Centennial Celebration

100 Years of Entertainment 1923-2023

Beginning July 2022, the Ritz Theater begins a year-long celebration marking its 100th Anniversary of entertaining the community.

We have lots of exciting plans that include big name and popular entertainment like a Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, and Rolling Stones tributes, musicals like “Grease,” free family movies, Puttin’ on the Ritz: Cheers to 100 Years Gala, a history exhibit in the Theater’s lobby, and a public art project. 

Oral history stories collected from the community share the important impact this historical treasure has had on our region. We invite you to participate. Click this button to launch an online form.

There are many ways to participate, and we look forward to you joining in on the celebration. 

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COMMUNITY ORAL HISTORY STORIES

Opening Night August 2, 1923The Sanford Journal 100th Article 100th Anniversary Article first day moviesCourtesy of the Sanford Historical Society | www.SanfordHistory.Net

When I was about six years old, (I’m 94 now), the Ritz Theater held a contest for a new car, which my dad wanted to win. Though be bought tickets for two or three nights, he decided not to go to the final night.

But I had other ideas. “Oh Daddy, please let’s go. Please, please!”

So, he got his ticket, and off we went. And wouldn’t you know, he won that car! I’m not sure what kind it was–possibly a Ford. I do remember that it was a beautiful, full-size brand-new car! We drove it home to show my mother and picked her up and went to show my brother. When we got in to leave, the car wouldn’t start! My brother had to crank it up to get it to go.

After that, it didn’t have any problems, and my dad drove that car for years.

Ollie Fortson Hunter Forbes 1930s

We moved here in the mid-50s and our family started going to The Ritz immediately. I remember watching World War II Movies like Bridge on the River Kwai with my dad Chester, who was a Pearl Harbor Survivor. But here are my two most vivid memories were.

Being a kid in the late 50s, riding my bike a couple miles Downtown to the Ritz with my sister Carol and brother Jay on early Wednesday mornings during School vacation days, after we had each scoured the neighborhood to collect 6 bottle caps for free entry to the weekly movies. It seemed like every kid you knew from School was there, plus you met kids from other parts of town. The cartoons and Cowboy or Adventure movies were great fun to watch in a packed house, full of kids just like you.

Coming of age as a teenager in the early 60s, and having The Ritz as a place to meet the Junior High girl of your dreams. Lots of first kisses and holding-hands were ingrained in our memories there forever, while watching horror movies, the beach-blanket films made in South Florida, and best of all, the first James Bond movies. Finally, none of us guys who had the voracious appetites of young teenage boys back then can forget the Ritz Concession Stand. We were deliciously satisfied by the great Movie Popcorn, Cokes, and the Ritz’ unforgettably soft, hot French Fries.

There are so many reasons why growing up in the 50s and 60s in the wonderful town of Sanford was the luckiest break of all for so many of us Baby Boomers. You can put The Ritz Theater up there with some of the very best reasons. It was the perfect local place to say…. “Let’s go to the Movies!”

Lamar D. Oxford 1950s – 1960s

I was born and raised in Sanford, Florida. I am of the generation that went to the zoo at the corner of Park Avenue and Seminole Boulevard for every friend’s birthday, got a cool cone at the Dairy Queen or the Big Dip, went to the public library when it was housed in the current Betty D. Smith Cultural Arts Center and when it moved to the old Post Office building on First Street. My Sanford had three pharmacies—Stapler’s, Touchton’s and Roumillat and Anderson (Faust came later). Downtown Sanford which is a hop, skip, and a jump from Georgetown had the Ritz Theater.

Every Saturday at 12:30, I was at the Ritz; I stayed until about 5:30 which meant I watched the movie twice before I walked home. My room had to be cleaned and my other chores had to be completed in order for me to go to the theater. So, every Saturday was a treat unless there was some army movie playing. I remember seeing The Ten Commandments, Elvis Presley movies, Doris Day movies, multiple cowboy movies, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great White Hope.

My memory of the Ritz is not nearly as carefree as my other memories of Sanford. I entered through a set of metal double doors (it is currently the stage entrance), and the first thing I saw was a ticket booth about the size of a phone booth. The stench from the alley on which the metal doors opened was particularly pungent during the summer months. There were about five
different kinds of candies that were available for purchase, but if you wanted hot food, you had to go out the metal door, turn right onto the sidewalk and go to the window outside the two sets of double doors that opened onto the spacious lobby found outside the main floor.

