Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

RITZ THEATRE KEEPS BLACK HISTORY ALIVE; SHOW MUST GO ON after Surviving a Budget Scare, the LaVilla Icon Searches for Funding to Keep on Entertaining and Educating

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

RITZ THEATRE KEEPS BLACK HISTORY ALIVE; SHOW MUST GO ON after Surviving a Budget Scare, the LaVilla Icon Searches for Funding to Keep on Entertaining and Educating

Article excerpt


2009 was a strange year for the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum staff and supporters, a year of celebration mixed with anxiety.

In September they put on the Ritz, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of the building, which includes a history museum, art gallery and 400-seat theater.

But in late June Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton announced he would have to cut the city's appropriation to the Ritz if the City Council didn't raise the property tax rate. That would have forced the city-owned Ritz, which operates on an annual budget of about $850,000, to close the doors, said Carol Alexander, executive director.

"It gave us a scare," said Cleve Warren, Ritz board chairman.

In the end, the Ritz got $1 million from the city.

In addition, the city funded a $3 million cultural services grant administered by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, which distributed that money to 24 nonprofit arts organizations.

There are those, like City Councilman Clay Yarborough, who question why the city gives money to any cultural institution, including the Ritz.

"I have nothing against the Ritz," Yarborough said. "But I would prefer we not give taxpayer dollars to arts institutions."

In the wake of the funding scare, measures are being taken to make the theater less reliant on city money, including instituting membership fees and forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that should help attract more corporate grants and private giving.

"Many have resisted giving because they see us as a function of the city," Warren said.

He said it's important to keep the Ritz in business because of its role as the "curator" of the history and culture of Jacksonville's African-American community.

The history of LaVilla, once a thriving residential neighborhood with a fabled entertainment district along Ashley Street, is the focus of the LaVilla museum.

More than 5,000 items are on display, creating a facsimile of typical LaVilla scenes as a private home, doctor's office, pharmacy, barber and beauty shop and office of the Afro-American Life Co.

At the museum's entrance, a small theater presents an animatronic show on the lives of the brothers James Weldon Johnson and Rosamund Johnson, LaVilla residents who wrote "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," often called the national anthem of black Americans.

A visit to that museum in 2003 helped Phillip Miner to choose Jacksonville as his retirement home after a career as an academic administrator in Minnesota.

He felt the museum, especially the animatronic exhibit, gave him a link to Jacksonville's African-American community that would make him comfortable here, Miner said.

Now he regularly volunteers, conducting tours and helping with the Along This Way project, an educational program offered to third- and fourth-graders that teaches them about African-American life in the early part of the 20th century. The program ends with a museum tour.

Miner said his greatest concern is that not enough people in Jacksonville seem to know what the Ritz has to offer.

Retired University of North Florida history professor James Crooks, who likes to take out-of-town visitors to the museum, agrees.

"I find the museum is a real jewel," he said. "... But I think it's under-utilized by the white community."

"We present African and African-American art and history," Alexander said. "But it's not just for African-American audiences."

Next to the museum is a large art gallery that has hosted about 20 exhibits over the past 10 years. The current exhibit consists of work by young artists and their mentors.

Then there is the theater, where musical acts and plays are presented, some by local groups, some by touring groups. It also is home to Amateur Night at the Ritz, a monthly entertainment competition on the first Friday of each month. …

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