Back in the day, LaVilla was the place to be.
The now-dilapidated downtown neighborhood was once the nightlife district of Jacksonville – and the largest cultural hub for African-Americans in the South. The streets buzzed with activity in the “Harlem of the South”.
One of the biggest components of that nightlife scene was the Ritz Theatre.
Located at the corner of Davis and State streets, the Ritz Theatre was built in 1929, employing art deco style architecture common of theaters built in this era. It was designed by prominent local architect Jefferson Powell, who designed several buildings throughout downtown Jacksonville during this era.
It came to life during the peak of LaVilla’s hot streak, and quickly became a hotspot for some of the most popular African-American artists and nightclub entertainers of the ’30s and ’40s.
It also showed popular movies at an affordable price, making it a hit with all age groups.
One young musician by the name of Ray Charles played with various bands at the Ritz to make a living, years before he’d make it big on his own.
The Ritz was hot – until suddenly, it wasn’t anymore.
By the ’60s, the end of segregation drove many of the more prominent black families to sprawl outward into the suburbs. Meanwhile, conditions in LaVilla deteriorated, and the once-vibrant nightlife scene was gone.
In the ’90s, a plan by then-Mayor Ed Austin to revamp the inner city – dubbed “River City Renaissance” – mostly just ended up destroying a lot of historic buildings in LaVilla. This included another theatre, The Strand, that was down the street from the Ritz.
The Ritz was only half-spared from the demolition spree. While most of the building was redeveloped into a new theatre and African-American cultural museum, the original signage and part of the original building survived – and was given a fresh coat of paint.
Today, the Ritz Theatre & Museum continues to operate, with a few acts each month, a lively amateur night, a cultural museum open five days a week.
To learn more about the Ritz, to buy tickets, or to schedule a tour, check out their website: http://ritzjacksonville.com