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The $12 million dream

May 30th, 2012

Members of Newburgh’s Business Community got of glimpse of what could be the future of the Ritz Theater last week, and an update on the fundraising effort intended to turn a dream into reality.

The Ritz Theater is adjacent to The Cornerstone Residence, an award-winning 128-unit supportive housing residence that was established by Safe Harbors of the Hudson, the theater’s sister organization.

Safe Harbors of the Hudson invited members of the business community to breakfast last week, to hear the plans for the future of the landmark theater, and how, they believe, it could be a catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Newburgh.

The pricetag is $12 million to renovate the historic theater. The fundraising goal is $6 million, according to Patricia Haggerty Wentz, Executive Director of Safe Harbors, who said matching grants will provide the additional $6 million. To date $1.3 million has been raised.

The plan for the landmark Newburgh Theater is to restore it as an 825-seat venue, comparable in size to Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon Theatre. The lobby of the old theatre has been restored and is the site of concerts and other fundraising events. The next step is to restore the marquee that went dark in the late 1960s.

The original structure was built in 1883 for the manufacture of overalls, plumbing supplies and cigars.

In 1913, Cohen’s Opera House was created within the manufacturing building, opening on Feb. 4 of that year. Many legends of the Vaudeville era played on its stage.

Eugene Levy purchased and renovated the theater in 1933 and renamed it the Ritz. It was then that the theater began its most illustrious chapter, with big-name films and live performances by stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Mary Martin, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman, Dick Powell, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddy Duchin, Red Skelton, Xavier Cugat, The Inkspots, Vaughn Monroe, Montana Slim, Ricardo Cortez, Les Brown and many more. Frank Sinatra performed there in 1940 and a year later, Lucille Ball made her stage debut there, with her husband, Desi Arnaz.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Ritz continued showing movies, but the city and Broadway entered a slow decline. In 1969, the Ritz closed, the stage was walled off from the house, and Cinemas I and II were carved into the house. The cinemas survived until 1981. They were re-opened briefly in 1999 before being closed for good. The theater and the former Hotel Newburgh were purchased by Safe Harbors in 2002.

Safe Harbors created the nonprofit Ritz Theater Newburgh, Inc. in 2008 to focus solely on the restoration of the theater. In that year, theater programming began in the theater lobby, with performances from Tony Award-winning musician, Levi Kreiss, Grammy Award-winning musician, Pete Seeger, and Odair Assad.

The Ritz Theater has a management agreement with Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon Opera House. Chris Silva, Executive Director of the Bardavon and Kingston’s Ulster Performing Art Center, told the gathering last week that the Bardavon and UPAC have been catalysis for a downtown renaissance. He believes that the Ritz can have the same impact on downtown Newburgh.

The Bardavon was designed by prominent Poughkeepsie architect J. A. Wood and built by James S. Post, the latter notable for designing or erecting architectural structures in the Poughkeepsie central business district and Vassar College. An extensive renovation was undertaken in 1905 and supervised by architect William Beardsley, who also designed the Dutchess County Court House and Attica state prison. The theater was not reopened until Jan. 1, 1923, when it was opened under the new name The Bardavon Theater (named for The Bard of Avon).

At that time, it was bought by Paramount, and in 1928 a Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ was added. In 1947, the theater was further modernized and a movie marquee added. The style of the interior after the renovation has been described as neo-classic.

The venue continued as a cinema up until 1975, when massive redevelopment of the downtown area threatened it with demolition. There were plans to raze the building and use the site for a parking lot for the Mid Hudson Civic Center. Concerned citizens banded together to save the theater and were successful in getting it named to the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 20, 1977 — and renamed The Bardavon 1869 Opera House. Since then, more than $5 million has been raised and used to partially renovate the Bardavon, which is now in use again as a venue for a broad range of performing arts including theater, dance, music, opera, and other genres.

ArtsMarket, based in Bozeman, MT, was commissioned to do an impact study on improvements and utilization of the Ritz Theater. The study notes that “the cost of restoring the Ritz Theater is modest in context to the economic benefit it may create for the surrounding blocks, and for the City of Newburgh.” It predicts the creation of 154 fulltime construction jobs during the duration of the project; a potential annual attendance of 44,000 per year by year ten to the theater and surrounding cultural district; annual ticket revenue of $1.7 million; the creation of 52 new fulltime jobs in the local market and a $27 million increase in property values.

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