BWW Feature: IS THE RITZ ON THE FRITZ? Ritz Theatre Company Seeks Funding to Keep the Doors Open
There is an old adage: the show must go on. And the shows have gone on at Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ for more than three decades now, and the historic theatre has become a staple to the Delaware Valley community. But, a recent post on the Ritz Theatre Company Facebook page has really gotten audiences in South Jersey wondering if the curtain might go down forever on the iconic theatre.
On August 27th, Ritz Theatre Company posted an alarming notice on their Facebook page starting with "A HEARTFELT PLEA TO OUR FRIENDS & FAMILY. We, at the Ritz Theatre Company, feel it is vital to report to our friends, fellow artists, alumni, and patrons that the Ritz Theatre is very much amid a fight to keep the front doors open and continue our mission."
I have to admit that reading that first line on my Facebook timeline between videos of cats and my friends' newborn babies shook me to my core. I had grown up going by the Ritz every Sunday on my way to church. It stood as a beacon of possibility when I strolled into dance classes several times a week at my studio across the street. And of course, who can forget the iconic Ritzy the Wolf in their children's show productions. I thought to myself reading the Ritz' cry for help how could the Ritz be struggling to stay afloat?
The post continues to explain that the theatre has back payables and is struggling with the financial ability to keep the theatre going. "However, we now have cut costs even further and strongly believe we are in a positive position to move forward. With a new, energized Board of Directors and an almost completely new staff, we are prepared to carry on, yet we won't be able to unless we raise the necessary capital to go forward."
The Ritz posted to Facebook as a public plea for assistance. Ritz Theatre Company is looking to raise $350,000 by the end of 2019. "Help us fight the good fight. Help us keep the lights burning bright," Ritz' post says.
The posts alludes that the money will be to propel the theatre forward and not just bandage their current financial straits.
Let me set the scene:
The Ritz Theatre building was built in 1927 and has a long, eclectic history in the arts world. The theatre's interior is stunning. Velvet drapes and neo-classical murals adorn the walls and there is a distinctive antique charm about the space. The theatre building is suitably on the National Register of Historic Places.
The fact that the building is old doesn't help the theatre company's financial situation. The company is devoted to keeping this architectural gem alive, though to Ritz patrons, it may be easy to not realize the costs of maintaining an old building. In fact, a new building would be cheaper. However, there is something magical, charming and irreplaceable about the vintage interior of the theatre.
Ritz Theatre Company has been in the theatre since 1985 with its 35th season coming in 2020. Every season The Ritz produces six mainstage productions and eight children's shows, as well as holiday productions, special events, a summer theatre camp, and a summer theatre festival, overall serving more than forty thousand patrons a year.
About five years ago, Ritz Theatre Company Artistic Director Bruce Curless made another Facebook plea that raised $100,000 for the theatre. But it was only a temporary fix. Now, the theatre has overhauled their budget and expenses to keep the theatre going. The success in crowdfunding for the Ritz the first time really proves that the Ritz is the people's theatre. And that is why Artistic Director Bruce Curless told me that it was time to once again turn to the public. "YOU, as a group, are the reason we have kept our doors open and bring quality entertainment that, ideally, brightens our lives and exposes us to new ideas. We are so honored to have you come through our doors and support us so generously," the Facebook post says.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Curless as well as Robert Repici, Communications & Group Sales Manager for the Ritz, to discuss the theatre's financial status and plans for the future. We sat in the gallery off of the lobby amidst stacks of photographs by local artist Joseph Perno, whose work would be the installation during the theatre'e next production.
Curless and Repici explained that the Ritz isn't solely relying on online donations to raise the $350,000. They are hosting several fundraising events including a Harvest Brew Bash on September 19th at the Haddon Square in Haddon Township (directly next door to the Planet Fitness). The Harvest Brew Bash will feature a beer garden, food trucks, games and live music including Rico Santiago's band Ballroom Blitz and Joe Grasso. For more information about the event, click here
Also, to bring in some extra funds, the theatre has initiated a new play development program that offers a second tier of productions to their seasons beside the mainstage shows. This weekend Kumar Dari's original comedy The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor premieres as a part of the company's new play initiative and will play through September 29th. In Dari's play, Lady Lillian Sappington has decided to turn the historic Ravenswood Manor into a hunting lodge, but first she must take care of one thing-she believes it's haunted! She invites her family and eclectic friends to dinner to discuss some strange occurrences, when suddenly the ghost of Lady Sappington's late husband appears and utters only one word..."Murder!" The evening discussion moves from mild insinuation to heated inquisition and mayhem as they try to decipher the messages they continue to receive from the spirit world. When I met with Artistic Director, and The Ghost of Ravenswood Manor director, Bruce Curless at the Ritz, I had the opportunity to sneak a peek at the set design for the show and it was absolutely stunning, spooky and inspired.
With all of these fundraising efforts, I challenged Curless and Repici to tell me, "Why should someone help the Ritz?" Curless described that the Ritz has changed lives. "Couples have met here..." Curless told me, "Other theatres were founded here... Through the years there came to be a higher calling than let's make a show."
The Ritz Theatre Company is proud of its history and accomplishments. And they should be! Ritz alumni have gone on to Broadway and national tours as well as become teaching artists. The Ritz is definitely a theatre company that has created a legacy of generations of theatre artists, including Repici himself.
Repici told me that when he was in college he was undeclared until he came to see a show at the Ritz one Sunday. "I knew within the first five minutes that I wanted to be a theatre major," Repici said. And, at school the next day Repici declared his major in the theatre. The rest is history as Repici's life became intertwined with the theatre. Now, besides doing group sales and communications, Repici is involved with the Ritz senior camp which just closed a limited run of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. Repici described how fulfilling his work with the kids program is: "Perhaps you could instill the love of theatre in one kid." Even that, he said, would be worth all of the effort.
The Ritz' strong commitment to their children's shows and programs that both train and entertain students, and even having local artists featured in the theatre's gallery (like Perno's photograph) shows only a tidbit of the influence the theatre has in benefitting the community. Curless said the Ritz "refresh energy and sooth souls." And I think that is true for both the artists that get to be a part of creating shows at the theatre as well as audiences that come to enjoy them.
Though the work the Ritz does for its patrons, particpants and community is extremely important, they never let it get to their heads. "That's what any artist wants to do is make a difference," Curless and Repici told me.
I see the theatre actively adapting to be more contemporary, influential, and profitable. The Ritz has an already existing long legacy of success, and the theatre is still currently creating a legacy to this day. Artisitc Director Bruce Curless told me, though he wasn't totally sure where the money would come from, "We're not going anywhere."
To see Ritz Theatre Company's Facebook plea, click here
To make a tax deductible donation to the Ritz, please visit http://www.ritztheatreco.org/donate