Amateur Night at The Ritz

Tom Clark June 20 & 22 at the Comedy Club
Margaret Cho on June 9 and Bill Engvall June 22 at Florida Theatre
Kennen Ivory Wayans at Comedy Zone June 27-29

by Liltera R. Williams
“I’ll see YOU at the Ritz!”—an inviting exclamation of joy that celebrates the fostering of creativity and the providing of a platform of expression and promotion for talented locals who make up the Jacksonville community. EU recently got the chance to speak with the Executive Director of the Ritz Theatre and reigning Amateur Night host, Ms. Carol Alexander, about this spectacular monthly event. She provided details about its development and shared key facts about the theatre’s history and traditions. “I just want this place to be a haven of nurturing and development for the youth, and as they grow old they can learn about culture and art while keeping this place alive,” she proclaimed.
The new Ritz Theatre and Museum was constructed in 1999 on the site of the 1929 Ritz Theatre movie house in the historic community of LaVilla, known as the Harlem of the South in the 1920s-1960s. The modern facility currently functions with a mission to “research, record, and preserve the material and artistic culture of African American life in Northeast Florida and the African Diaspora, and present in an educational or entertaining format, the many facets that make up the historical and cultural legacy of this community.”
Modeled after Amateur Night at the Apollo in Harlem, inside a repository of history and a neighborhood hot spot, Amateur Night at The Ritz occurs the first Friday of every month. Auditions are generally held the second Thursday of each month for contestants who either “have talent or don’t have talent,” but are brave enough and possess the desire to put their abilities on display for the local community audience. During the live show they are granted three minutes and 30 seconds to showcase their potential. Adults are judged by the audience with celebratory claps or disinterested boos, and youth contestants are fittingly judged by the judging panel, a combination of community leaders, local members with an interest in the arts, and McDonald’s sponsor representatives.
Due to the nonrestrictive age limit, a broad range of performers, including jugglers, singers, rappers, spoken word artists, dancers, and even a light artist who strategically controlled multiple neon sticks, have graced the stage over the years. In the first round, contestants are vying for first, second and third place cash prizes of $100, $50 and $25 respectively. During the semifinals, the prizes rise to $150, $100 and $75, and contestants who are talented enough to make it to the finals have the opportunity to win a first place prize of $500.
The neon sign and the wall in front of the box office are the only original components of the former Ritz Theatre, and as a way to preserve the mystique and energy of the past, Ms. Alexander encourages each contestant to “rub the magic,” a rock that was saved from the construction site as the old theatre was being torn down, before taking their place on the stage. Each contestant experiences a transfer of energy from the legacies of historical figures, such as Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Gloria Lynne and Langston Hughes, who all passed through on their way to other popular hotbeds during the Harlem Renaissance era.
Former contestant Larreasha Williams, who sang Beyonce’s “1 + 1” in the September 2, 2011 showcase, found out about Amateur Night a week prior to the audition date when she saw an advertisement on a McDonald’s coupon. When asked what she hoped to gain from the experience, she jokingly responded, “I just wanted to have a good time and enjoy myself and see if I really had a fighting chance to be the next headliner of a future worldwide tour.” Larreasha now participates in open mic nights around the city to improve her craft and to gain more notoriety. She hopes to join the ranks of other former contestants who have gone on to demonstrate their talent outside of Jacksonville, including a young teenager who currently has his own show in a hotel in Japan and a dancer who traveled with the popular circus act Cirque du Soleil. Two former Amateur Night contestants have also performed live at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Ms. Alexander strongly believes that “Young people need to be able to develop a sense of who they are by recognizing how important it is to preserve and enlighten,” and she continues to amplify the passion that she developed for African American culture while growing up in Philadelphia. “I breathe it, I talk it, I think it, I wear it,” she stated. The strategic programming and vision set in place at the Ritz Theatre and Museum highlights the richness of our diverse community and serves as a foundation for locals to celebrate, communicate, and cultivate that richness for years to come.