Fifteen minutes before tonight’s presentation of Amateur Night at the Ritz, Octavius Davis is jumping up and down backstage. After taking a quick swig from his water bottle, Davis — dressed like a hip concierge in a tie, white dress shirt, unbuttoned black suit vest, designer jeans and tennis shoes — bounces over to a group of wide-eyed performers. His kind eyes peek from behind his fedora as he introduces himself, greeting each person with an infectious, toothy smile.
He attempts to empathize with the entire group — whose ages vary from 15 to 83 — by relating how he deals with his own nervous energy, which is apparently considerable, before swigging more water and hopping along. Whether backstage, center stage, or offstage, Davis’ feet won’t spend much time on the ground, literally or metaphorically, while hosting the evening’s talent competition.
He has an important job.
As the house DJ drops a beat to signal the start of the show, Davis dances his way to center stage. Though the crowd of roughly 300 is already raring to go, Davis implores them anyway, asking several times for collective reassurance that they are indeed “ready to have a good time,” the response — “yeah!” — growing louder with each successive beckoning. The regulars know Davis is counting on their energy; the newcomers are beginning to understand the role they’ll be asked to play. The talent this evening — rappers, singers, a couple of geriatric dancers bound for YouTube stardom — is at their best decently entertaining and, at their worst … well, at their worst they’re booed relentlessly by the audience.
In between acts, Davis works the crowd, bouncing and dancing from place to place. The audience follows his lead: As the sounds of bass and drums fill the theater, they rise up in spontaneous fits and begin dancing in the aisles. It’s clear that together, Davis and the audience are as much a part of the experience as the talent on stage.
Aside from being the Ritz Theatre’s flagship program, Amateur Night ranks as a unique First Coast experience. On the first Friday of each month, locals of all ages and talents showcase their skills in front of a packed house. The lively audience votes for both a youth winner and an adult winner. Finals are held at the end of each season to decide an Amateur Night champion (past winners include teen country music singer Rion Paige, of X-Factor fame).
Though Amateur Night has always been well-attended, since reopening as a performance venue and museum in 1999, the Ritz Theatre — an incalculably important 85-year-old cultural institution and the only remaining reminder of a once-great African-American neighborhood — has struggled.
The Ritz was intended to play a vital role in Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance plan, unveiled in 1993, but the Renaissance’s execution never came close to its lofty goals. Still, the Ritz did eventually reopen — albeit without a supporting cast of businesses in the surrounding area and with a rather confusing business model. It strained to generate revenue and donor support. Strapped for resources, the theater’s management found it difficult even to let people know that the Ritz existed, let alone put asses in seats. The theater ran up a large annual operating deficit, putting the city on the hook for more than $750,000 a year. With some city council members reluctant to fund arts institutions, especially in such dire economic times, the theater barely squeaked through each passing budget crisis. After a tumultuous 2012 — in which the city removed former director Carol Alexander, who had been with the Ritz for its entire 13-year history — the theater’s future was uncertain at best.
In the last year or so, however, the Ritz’s arrow has begun to point up. In the last few months, the theater hosted a string of packed concerts, highlighted by a sold-out performance from Grammy-winner Chrisette Michele in September, and a near sellout for the legendary Allen Toussaint in December. More and more, the theater is featuring heavy-hitters from the jazz, blues and R&B scenes, all somewhat neglected genres in Jacksonville. Already this year, hip-hop icon Doug E. Fresh has hit the Ritz’s stage. Over the next couple months, the Rebirth Brass Band of New Orleans and iconic soul singer (and recent Jeff Tweedy collaborator) Mavis Staples will do so, as well.
And, if you’re looking at the bottom line, the operating deficit is shrinking, too — the city’s contribution in 2014 was about $120,000 less than it was in 2013.
All of which is to say: The Ritz is relevant again. And that’s important.