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Monday, July 17, 2017
Former Ritz Theater purchased in River District
The former Ritz Theater building at 534 Spring St. has been purchased with an eye toward renovating the structure for a new life in the River District.
Agostino Pugliese and his wife, Brandi — also owners of Dell’Anno’s Pizza Kitchen on Main Street — purchased the building for $26,500 in May, according to city records.
Pugliese said he has no firm plans for the building, other than to secure the site and “see what the options are.”
He said he wants to find a good use for the building after he fixes water damage to the interior.
“Maybe in the fall we’ll decide what the best solution for it is,” Pugliese said.
Most recently the building has been used as a church, but originally it housed the city’s only black-only theater. Pugliese said the original theater seats are still in the building, though the stage and other areas have suffered water damage.
He declined a request for a tour of the interior from the Register & Bee, saying it needs repairs before tours can be arranged.
The 5,680-square-foot building most recently housed the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, which owned the building. While still owned by the church, Corrie Teague Bobe, assistant director of the city’s economic development department, said she was able to tour the building.
“It’s a really neat building,” Bobe said. “It still has the stadium theater-style seating and you can see where the projection room was.”
Bobe said she was not approached by the Puglieses prior to their purchase.
“I’m as interested in finding out what will be done as anyone,” Bobe said.
Remembering the Ritz Theater
Danville residents remember the days when it housed the Ritz Theatre, long before the civil rights movement and desegregation happened.
Fred Motley — a Danville storyteller, actor and theater director — said he remembers the Ritz Theater, but in bits and flashes, since he was very young at the time.
“I remember that it was the all-black theater and that, like all theaters, it was always dark,” Motley said. “My mom would check the newspaper to see what was playing there.”
Motley said he remembers the Rialto Theater better, because he went there when he was a little older.
“It was where the school board building is now; blacks sat upstairs in the balcony and whites sat downstairs,” Motley said. “In the summer, we’d collect bottle caps to get in free. On Sundays all the kids got together after church to go to the movies there.”
Kirby Wright — founder/owner of Negril Inc., which serves residents with intellectual or mental disabilities, and W&W Luxury Limousine Service — said he fondly remembers the Ritz Theater, where he worked during high school.
“I used to be the projectionist. I worked there from ninth to 12th grade,” Wright said, and laughed. “My mother made me go to college; I didn’t want to … I was making $65 a week, and teachers only made $45 a week. I didn’t want to leave it.”
But his mother won that argument, Wright said.
Wright laughed again as he talked about becoming the projectionist.
He started off working at the theater part-time, taking tickets at the door and moving up to working the concession counter. Wright said he became friendly with the projectionist — who started to teach him how the equipment worked.
One night, Wright said, the projectionist and manger of the theater got into an argument, and the projectionist walked out in the middle of a movie, with the reel running.
The manager was in a panic, Wright said, until Wright told him he could run the projector.
“I got the job full time and I was only about 15,” Wright said.
The theater offered more than movies all week long. At least one night a month, there was a live performance.
“A lot of good artists came and performed,” Wright said. “They were real nice shows, stage shows with big names, and local artists. I’d shine the spotlight on them.”
There were five theaters downtown then, Wright said.
“We couldn’t go the Capitol Theater at all; it was only for whites,” Kirby said. “There was the Rialto, where we had to sit in the balcony, and the Dan Theater and Virginia Theater, where we had to sit in back.”
Motley, too, said blacks didn’t bother looking up what was playing at the Capitol Theater.
“You knew you wouldn’t be able to go,” Motley said.
The Ritz was considered “all-black,” though whites were not specifically forbidden from attending the movies and shows. Wright said no whites ever came to the theater that he was aware of.
Both Wright and Motley said they were pleased someone was planning to restore the former theater.
“But it does bring back memories buried a long time ago,” Motley said.