{child_flags:featured}At The Ritz

{child_byline}By Dann Derby | Correspondent{/child_byline}

There she still stands. There on the northeast corner of East Van Buren Street on the world’s largest square.

The Ritz Building has borne witness to the life and times of Centerville for 206 years. Auspiciously opening during the Panic of 1893 while the nation had just entered a four-year serious economic depression.

The year of 1893 saw President Grover Cleveland take office to preside over America’s so-called Gilded Age. The Ritz Building opened in a time that is best remembered for the industrialization of the modern economy. Juxtaposing the local women’s suffragette movement of the 1920s to the square’s shoppers of today is mind-bending. When the Ritz Building opened its doors, women were still 23 years removed from voting.

The Ritz Building was built Centerville tough, tracking history for the past 206 years.

Everything goes better in The Ritz

The Ritz Building’s first occupier in 1893 was Centerville’s now-defunct newspaper, The Daily Citizen. The newspaper held serve as the building’s sole proprietor until after the turn of the century. After the newspaper’s demise, the Ritz Building’s history really comes to life. Three separate movie theaters would each take a turn inside the venerable building. Interestingly, The Majestic, a city icon, would be the first one in but not until a massive remodel. A stage, a small orchestra pit and a new balcony that swelled the theater’s occupancy to 250 seats were added. After a quick engagement on the square, The Majestic would move to their present location on 13th Street.

Next in line to fill the Ritz Building was the Orpheum Theater. Centerville’s late historian and publisher of the Iowegian, Robert Beck, once recounted a childhood memory spent at The Orpheum, “Those of my generation will remember The Orpheum and its 5-cent matinees (73-cents in today’s money).”

Unfortunately, nickel-matinees couldn’t pay the bills as the second movie theater would depart from the building. The third theater in just under 20 years would be the charm. All of Centerville must have been buzzing as on Aug. 30, 1926, the Daily Iowegian And Citizen’s front-page story proclaimed, “A Wonder Playhouse Adorns Centerville Business District For Entertainment of People!”

he latest remodel was the talk of the town as the newspaper continued, “The latest thing in architecture artistic adornment and in the conception of the beautiful. A beautiful and pleasing Spanish exterior in the color and tints of Spain. ”The Ritz opened, showing silent movies.”

Subway Sadie, an American comedy-drama was the theater’s premier film. It would be three years later when on May 8, 1929, Centerville would experience its first talking movie. An overflow crowd of Appanoose County residents would fork over the 40-cents ($5.81 in today’s money) to see “The Barker” make history as the area’s first talkie.

The Spaniard’s ghost

The Ritz Theater prospered until the late 1950s and then turned off their projectors for good. The theater’s closing coincided with the beginning of the Vietnam War. The following 40 years would not be kind to the proud building on the northeast corner of the square.

During the late 1950s, an off-yellow metal and brick facade went up, obliterating the previously acclaimed mission-style stucco facade. The once-dignified Spaniard who stood tall guarding one of the square’s four corners now looked dull, uninterested and ... off-yellow.

Over the following four decades, the building would play host to a church, a bridal shop, and a city drug store with the wickedly unique name of City Drug. They sold prescriptions and Flair pens, not buttery popcorn and juju candy. The final business to attempt a go-of-it was World Of Games.

The Spaniard’s ghost remained blind and bleeding, hidden away behind metal and brick. As the New Year’s Eve Ball in New York’s Time’s Square dropped, closing out the decade of the 1990s, the world was about to exhale a collective sigh of relief. Waking up on January 1, 2000, the Y2K bug had not rendered all computers useless. Another sigh of relief was close at hand for the growing number of Centerville residents who thought the off-yellow metal facade on the once-grand Ritz Building was an eyesore turned to blight.

The year 200 would be a seminal year for the Centerville square when historic landmark preservation shook hands with future restoration progress.

Tear down that facade

The convergence of three unrelated events would unbelievably alter the course of the Ritz Building forever. Mayor Rollie Reznicek, followed by Mayor Jack Williams would take up the cause of Townscape 2000. The multi-million initiative would flip the square’s aesthetics on its ear. Crumbling, compromised curbs were replaced with new sidewalks and brick pavers. Dated benches, trash receptacles and unsightly planters were all tossed out, making room for the new urban, clean look.

Before the downtown square could recover from its year-long cosmetic surgery, Centerville’s benefactor, Morgan Cline was zeroing in on yet another local architecture jewel. Cline’s interest in the Ritz Building dated to when he was a young boy enjoying movies at the theater with friends and family. Youthful fond memories facilitated the sentimental purchase and the future restoration of his old movie house.

So far two of the three magic rings were in place: The square was nearing its metamorphous, securing its destination as the shining city in the valley for generations to come. Then Morgan Cline advanced the inevitable closer to fruition by purchasing the Ritz Building. The square looked marvelous and Cline owned the Ritz. Now what?

