Ritz Theater Sanford


Centennial Celebration

Ritz 100 Anniversary Logo

100 Years of Entertainment 1923-2023

In July of 2022, the Ritz Theater began a year-long celebration marking its 100th Anniversary of entertaining the community. We’ve held lots of exciting events and shows … and we’re not done yet being Sanford’s Entertainment Destination. We have a history exhibit in the Theater’s lobby, a public arts project in the works, and more great programs coming your way.

We’ve also been collecting oral history stories from the community to share the important impact this historical treasure has had on our region. We invite you to read submissions below and to participate. 

If you believe in the importance of local art and entertainment, support us to ensure another 100 years of success.

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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

I was 16-years old and taking dance lessons from Doris Duxbury in her studio at the S.E. corner of Oak and Commerical Avenues.

I don’t remember, but it must have been her yearly dance recital she was presenting at the Ritz.

I was to entertain with a Hawaiian Dance.

The night and the music of “Lovely Hula Hands” began, the curtain slowly opens and at the corner of the stage under a palm tree I leisurely sat. 

My beautiful costume has a skirt of glowing red plastic red strips. I was very warm and somewhat sweaty under the stage lights. I gracefully and slowly rose to begin my dance and lo…my beautiful grass skirt began falling and showering the stage floor.

Needless to say, there was laughter, hoots, and whistles. I was, as any 16-year-old girl, mortified! But I did finish my dance.

