Ritz Theatre at night

The historic Ritz sign lights downtown Winter Haven.

Over the past several years there has been a very public discussion about the future of downtown’s historic Ritz Theatre. After a group of concerned local business leaders offered to serve on the struggling theatre’s Board and were rebuffed, a “Friends of the Ritz Theatre” group formed and the operation and future of the theater came under investigation of the Florida Attorney General’s office.

In the end, Judge Catherine Combee appointed a receiver to sort out the matters at hand.

In late September, former Judge Charles Davis accepted the appointment and began the arduous task of determining if the Ritz had a future. What he found was challenging. The building’s insurance had lapsed and the fire suppression system had not one but three red tags of violation. There was a little less than $500 in the bank — and the mortgage on the building itself was set for a March 2019 balloon payoff.

Thankfully the community immediately rose to the occasion.

Two attorneys and a local certified public accountant came forward offering pro bono to help resolve finance and legal issues. Volunteers organized, emptied store rooms of trash and mountains of Christmas and other holiday decorations. Assets were sorted and property belonging to others was returned where possible. Many gave money. One local business posted a $10,000 matching grant appeal that doubled the outcome. The City of Winter Haven provided another $10,000 that had been withheld due to the litigation.

The challenges are too numerous to list but one prime example involved the fire suppression system. For it to be certified, the main water supply line to the theater had to withstand 200 pounds per square inch of pressure for hours. It did, but when it was flushed, a great deal of sediment came out. That meant it had to be pressurized a second time for more hours — again it held. (Let’s hear it for the quality pipe made nearly one hundred years ago.) And that pipe had to hold for the removal of the red tags because insurance could not be purchased until the red tags were removed and the system certified safe.

What's in store

Ritz Theatre February calendar
Feb. 2 - Groundhog Day Proclamation and Movie
Feb. 3 - Super Tailgate at the Ritz
Feb. 7 - Ritz Town Hall
Feb. 8 - Family Movie Night
Feb. 11 - Trivia Night with Bingo
Feb. 14 - Valentine's Day Event
Feb. 15 - Family Movie Night
Feb. 18 - Broadway Sing-a-Long with Bingo
Feb. 22 - Documentary Night
Feb. 27 - Voices by Brothers United

Through Judge Davis’ steady hand and endless optimism, things are falling into place. Close friend J. D. Hatton became the judge’s right hand man. By early December,, the theater windows featured new window displays, the inside had been polished, bathrooms cleaned, windows washed, carpets cleaned and baseboards shined.

On Christmas Eve a local church brought hundreds of their members together for wonderful evening in the revitalized theatre. Since then, the grand lady’s stage has hosted both a dance recital and a “State of the City” address hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. With the help of Theatre Winter Haven’s Dan Chesnicka, ten events are planned for February, and more robust scheduling is in the works.

Much work remains and the building needs further repairs. But Charles Davis feels the future is bright. So bright that there is a good possibility he may recommend the Court allow a new Board of Directors to be appointed by April.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

The Museum of Winter Haven History is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to Noon. An exhibit tour is offered at 10 a.m. Group tours are available for four or more people by appointment. The museum, located at 660 Pope Avenue and Lake Howard Drive, is free and open to the public. Come explore. For further information contact Bob Gernert, 863-206-6855 or bobgernert@gmail.com.

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