Located at 829 North Davis Street in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, the Ritz Theatre and Museum is the city’s premier venue for African-American arts. Situated in the La Villa neighborhood, historically populated by African-Americans, it was constructed in 1999 on the former Ritz Theater. Built in 1929, the 600-seat theater was one of the many popular sites visited from the 1920s until the 1960s.
The great success of La Villa during this time period prompted it to be referenced as the “Harlem of the South”. This moniker was used by several Black communities, including Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia, outside the famous community of the Manhattan borough in New York City.
The mission of the Ritz Theatre and Museum, as per its website, it 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.”
The theatre was designed by Jacksonville architect Jefferson Powell. An Art Deco structure, only its northwest corner, which features its marquee, remain as tribute to the theatre’s history.
Typical of many African-American communities in the United States, by the 1970s, La Villa suffered from many societal ills, including disenfranchisement, redlining, poverty, predatory business and home loans, “White flight”, drug epidemics, high crime and urban blight. Fortunately, drastic change came in 1993 when Mayor Ed Austin led the River City Renaissance. Supported by a $235 million bond from the City of Jacksonville, it provided renovation and renewal of the city’s most neglected areas and institutions such as the Ritz Theatre. After being razed, ground was broken in 1998. In 1999, the Ritz Theatre and Museum opened its doors to the public.
Comprised of a theatre that seats 436, a gallery and an 11,000 square foot museum, it hosts concerts, lectures and live performances. The theatre contains a state-of-the-art sound system, stellar lighting and a 30’ x 40’ stage. Onsite are film screenings and amateur talent expositions that showcase artists who perform various talents ranging from comedy, hip-hop and spoken word to dance, song and other musical performances. It also houses a permanent art collections as well as presents diverse exhibitions on loan.
Its museum is centered upon various themes including life for persons of African descent in this area of Florida prior to 1845 when it became a part of the United States. It also examines the cultural explosion that rendered it to become a mecca for African-Americans. It attracted Black artists, authors, intellectuals, musicians, poets and performers.
Two of the most famous residents in La Villa were brothers J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson, best known for composing “Life Every Voice and Sing”, commonly known as “The Negro National Anthem”. James Weldon Johnson, the first African American to both serve as Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and hired as a professor at New York University, was also a diplomat to Venezuela and Nicaragua under President Theodore Roosevelt. He later taught literature and writing at the lauded Fisk University, a historically Black institution of higher learning in Nashville, Tennessee.
Because the Ritz Theatre and Museum is still community bound in contemporary times, natural themes are African-American life in the 20th and 21st centuries. Its modern outreach for advancement and upliftment involve activities for youth and adults, including opportunities for donations, internships and volunteerism. One component in particular, Ritz Voices, is acclaimed.
Artistic Director Deborah McDuffie founded this all-city community chorus in 2000. Available to secondary students as well as adults to “develop their vocal ability, showmanship and value of community involvement”, Ritz Voices has performed with musical greats, including Oleta Adams, Ashford & Simpson, Regina Belle, Barry Manilow, Foreigner, John Secada and Dionne Warwick.
A winner of multiple awards, McDuffie, according to the theatre and museum’s literature, “has an impressive career combining talents in production, performance, composing, arranging, marketing, advertising, special promotions, lecturing and artist development … [she is] Credited with being the first African-American female jingle composer/producer in the music industry …” Having performed at occasions, including the Black Expo, the Mayor’s Inaugural Ball and Super Bowl XXXIX, Ritz Voices has earned “First Place” at McDonald’s Gospel Fest as well as won two Maestro Awards from the Heritage Performance Festival and two Spirit Awards.
Open for visitors Tuesday through Friday, it is open from 10 am until 4 pm. Tickets for admittance to this site are available for individuals as well as groups. Aligned with ADA guidelines, this site is wheelchair accessible. Free parking is available and there are other nearby sites open for guests as well. It also presents special performances for the holidays.
This facility may be rented for an organization meeting as well as a special event, including birthdays, receptions and weddings. Its lobby is expansive enough to “comfortably host up to 150 people for a banquet-style event or up to 500 for a cocktail hour.” It also allows for catering onsite as well as offsite. Unique to this theatre and museum is its partner relationship with local hotels: the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, the Omni Hotel and the Sheraton Jacksonville Hotel.
Connecting its rich past to their present mission, the Ritz Theatre and Museum is “a community gathering place where ideas are exchanged, information is disseminated, and a roadmap for the future is developed.” Incorporation of the arts in a myriad of forms allows the Ritz Theatre and Museum to continue to “enthrall, educate and entertain”.