the seating area was short enough in height to allow a patron to see the screen and available seats before entering the auditorium. There were two aisles dividing the three seating sections on a slightly inclined floor, a stage with curtains, and emergency exits on either side. The Ritz did not have a balcony but I vaguely remember box seats above the main seating area on each side of the stage. If they did exist, they were likely for decoration only, as I don’t recall that the box seats were ever used by patrons.
The Ritz Theater Staff
There were two brothers who worked as ushers. Their duties included leading us to our seats with a flashlight if the movie had already begun, monitoring the projection quality of the film, and making sure the audience behaved.
Irene Caldwell O’Neill wrote, “I have the name of the man who was employed as the projectionist/manager and some people think he may have been the purchaser when Mr. Gable died. The projectionist’s name was Andrew P. Semon, who lived on Ridge Avenue. His daughter helped him at the theater in the later years.”
Movies at the Ritz
At the start of the movie, the curtains would dramatically part from the middle, probably another job for the ushers. Then we were treated to several “shorts,” such as a cartoon, travelogue, an installment of the latest adventure serial (with a “cliffhanger” ending), a newsreel, and/or a comedy. I remember how embarrassed we girls were as boys hooted and hollered whenever a jungle travel film showed bare-breasted “native” women. Jame A. FitzPatrick’s Traveltalk Film travelogues, which served to open our eyes to the world, always ended with a sunset and the narrator’s voice intoning this goodbye: “And as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we bid a reluctant farewell to…” whatever land the film was covering.
Finally, it was time for the main feature, which always began with what seemed to be an interminable list of all the credits. At first, the Hollywood films featured old-fashioned middle-class conformity and character idealization in the form of westerns, musicals, detective stories, and comedies. I dutifully listed in my 1950s diaries each film I saw, and still recall my favorites, such as the comedy series starring the Bowery Boys, as well as “Destination Moon,” “Son of Paleface,” “King Solomon’s Mines,” “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and the re-release of “Gone with the Wind.” Also, many of the movies were now in the saturated hues of Technicolor, instead of the all black-and-white films of earlier years.
By the latter part of the 1950s, Hollywood began realizing that the younger generation was interested in more realistic representations of their lives. Gradually we were treated to the exciting and sexy actions of anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando and James Dean and anti-heroines such as Bette Davis, Kim Novak, and Marilyn Monroe. My friend was a big fan of James Dean, filling a scrapbook with his pictures, and mourning, along with many other teenage fans, his untimely death in an automobile accident. The first movie to feature rock ‘n’ roll music, “Blackboard Jungle,” with its energizing “Rock Around the Clock” theme song, was a sort of awakening to me that kids my age were a group to be reckoned with.
At the finish of each film or short subject, two large words on the center of the screen informed us that the film had reached “The End.” Once outside again, I would enjoy studying the publicity stills to see if I recognized the scenes depicted.
Ritz Theater Advertising Card
The Sharpsville Area Historical Society Newsletter, dated July 2016 (Vol. V, No. 2), displays the image of a Ritz Theater advertising card. It lists the titles and stars of movies scheduled to be shown for the month of February 1952.
Four of the 18 films were in Technicolor, the others were in black-and-white, and all were second-run, having been released the year before. The titles changed every two days, except on Saturday when they were one-day-only. There were double features on one of the Saturdays and in a Thursday-Friday show. This was the type of schedule that was in place during my Ritz days in the early 1950s, but I don’t remember advertising cards. They certainly would have been handy!
Other Ritz Memories
Between the theater and the beauty salon was a 2′ x 3′ grate over the sidewalk that covered an access to the basement or crawl space beneath the building. While waiting for the next movie, kids would play around the grate with money in hand to buy popcorn or candy and accidentally drop coins in the grate. Joe Wasley and I would always look through the grate’s iron bars to see if there was any change in the void. The grate had a lock on it and we couldn’t open it to retrieve the lost change, so Joe and I would put chewing gum on a end of a long stick and spear the coins through the iron bars. The coins would stick to the gum. There was always loose change to be had.
I remember the Christmas parties put on by some civic organization. They would give you a popcorn ball and a big bag of hardtack candy. Santa was always there. What a great time!!!
On one of my movie visits, there was a short fundraising film for the March of Dimes foundation’s fight against polio, a dreaded and widespread disease before the Salk vaccine was developed. At the end of the film, the lights were turned on and the ushers passed around collection cans for small donations from the patrons. Meanwhile, the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” played which seemed to me a moving but perhaps an unfortunate choice.
The End of the Ritz
As more and more families bought television sets, Hollywood tried to beat out TV’s competition with technical innovations such as wide screens, 3-D movies, and CinemaScope. In 1952, my family drove to Pittsburgh to see “This is Cinerama,” a travelogue with a thrilling roller coaster ride that was projected on screens that seemed to surround the viewer. Even at the Ritz, we watched CinemaScope movies, such as “Prince Valiant,” and donned cardboard-and-plastic eyeglasses to watch “Charge at Feather River” and other 3-D movies. By June 1954, the entrance price had increased to 50 cents to keep up with rising costs.
However, changes in film distribution and the growing popularity of television were factors that led to the eventual decline of the Ritz and hundreds of other small movie theaters.
Sadly, a vacant lot now exists where this once lively showplace stood, but we movie-goers of the ’50s and ’60s can still see those images and performers, hear their words and songs, and smell the popcorn, as they play out in our fond recollections of the Ritz Theater.
– Ann Angel Eberhardt (SHS 1958), Goodyear, AZ, with contributions from Michael Angel (SHS 1960), London, KY, Irene Caldwell O’Neill, Escondido, CA (SHS 1960), and Judy Caldwell Nelson (SHS 1958), Shoreline, WA; April 2012