Friday, April 13, 2012

Puttin' on the Ritz

I'm still looking for a really good photo of the Ritz Theatre in its 1930 (and/or 1927) glory days, but for the time being this will have to do. It's a snapshot that dates from early 1931, taken just about a year after the theater had been gutted in a disastrous February 1930 fire. Restored/rebuilt in just three months, the Ritz had opened for business again during May of 1930 and was going strong when this photo was taken.

Here's how the Ritz, now home of the Connecticut Yankee Peddler bike shop (one of Iowa's best, by the way), looks now. Obviously the marquee, installed perhaps soon after World War II, is different, the roof line has been substantially altered and the signage removed --- but it's still the same building. I'm not sure when the alterations were made, but the distinctive roofline survived into the 1960s (below)

I've included the building to the right, with the second-floor bay window, in the new photo because it was built in 1930, too, immediately after work on reconstructing the theater was completed. Both the theater and the adjacent building were built and owned by Harry J. and Jeanette Cramer.

The Cramers, who had been in business in Albia, arrived in Chariton as women's clothiers about 1917 and acquired, perhaps from the Dewey family, the triple-front block dating from ca. 1902 that is second from left in this post card view. It was flanked by the double-front block at left that still stands as home to Chariton Floral, facade now obscured by blank blue facing, and the massive Temple Building, at right --- then the largest commercial structure on the square. It housed the Lincoln theater, by the mid-1920s obsolete and little used, as well as other businesses, offices and apartments on the first two floors. The Knights of Pythias owned the top floor and had their lodge rooms there.

By 1927, at least the two east storefronts of the Cramer block had been demolished and the Ritz inserted. Described as "one of the best play houses in Southern Iowa, it was "dedicated to the public amusement" on Wednesday, August 31. The modified facade we see today apparently still is the facade built during 1927.

The Ritz probably was designed by Chariton architect William L. Perkins, although there seems to be little to document that. An article regarding Perkins' death, published in The Chariton Leader of August 13, 1957, did, however, attribute the building to him. It's not clear if the single-front building immediately west of the theater before the fire was a remnant of the earlier block or new construction, also dating from 1927.

The Cramers seem not to have had an active hand in operating the theater. By 1930, the theater operations lease-holders were Walter H. Dewey, of Chariton, and the Des Moines-based partnership of A.H. Blank, Harry Weinberg and Jesse Denman.

Disaster struck during the early morning of Wednesday, Feb. 26, 1930, when fire broke out in the basement of the massive Temple Building. Failure of Chariton's firefighting equipment allowed the blaze to spread and when all was said and done, the Temple Building was a total loss as was the Cramers' single-front building. The walls of both were brought down by dynamite. If interested, there's more about that fire and how Old Betsy saved the day here.

Although it seemed initially as if the Ritz, too, might be a total loss, substantial parts of it survived. According to newspaper reports both the east wall and the facade were still standing, although the second floor of the building had collapsed into the first and the lower west wall was badly damaged. The Cramers' loss was estimated at $30-35,000 for the Ritz and $15,000 for the adjoining structure, both insured.

The Cramers immediately announced plans to rebuild, and by early March, E.H. Best & Sons had been awarded a contract to reconstruct the theater --- within 40 days. As it turned out, the structure of the theater auditorium had survived, as had the theater seating, although the chairs would have to be refurbished, the space redecorated and new staging, curtains, scenery and equipment installed.

The second floor of the theater building was entirely reconstructed --- in a "fireproof" manner, divided into apartments that when complete were perhaps the finest in Chariton.

The restored Ritz was ready to reopen with a flourish on Saturday night and Sunday, May 24 and 25. The latest Western Electric sound system had been installed and Lucas Countyans were invited to "Hear the Talking Pictures Right" for the first time at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The grand reopening film was "High Society Blues" starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Ferrell. William Collier Sr., Lucien Litlefield, Hedda Hopper, Louise Fazenda and Joyce Compton also were featured. Admission at night and on Sundays was 40 cents for adults and 10 cents for children; for matinees, 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children.

As soon as work on the Ritz was complete, construction of the new single-front Cramer Building immediately to the west began. "This will be a much better building than before and fully modern," the Patriot reported on May 22, 1930. "The front brick work will be a model of masonry and the display windows attractive and convenient. When completed this will be one of the most sightly buildings in Chariton" --- as it continues to be, of course, now housing a computer business.

Although Harry Cramer lived long enough to see new buildings arise from rubble, he died of heart failure in the family apartment over the Ritz a year after the fire, on Feb. 18, 1931. Jeanette Cramer continued to live in Chariton for 30 more years --- until 1961, when she moved to Wesley Acres in Des Moines where she died during June of 1966. Both Harry and Jeanette are buried in the Chariton Cemetery.

The theater itself was sold to the Central States Theater Co. and continued to be Lucas County's premiere source of entertainment for many years --- until the decision was made to close it as competition from television increased. The building was used for various purposes until rescued and recycled by Connecticut Yankee.

The "talkies" continue in Chariton, however, thanks to the Vision II Theater, built as a community effort on North Main Street to fill the entertainment gap left when the Ritz lowered its house lights for the last time.

1 comment:

Judy said...

My Mother was an usher at the Ritz and my Uncle Tom was the projectionist. I have a piece of the velour drape that covered the screen and also some of the show fliers that were put up in the lobby. JB