My seats were upstairs. There was a wall separating the balcony and only black folks sat upstairs. (My mother remembered when the balcony had no separation, but by the late 50s/early 60s, it was separated.) Did I know the accommodations were unequal? Anyone with two eyes could see that. The spacious lobby (on the other side of the theater) compared to the postage size vestibule—the ability to purchase refreshments without having to go outside to do so—the pleasant lavatory accommodations compared to accommodations that no one wanted to use—all illustrated the two levels of Sanford society and life in the deep South.

While the Ritz theater holds fabulous memories of my youth, I am not blind to its symbolism of segregation, separation, and division. While still in high school, two friends and I sat upstairs in the balcony on the other side of the wall (for the first time) to see Psycho. When an older brother came to pick us up and didn’t see us upstairs, he panicked. He need not have worried. We crouched down between the rows because Psycho was that kind of movie. When I was 19 and home from college after my freshman year, a friend and I decided to go see The Great White Hope. It was the first time I had ever sat downstairs.

Sitting on the main floor was a very different experience for me. I looked around and marveled at the nice seats, the drapery covered walls, the floor that was devoid of debris. One of the thoughts that came across my mind was how awful it must have been to be sitting in those very plush seats as popcorn and ice rained down on its occupants. (Yes, we threw ice and popcorn on the kids sitting downstairs.)

My most poignant memory of the Ritz is of a summer day when my mother and I had walked to the theater to see To Kill A Mockingbird. She and I very seldom went to the theater together, so this was a special treat. We sat upstairs, and I was thoroughly enjoying a movie about a town very much like Sanford. I had not read the novel before seeing the movie, so when Tom Robinson was shot to death, I was bereft. At 10, I was not aware of the political leanings of the nation, so this death was a reaction to a beloved character dying. It was not until years later that I realized the underpinning of Tom Robinson’s death and what it really meant.

Personally, the Ritz Theater is a symbol for all that was wonderful about growing up in Sanford during the 1950s and 1960s, and it is a symbol of the times which were not all quaint, comfortable, safe, and equitable. Much like times today, I can embrace the innocence of that time while simultaneously being aware that things could have been and should have been a whole lot better.

Annye L. Refoe, Ph.D. 1950s – 1960s

Margaret Sprout Green mentions in her book, “Lake Mary’s Beginnings” – back in the early 30’s, “peeking through the slats at the Ritz Theater to watch the live performances.”

I have early memories of the Ritz Theater back in the mid-fifties. Our father would take my older sister, Marcia Kay Lippincott and me, get us seated and return when the movie was over. On Saturdays, one could pay admission with 6 RC Cola bottle caps, and see the show. Once after the movie was over, being the ‘smarty-pants’ children we were, we didn’t sit in place waiting for our dad. We thought we’d just wait for him in the lobby…NOT! We got up to walk out and I was trampled by the larger teenagers, who had come to see the movie on bottle caps. Our dad found me huddled under the seats. I wasn’t wild about returning.

When I was a little older, we were allowed to walk from our house at 314 Elm Avenue. The French fries there were amazing. And yes, you could buy French fries at The Ritz. I don’t know what kind of catsup was used, but it made those fries all that more delicious. And I have vague memories of the best tasting, huge dill pickles, I think for a nickel. I remember we would take our younger brother, Robin, when he was older. We saw many Beach movies: “Beach Blanket Bingo” was one. Westerns and Elvis movies, too. “Blue Hawaii” was a favorite of ours, all three. We had been known to sit through the movie several times if we particularly liked it. With “Blue Hawaii,” I remember seeing it once and deciding to watch it again. Our brother liked it so much, he laid on the floor, banged his head and pitched a fit…we stayed to watch it again. (To this day, all three enjoy that movie.)

I remember the floors being covered in popcorn and spilled drinks. Trash strewn all over the floor. Messy Group! But, in between showings, the ushers would come with their trusty brooms and clean up the mess before the next show. I also remember a time, a little later, Robin and I went to our dad’s place of business (Aiken Advertising on Palmetto Avenue, between First and Second Streets, I think.). We walked to the Ritz from there to see “I Saw What You Did – And I Know Who You Are!” I’ll admit it was scary. We were really into the movie, holding hands, as if that would protect us. I don’t remember letting go of Robin; but, when the show was over, he was nowhere to be found. He had left the Ritz and run back to our dad’s office. To this day, he won’t watch that movie with me.