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

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.
          THE BEGINING
My first memory of the Ritz involves a Saturday afternoon in March 1955, a week after the Scotts had moved to Lake Mary from New Jersey. My Uncle Bud, then manager of Echols Bedding Company (now Cindy’s Dance Studio) sent seven year old Dave and his seven year old cousin Chipper across the street to see the movie “The Silver Chalice” featuring Paul Newman. We sat on the front row (right side of the middle isle), munched on snacks, talked to much, and paid little attention to the movie. In my adult life I would later learn that Silver Chalice was considered Newman’s worst movie – justifying our not paying attention as youths.
          THE 1950’s
From 1955 through 1959 I had a set routine involving the Ritz on Saturdays. Cousin Chipper and I would be taken to morning Catechism lessons at All Souls Catholic Church, walk to Uncle Bud’s (Echol’s Bedding), have lunch at Touchstons Drug Store, and then get sent to the Ritz for the afternoon. Once inside, the routine was the same – buy a dill pickle for a nickel and work it all afternoon, watch two B grade movies interspersed with newsreels and serials (eg Green Hornet) and then back to Uncle Bud’s.  The only change from the routine was when a Jimmy Stewart movie was showing. My Dad, being a big Stewart fan, would take us on a weeknight to see his boy “Jimmy”.
On the mischief side I learned that sitting in the balcony could be great fun. I recall putting ice chips or popcorn on the front edge of the balcony railing, flicking said objects into the audience below, then sitting way back in the seat to avoid being seen by those seated on the ground floor underneath us. Another mischievous activity I must admit to was throwing paperwads & popcorn chips over the partition that separated the Black seating from the white seating in the balcony. The fun part was that the thrown objects soon made their way back over the wall and an early version of the game Battleship was started.
To close out the 50’s I remember my first movie date in 1959. I’m a sixth grader at Lake Mary Elem. and get to take MW to a Saturday movie. While trying to impress MW I find myself fending off my good friend Rob who is also there and obviously enthralled by MW. He butts on every conversation I try to start and ruins my first attempt at suave & debonaire.
          THE 1960’s 
With the establishment of the Nativity Church in 1960 my Saturday morning Catechism classes moved to Lake Mary and every Saturday at the Ritz was no more. Now in Jr. High I found my social life revolving around the Friday night teen dances at the Sanford Civic center and maybe once a month Saturday movies at the Ritz.  
However, in the summer of ’60’ I found a new “place to be” – The Ritz Theater every Wednesday morning where I could get in free for six RC Cola (or NeHi product) bottle caps and be with all my early teen buddies. Fondest memory here was going to the Lake Mary IGA Foodmart every Monday and Tuesday where the owners (the Sjoblems) would let us go through the soda machine bottle cap collector and grab the needed caps. Adding to our Wednesday fun was going to the Sanford Zoo after the bottle cap movies and communing with the monkeys, snakes, llamas, etc.
High school Ritz memories begin in 1962. I’m dating a gal, G.T. from Edgewater High and in an attempt to impress, I take her to see the Elvis movie “Blue Hawaii”. I vividly remember sitting mid auditorium, right side and adopting “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as my theme song with G.T.. Alas, it wasn’t to be and G.T. is just a memory. Next up in ’63’ my most wonderful English teacher, Mary Joyce Bateman, offers us bonus credit if we go see “The Pit & the Pendulum” and do a one paragraph review. I recall a trip to the Ritz one afternoon, doing a review, and scoring bonus credit. (Also gained an appreciation of Vincent Price as an actor) Next up on my Seminole High memories of the Ritz is my 1964 trip to see the epic movie “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” in order to make sense of what Mr. McCoy was lecturing in class. In June of 1965 my high school career ended at the Ritz as part of what was then called Fun After Graduation Night. Immediately after the graduation ceremony we all went to the Ritz for an Elvis movie and food treats. From there it was off to Mid Fla. Country Club for an all night (& morning) luau.
During my two years at SJC I recall going to a few movies but, had started using the Colonial Plaza Twin Theater as my prime movie venue.
          THE 1970’s
Got married, started a family, moved to Fern Park, and basically found no opportunities to attend shows at the Ritz.
           THE 1980’s
My only memories of the Ritz were Sanford Herald articles about the decline of the theater as it occasionally functioned as a wine & cheese cantina showing movies no one cared about.
          THE 1990’s
I vividly recall my re-entry to RITZ involvement. It’s September of 1994, I’m Principal at Hamilton Elem. and a young lady named Helen Stairs asks me to meet with her regarding her 2nd grade Granddaughter Lindy. Not accustomed to meeting with grandparents, but wishing to keep all lines open and gain community support, I agreed to meet. Day of the meeting Helen Stairs shows up dressed to the nines and we talk about her straight ‘A’ granddaughter for about 30 seconds when Helen diverts the conversation to, “I understand you are from around here – How would you like to be involved in restoring the old Ritz theater?” I would be the education rep and get the schools involved in the restoration. I agreed with the stipulation the children from my school could perform there at no charge. Twenty-eight years later I’m still there and our Juniors program is still at no charge to students.
In 1995 I’m transferred to Idyllwilde Elem. and we (Idyllwilde) form a business partnership with ‘Save the Ritz’ and various student groups help with cleanup and painting at the theater. We also brought Honor Roll students to see storefront plays the Ritz was hosting in vacant buildings downtown in an attempt to stir up interest in live theater (for when the Ritz would open). The play I remember as most often done was “Mother Hicks”.
1996 is the year I recall as the one of great shock. After generating enough funds to start the renovation/rebuild of the theater Helen shared with the Ritz Board that termite damage was discovered in the roof rafters and all the rafters had to be replaced with metal structures. This change would use up all the funds, so we were back to fundraising, needing another million dollars.
Closing out the nineties I remember announcing to a Chamber group that the Ritz Board of Directors had voted to rename the theater as The Helen Stairs Theater in honor and recognition of her tireless efforts in raising funds for the project and her outstanding leadership in getting the project  completed.
          THE 2000’s
My truly memorable experiences at the Ritz in the 21st century (in chronological order):
May 2000 – Opening Night to a packed house at the restored Historic “Helen Stairs Theater”.  Featured entertainment – Melba Moore; highest ranking official – U.S. House Representative John Mica.
December 2000 – The first of ten Sights and Sounds of the Season shows featuring Seminole County student artists and performers kicking off the Holiday Season in downtown Sanford. The first show featured students representing 16 different schools and all grade levels K – 12. Most notable aspect was that the house was packed with family and friends – all impressed by the beautiful ‘real’ theater in which the students got to perform. I took great pride in all ten shows as I produced and directed all ten and that we were providing a real theater venue for student performers.
Spring 2001 – attended what I consider the most moving show ever. John Amos doing a one man show of Haley’s Comet. While Amos was best known as a former NFL player turned comedic actor on the TV show “Good Times”, he was phenominal in his dramatic storytelling while sitting on a stump sharing what he had seen and experienced since the previous comet.
Spring 2002 – I recall attending “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” directed by Doug Carey and produced by Wekiva River Players. We finally had an in-house theatrical troupe. WRP would provide our theatricals for several years.
Spring 2006 – I recall a rift between WRP and the HST that resulted in them (WRP) leaving and us (HST) starting our own reparatory troupe. This was the beginning of what we now call the Ritz REP.
Fall 2009 – The roof was caving in on the theater financially and artistically. I remember the Board President Bev Winesburgh asking me to take over as Treasurer and Programming chief. It was an intense and exciting time as we worked to turn things around. Our first show under the new setup was “The King & I” featuring live orchestration, an open audition process, and average attendance of 325 per show. We had turned the corner and were finally profiting from our REP shows.
Spring 2010 – One of my proudest moments. I fondly remember forging a Business Partnership with Midway Elementary School of the Arts in which we would share resources with each other, both materials & personnel. This partnership continues to this day.
Fall 2010 – Stan Allen, promoter, rents the theater for one of his Elvis shows, is impressed with the turnout and asks Board member Charles Lacy and myself if we would be interested in more of his shows. When he mentions receiving a small guarantee then a ticket split we immediately start negotiations which have resulted in a 12 year relationship. (Our previous promoters were requesting 4 to 6 thousand in guarantees – Stan 500 to 1000)
Sometime 2011 – I remember being buried in responsibilities in my family, professional and volunteer lives. I stepped down as Treasurer of the WDPAC and a young man by the name of Steve Nelson took over the Treasury. The rest is history as Steve has led us to high levels of success.
March 2019 – We are having unprecedented success with our production of Mamma Mia, averaging 425 per show the first weekend. Remembering that euphoria I also recall the beginning of COVID restrictions the next week which, while we were able to stay open, led to an average of 325 attendees the second weekend. Then my worst memory – on the Monday right after our last performance of Mamma Mia the government locks down the country and we go dark for months
Since 2019 – My most recent memory has to be the way we worked with the COVID rules and restrictions and provided full seasons in 20/21 and 21/22. All this while a slew of local theaters went under.
It’s been 67 years since I first entered the RITZ. I’m hoping for a 100th anniversary of my entering the grand lady known as the Ritz.
Dave Scott, Ritz Theater Vice President

