as published in the Blytheville Courier News on Thursday, July 9, 2015
By TOM HENRY
Let’s discuss an impressive, stately Blytheville “home” that has been a local landmark for about a hundred years. This “home” has been extremely significant to our parents, our siblings, our children, our friends, ourselves and hopefully will be for our grandchildren. This “home” has been loved for its beautiful architecture, its one of a kind charm, and its unique ability to seemingly transport visitors back in time. This “home of culture” is the Ritz (Theater) Civic Center.
Most likely you and your loved ones were first introduced to some of your/their favorite cultural works at the Ritz. It has hosted classic movies, legendary blues, world class classical music, and wonder-filled magic shows. It has highlighted local talent in numerous ways through critically acclaimed theatrical plays, beautiful paintings and dazzling photography. Great thinkers, “movers and shakers”, authors, actors, political leaders, first ladies, a past Secretary of State and at least one President have visited with us intimately at the Ritz. Clearly, the Ritz has been our cultural heartbeat for many years.
This lovely, historic, home of culture is currently managed by The Arts Council of Mississippi County and they love the Ritz as much as we do. They do the very best they can with what little they have, but that is the point. The building is currently owned by the City of Blytheville and there is simply not enough money allocated at this time to run the facility AND make necessary repairs to the building, and that is also the point.
The Ritz is currently facing multiple critical maintenance issues and have been for some time. Part of the HVAC units are working part time, and air is only blowing out of a few of the vents in the auditorium. Leaks in the men’s restroom have gotten bad enough that some of the fixtures have had to be permanently shut off to stop flooding. The roof in the boiler room is collapsing to such a degree that a leg of the rooftop HVAC unit can be seen protruding through the roof from inside the building. Fortunately, this area is not open to the public and does not present any risk to visitors or to the auditorium.
How could such a grand, stately landmark get in such disrepair? There are a few reasons. The building, with portions of the building being confirmed by the Department of Arkansas Heritage as having been built between 1910 and 1920, is simply old. It was a work of art when first built, but time takes its toll. About thirty five years later (1951) $260,000 was spent to remodel and refurnish the entire theater. Once again the Ritz was recognized as one of the state’s preeminent showplaces and an absolute point of pride for the community.
Surviving fire and countless storms while educating, enriching and entertaining thousands of people through thousands of events over the years, the Ritz has certainly been a beacon of culture and community. Thirty years after that massive remodeling (1981-1983), it was nearly closed permanently when the movie theater was relocated to its current location. Fortunately, civic pride rallied, saving it from certain demise and it was yet again remodeled. Reportedly, approximately $200,000 was spent on that remodel. Guess what? It has been over thirty years once again and it is time for another remodel.
The Ritz has also been critically vital to the preservation and advancement of local art and culture and is one of the very few remaining links we have both with those that went before us and the world beyond us. It has enriched our lives in countless ways and we must not let her die! It surely will eventually die, however, if we do nothing.
The roof will not fix itself, the plumbing will not miraculously just stop leaking and the air conditioning will not suddenly work like new without us taking action. The worn out, small seats will not repair themselves or stretch to accommodate our larger bodies without our help. Santa will not deliver, in the middle of the night, a new updated sound system, improved lighting or expanded concession stand. Elves will not perform overall general repair to the structure while we continue to sleep. I am fully aware of the City of Blytheville’s financial situation and that grant money doesn’t just grow on trees. It really isn’t up to Washington or Little Rock, its up to you and I!
How can we do this? I don’t know all of the answers; but I do know some of them. We must get creative and we must act now. If the City retains ownership, then at the very least the city must provide sufficient funds in the budget every year to operate it, maintain it and repair it. Maybe we should approve a special, temporary tax designated for remodeling the Ritz, but only if those funds were in addition to current funding. Perhaps the City could issue municipal bonds to pay for the work instead. But these suggestions only address repair and do not provide a permanent revenue flow.
Perhaps a permanent revenue flow could be created if local businessmen, companies and community leaders rally together, along with their checkbooks, to re-establish the “Friends of the Ritz Committee” and create an endowment fund. Many successful non-profit organizations guarantee future funding for capital improvements, special projects and programs this way. This is really a no brainer and should not be controversial because, after all, the Ritz is our Civic Center.
Perhaps labor costs could be reduced through volunteerism or from ANC students in the new construction program. They can help learn their new trade through donated labor just as Blytheville High carpentry students did in the early 1980s.
The Ritz is our sole Civic Center, does it reflect our best or our worst? How does our current civic center compare with those in other comparably sized cities? While my suggestions might not be perfect, they are solely mine and at least I am starting the discussion. It is time to act.