Our childhood included many an afternoon, usually a Saturday, being at the Ritz, to watch the latest and greatest movies, gorging ourselves on those French fries, covered in catsup, drinking cokes and stuffing our mouths with candy. Great Memories of afternoons at The Ritz!

And years later,I would drop my mother-in-law, Irene Brown, off at The Ritz, (Wayne Densch Theater) to watch live performances. The Ritz Theater always delivered.

Cynthia Lippincott Brown 1950s

My two older sisters (Marcia Lippincott and Cindy Lippincott Brown) and I used to walk to the Ritz Theater from our family’s rented house on Elm Avenue; it was just a few blocks. We saw so many movies there; I can remember when we paid for our tickets with bottle caps. We watched many beach party movies, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, but most especially I remember seeing a lot of Elvis Presley’s movies at the Ritz.

My sisters like to tell the story of how, late one afternoon I pitched a fit at not being allowed to stay for a second (or was it a third?) viewing of “Blue Hawaii.” And I can remember scurrying from the theatre terrified during “I Saw What You Did” with Joan Crawford; the rest of that title phrase being “…and I Know Who You Are.” I remember the sticky floors at the Ritz, the delicious French fries, that the catsup was particularly tasty, and I also remember the Jujubes, my favorite candy. Good times!

Robin Lippincott
Author of 6 books and a resident of the Boston area since 1978

Being from Philadelphia, I was accustomed to going to the many theaters in New York and Philadelphia. It was a part of my life since a little girl. Moving to Florida in 2004 I wanted to go back to the theater but to the smaller and older venues. That is what I especially like about the Ritz Theater. It has that old charm and character, the stage is smaller and no matter where you sit, you always have a great seat.

As an owner of a travel agency, I do many local bus trips and we always come back to this wonderful theater. When I first started bringing groups, the name of this venue was the Wayne Densch Performing Art Center and over the past few years their name changed.

My customers love coming here for the same reasons I do. The variety of live shows plus the tribute shows are great. Pricing is very good and by supporting a smaller theater like the Ritz a person is helping the community grow and many small businesses in the area. You are also helping younger performers get their start and who knows maybe someday their dreams will come true. They might be performing on Broadway or with a traveling company.

Happy 100th Anniversary to this wonderful theater called the Ritz Theater.

Carol Kane, Carol’s Travels 2000s

A few years ago, I took my grandchildren, David and Pammy Hinshaw to the Ritz. David was 10 years old and Pammy was 8 years old. They were staying with me that weekend and “Casablanca” was showing at the Ritz. That film had been one of my favorites and, unfortunately, I had only seen it on TV. I’d seen it so many times I know mist of the lines. So, this was my chance to see it on the BIG screen.

I anticipated questions. I told the kids we were going to a movie, but then I had to explain: it was in black and white, it took place during WWII and the invasion of France by NAZI Germany. I also explained it was a love story. First question: Why wasn’t it on color? Second question: Why were all those people in Casablanca? Why did the NAZIs hate the Jews? So this was a history lesson and a lesson about relationships.

We sat in the balcony, after buying popcorn and drinks. I then explained that for many years, the theater had been segregated, with white people seated downstairs and black people seated upstairs. I also described the barrier in the balcony that separated black from white. Now that was a revelation to these two young people! Then one said, “The balcony had the best view.” There proceeded to be lots of whys, which I also tried to explain. Another history lesson in social and cultural attitudes and regulations.

Thank you for saving this beautiful theater and a part of our heritage.

Carole Hinshaw

My mother sold tickets at the Ritz box office when I was very young. Mrs. Partain worked the refreshment stand where hot dogs, dill pickles, Coke and other food items and drinks were sold. I can still remember her in the crisp white uniform dress she wore with little cap on her head.
Oren Rudolph “Rudi” Smith was an usher, he became an AF colonel and noted Ophthalmologist in Texas. His father was Oren “Shorty” Smith was a long-known assistant at a local funeral parlor.His sister Pat Smith Epps currently lives in Daytona.
 
My father and his siblings went to the Ritz for cowboy movies “back in their day.” I also saw many cowboy movies at the Ritz – it was a thing to do for kids to meet up with friends on Saturdays.
 
I remember the side entrance for Blacks, which was no more than a fire escape to the second-floor balcony. Black and white people were separated by a partition in the balcony. Sometimes Black kids would toss wadded paper down to kids below. We threw them back up. Kids being kids.