In 1998 I negotiated a contract to have The Wekiva River Players be the first in-house Community Theater for the new Helen Stairs Theater. Our organization produced over 10 Broadway musicals, selling out most every show. We fondly remember the many hours spent in the beautifully renovated theater and are forever grateful for the opportunity to perform in Sanford, Fl.

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

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

I grew up in New York and we went to see experience, plays since I was a little girl. Such great memories I have from all the shows I have seen throughout the years. Moving from New York to Florida in 2006, the things we missed, are the food, plays, and family. I wanted my son to grow up seeing live shows so he can have fond memories of seeing these live performances as well. Since he was a little boy, we have taken him to different theaters around the Central Florida area. He is 18 now and the amounts of plays he has seen in his lifetime is remarkable. One of our favorite theaters to see plays in is the Ritz theater. The actors are so talented, and the music is phenomenal. Another thing we love to do is see tribute bands to our favorite rock bands. We have never seen a bad performance. We always walk out of the theater saying how much they sounded like the real artist, or even better. There is not a bad seat in the house. We love the location, the beauty of the theater, the performances we have seen are top notch. I usually get a group of people to go and dealing with Kitra is amazing. She is so sweet and accommodating. To me the Ritz is a much personal experience, and we always have a great seat, whereas Broadway plays in NY are usually nosebleed seats and very cramped. I feel so lucky to have this theater with top notch entertainment practically in our backyard.

New to Sanford, in 2021 I discovered this little gem, The Ritz Theatre. The Theatre provides high quality theatre experiences and creates opportunities to people of all ages to engage by the variety of live shows, films and outstanding tribute. After attending a couple of events, I definitely caught the Theatre bug!