The syzygy of rescuing the Ritz was complete when a band of like-minded locals formed the Appanoose County Coalition for the Arts in 2000. The 501©(3) non-profit group are volunteers with a board of directors on a mission to preserve history through art while engaging and educating the public from children to scholars. And the group was searching for their first project.

The final wave of the perfect storm to rescue Centerville’s most famous Spaniard was wading. Waiting for the ink to dry on the sale of the Ritz Building to Cline, who then gifted the property to the coalition. Yes, syzygy.

June 19, 2000, the cork from the champagne bottle rocketed skyward. Volunteers from the newly formed ACCA, Morgan Cline, Robert Beck, and the Bennetts were a few of the revelers on hand to celebrate.

The occasion to celebrate was that the off-putting, off-yellow, 1950s metal facade was being dismantled from the front of the Ritz Building. The gutting of the building’s interior also began that day. Drywall and false ceilings were being vigorously ripped out, revealing the original high ceilings and the awe-inspiring stage. Still silent, still in a frame of ornate relief designs.

Welcome back, old friend.

The Coalition for the Arts

Nancy Bennett with hands-on-hips was looking reticently down at moist splodges of green and gray on the sidewalk in front of her. Rolling her eyes up rather balefully, the middle-age, fashionably dressed lady sighed. There he was, the booger.

A plump, shiny silver, gray pigeon who was squatting under an awning’s rafter was the reason for the season.

“Well, I usually get a bucket of water and then sweep the poop off that way,” commented Bennett.

Nancy with her husband Dan has raised their family and reputations in Centerville for over three decades. Now semi-retired from their prominent local business, Dannco, Nancy can devote this chapter of life to her passions of art and culture.

With the sidewalk clean of splotch, Bennett opens the Ritz Building’s front door, walking into a minimalist sunny white room, with wood floors and shocks of bright green Lady Ferns.

Bennett quickly points out she is just one member of the four-person ACCA board. The other three members are Carl Cisler, Patt McAffee and Steve Benz.

“I first became involved in the restoration because of my love for the theater’s art and culture,” Bennett recalled. “And then once I saw the entire building It blew my mind. I thought we can not let this fall into the street.”

“Through the board, we have applied for grants that have already enabled us to renovate the building’s front, the upper facade, the entrance gallery with the two adjoining gallery rooms, the balcony lobby, and we have also completed the lower level now. We are estimating that to finish the building we will need $300,000 to $400,000.”

Walking around the front of the building Bennett, wearing a pair of 1960s-inspired kneehigh black boots that were made for gawking, turns the corner to view the building’s east side brick wall.

“The board has applied for a grant which will be used to stabilize this side of the building,” she said. “Right now it’s in danger of falling out into the street. We applied for the maximum we could get which is $75,000. We had to provide a $75,000 match which we have that much in donations and other things.”

The board will learn if they’ve received that grant on Nov. 7. The building must be stabilized before work elsewhere on the structure can continue, Bennett said.

These Spanish eyes

The late October afternoon was just cool enough to warrant Bennett’s stylish black duster cardigan.

“The intended purpose for the Ritz Building is an Arts and Cultural Center for the community,” begins Bennett. “We will not be focusing so much on live performances but more on the educational part.”

For now, the Ritz Building invites the public to view three separate art galleries on display. Just opening the front glass door and walking into the gallery entrance will be a unique experience for many visitors. To view professional art and culture on the square is unique.

Standing beneath three glass chandeliers Bennet describes the gallery entrance, “Each month we will display a featured artist here. For October, we have on loan a series of ‘pour painting’ abstracts, Each painting is accompanied by a lesson and represents a time in the life of Jesus Christ. Three women from Westminster Presbyterian in Des Moines created the art. Beginning next week we will the works of art from Centerville’s own Elmer.”

Two other rooms will have art for sale. One gallery features Walldog Art from around the world, and the other has an exhibit of ‘Lip Cups’ for sale.

“Our goal is to offer the Ritz as a multipurpose location offering the community several uses,” Bennett explained. “Meetings, classes will be offered under the umbrella of arts and culture. Downstairs gatherings, performances, event calendar, an Art and Culture Center, and tours of the building.”

The Gallery at The Ritz will be open Thursdays, Friday and Saturdays, as staffing allows.

“When I’m here and open, there will be an open banner in the window and an open sign on the door,” Bennett said.

To monitor the Ritz Galleries, and to stay current with the restoration updates, see the Ritz Building’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/The-Ritz-2634127666597324/



Dann enjoyed a 16-year career with Casey’s General Stores. Centerville’s wayward son uncomfortable with success, returned home to own and operate the 88-year-old Blue Bird Family Restaurant for 23 years.

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