The Rich History of the Ritz

Jay Mafela

Located in LaVilla, the Ritz Theatre and Museum is not only a gorgeous venue for concerts and theatrical productions but also serves as a tribute to the lives and contributions of local African-Americans.

The Ritz stands on the same spot as the movie theater of the same name built in 1929. At the time, LaVilla was considered by many to be the “Harlem of the South,” attracting performers including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and a young Ray Charles. The original building was eventually torn down with the new Ritz opening in 1999. Today, it no longer acts as a movie theater and shows more live performances. From theater shows to chorus and dance recitals, the Ritz has something for all types. It also has a giant lobby that is often used for private events such as parties and big ceremonies.

The new building also includes a museum to share glimpses into the lives of African-Americans in Jacksonville in the 1950s and 1960s. Clothes, documents, furniture, trophies, even actual signs and parts of buildings were donated by members of the community to be put on display. The museum also features a recreation of a street scene of LaVilla where visitors turn a corner and are transported back to the ’60s.

It’s not enough to say the Ritz teaches history; the Ritz is history. The Ritz stands on Davis Street, a mere block away from where the Great Fire of 1901 started. Arthur Blake, better known as Blind Blake, performed the first recorded piece of blues music right on the same street. 

“If you were to look through the eye of history, this area in particular is so rich,” said Vanessa Davis, marketing manager for the Ritz Theatre and Museum.

The museum has a special permanent exhibit focusing on the lives and works of Jacksonville native sons, brothers James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, who co-wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” As part of the exhibit, animatronic versions of James and John talk about the song and how it grew into a national anthem. The works of contemporary local artists are highlighted in rotating exhibitions.

The museum has plans to add exhibits covering other major points in Jacksonville history such as the Great Fire of 1901. Along with that, there are plans for programs with speakers that go into depth on specific events.

“We’re just trying to reach out to the community and get people back in here,” said Davis. “We are that next step up. It’s not a church basement, it’s not the T-U or Daily’s Place, but we’re that middle, community-based business that people can come to and just enjoy themselves.”