Small Town Memories

Recording memories of the SHARPSVILLE, PA, AREA from the 1940s to the 1970s, one story at a time.

Tag: cartoons

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.

sharpsville_movie-reel-popcorn-3dAlthough 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.)

Charles E. Gable (1859-1945)

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 Ritz was described as “new” in the following 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 in the 1920s:

 …[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.

Sharpsville Area Historical Society (SAHS)

The March 2013 issue of the SAHS Newsletter may provide answers to some of the questions about the theater’s origins:

The Ritz Theatre opened June 1924, in time for Sharpsville’s Golden Anniversary. It was then described as modern, up-to-date in every way, and absolutely fireproof. The building included two storefronts, initially occupied by Harry Solomon’s confectionary and Mrs. Carnes’ millinery. The owner was Charles Gable, noted locally as the uncle of Clark Gable; he also owned the Gable Theater in Sharon. Remembered for “his diamond rings and a powerful hoarse voice,” Gable operated the theatre until 1940 when ill health forced him to turn over management to Andy Seamon. Seamon then purchased the movie house from Gable’s estate in 1950 and ran it until the about 1965. The Ritz was fondly remembered for its Saturday matinee serials…..

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.

sharpsville_movie-ticket

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 (sic), who lived on Ridge Avenue. His daughter helped him at the theater in the later years.” (See excerpt from the SAHS Newsletter above.)

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. James 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 in 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, 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

Mike recalls:

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 an 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.

According to the March 2013 Newsletter for the Sharpsville Area Historical Society:

The long-vacant building collapsed July 11, 1995. Its foundation stands next to Jerry’s Tavern (the former Glen-Rose) on Main Street.

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.

sharpsville_movie_the-end

– 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


See Also:

Dr. Bailey’s Sharpsville 1920s, Part I
Dr. Bailey’s Sharpsville 1920, Part II
Ritz Theater II by Irene Caldwell O’Neill
Ritz Theater III by Judy Caldwell Nelson
Sharpsville and the Ritz Re-Discovered 
by Gail Nitch Hanes


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RITZ THEATER III

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

Although I will be publishing the Sharpsville blogs on a less frequent time schedule this year, here’s one a bit earlier than I had planned. It’s a second blog about the Ritz Theater, written by my high school friend, Judy Caldwell Nelson (SHS 1958).


sharpsville_movie-reel-2Ah yes, the Ritz Theater with its many reeled doors leading to adventure and romance.

My favorite movie serials were those with the heroes Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, and Gene Autry. Lash LaRue, another of my favorites, captured “the bad guys” in a slightly different manner. While other heroes  usually used lassos to pull “the bad guys” from their horses, Lash had a long buggy-type whip which he let out with a swoosh and it invariably landed with a loud crack as it wrapped around the bad guys’ necks or waists to unseat them from their horses.

There were other heroes as well, for example, the Scarlet Horseman, the Cisco Kid, Red Ryder, the Lone Ranger (along with Tonto, of course), and Roy Rogers.

How wonderful it all was. I chomped my candy in tempo to galloping hooves and in fascination at the glory of the intrepid good guys galloping across the screen to save us all from the evil men of the world.

sharpsville_image_hopalong2

Hopalong Cassidy cover by Time Magazine, 27 November 1950.

A few years ago I caught a special on TV about Hopalong Cassidy, a.k.a. William Boyd,  and his wife. They never had children but loved them immensely. He started a special Hopalong club that boys could join. Said joiners had an oath to take similar to that of Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts.

Hopalong was much loved in Europe and crowds surrounded him when he traveled there with his wife. He had the most beautiful white hair – which was natural.

When I traveled to Europe about ten years ago, I was astounded to find racks of American Western cowboy-hero paperbacks in train stations. On a train in England, I met a man who informed me about the many cowboy clubs active in his country. He himself was a very active member and had traveled to Tombstone, Arizona, to see the O.K. Corral first hand – and the reenactment of that famous shoot-out. It was a highlight of his life.

When I myself traveled to Tombstone several years later, there were busloads of Japanese, German, and other alien tourists lapping up every bit of dust and cobweb in the town.

I do want to mention one humorous incident that occurred when I saw “101 Dalmatians.” I was at a Saturday evening showing and there were several small children seated in the row in front of me and throughout the audience. At one point in the movie, a puppy was being washed along in a fast flowing stream. His animal friends had assembled on a low bridge under which the stream’s current would soon be carrying the frightened animal.

"101 Damatians," poster for the Walt Disney film.

“101 Damatians,” poster for the Walt Disney film, 1961.

Their plan was to reach down and grab his arm and pull him to safety as he was washed under the bridge. They frantically shouted loudly to him to raise his arm so they could grab him.

And it was at that point in the movie that several small children in the theater, caught up in the emotion of the moment, desperately shot their arms up – trying empathetically to save the puppy.

I also remember mothers having to comfort their weeping children when the Wicked Witch of the North confronted Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Some children had to be carried out of the theater because they were so frightened.

Each movie I attended was a wonderful experience. Walking home with my brother and sisters and/or friends, we discussed the heroes and the dastardly villains.

When I reached my teens, Doris Day became my favorite actress. I tried to remember the words of the songs she sang in her movies and daydreamed that I might have adventures similar to hers in her screen roles.

When I think back now, I can see clearly that I led a blessed life in the small town of Sharpsville. I pity children today who can’t talk to strangers and can’t be hugged by teachers or classmates…and who can’t enjoy the screen adventures of the heroes of the Old West.

— Judy Caldwell Nelson (SHS 1958), Shoreline, WA, 5 March 2013


See Also:
Ritz Theater I by Ann Angel Eberhardt
Ritz Theater II by Irene Calwell O’Neill
Sharpsville and the Ritz Re-Discovered
by Gail Nitch Hanes


RITZ THEATER II

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

By Irene Caldwell O’Neill
March 2013

sharpsville_popcornA small and hardly noticeable building on the corner of First and Main in downtown Sharpsville called The Ritz Theater was one of the most, if not the most important place in town to the children who lived there. Our only theater was small and old, seating around 500 patrons with a red painted concrete floor and worn dirty carpet strips down the aisles. The seats were covered with uncomfortable cracked vinyl and dusty brown curtains hung aside the screen; no-nonsense décor right out of the thirties.

In 1947, Mother took my brother Jack and me to our very first movie, The Wizard of Oz, at the Ritz. We’d never seen a television set, let alone a movie and thought the happenings before our eyes totally real. Scared out of my wits, I sobbed and screamed, begging Mom to save poor Dorothy from the wicked witch, and finally hid my face in her lap until Dorothy was rescued and on her way safely home to Kansas.

Good & Plenty Licorice Candy

By 1950 we Caldwell siblings walked the nine blocks to the Ritz almost every Saturday afternoon to see the matinee. The tickets were a dime and if we had extra money, it went into the tall brown metal candy machine in the tiny lobby. I remember five choices, Good & Plenty, Snowcaps, Jujyfruits, Raisinets and Goober’s Peanuts were standards. Occasionally a choice wasn’t stocked or the box got jammed on its way through the mechanical maze which necessitated going back outside to the ticket man who would refund our nickel but left the malfunctioning machine toimage_goobers-and-raisinets upset the next customer. This ticket seller was also the projectionist, locking up his booth just before show time to run inside and start up his large double reeled device. Sometimes, and always it seemed, at an important place in the story, the film would break causing a delay of several minutes while it was patched together. Boos echoed loudly around the theater until our movie resumed.

Usually, the main subjects were oaters or cowboy genre and Jack and I would argue over who was better, Roy Rogers, his favorite, or Gene Autry, mine. Near the end there was always a posse chase scene during which the children bounced noisily and rhythmically up and down on the already rickety seats, keeping pace with the horses until the sole usher came down the aisle and shined his flashlight as a warning signal. That flashlight was the law and after two or three infractions, a rowdy audience member could be walked out. We would tear our eyes from the screen to watch the higher drama of a misbehaving boy pulled from his seat and escorted to the door.

Tarzan was another huge favorite and through the years we watched his hair and that of Jane’s change from brunette to blonde and back to brunette. “Boy’s”, however, was always blonde. Poorly disguised trapeze bars were replaced by realistic looking vines and the animal fight scenes became less jerky, but to me, the only Tarzan will forever be Johnny Weissmuller with Maureen O’Sullivan as his lovely Jane.

sharpsville_image_movietoneThen, as now, the main feature was preceded by a few short subjects including previews of coming attractions, hopefully, a Looney Tunes cartoon with Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner, but sometimes a very unpopular big band feature with a large orchestra and leader such as Benny Goodman or Gene Krupa. Often an old MovieTone News newsreel narrated by Lowell Thomas educated us on post-WWII events… I don’t remember discussing these wartime events with anyone, but they certainly left a mark on young impressionable minds. Could this be why so many from my generation grew up to resist the Vietnam War and the draft so bitterly?

During the dark winter months, Dad would walk downtown to see us safely home. He came early and waited at the next door bar, nursing a single beer and playing penny poker until we came to get him. If the game was “hot” we had to wait. There was never any place for us to sit, so we stood nervously fidgeting around his chair watching a game we didn’t understand while inhaling thick alcohol-laced cigarette fumes. Sometimes one of the other, undoubtedly more affluent, players took pity on our plight and bought us a Coke or bag of chips to ease our wait. Once a Salvation Army “Sally” in full dark blue uniform and bonnet entered the bar and passed around her tambourine. I was utterly amazed to see the men toss in coins (not my dad) and asked Mother about her when we got home. Charity was new to me and I’d never seen money given freely except into church collection plates.

-Irene Caldwell O’Neill (SHS 1960), Escondido, CA. March 2013

 


See Also:
Ritz Theater I by Ann Angel Eberhardt
Ritz Theater III by Judy Caldwell Nelson
Sharpsville and the Ritz Re-Discovered
by Gail Nitch Hanes