The Ritz: A Historic Theater for Today
Safe Harbors of the Hudson is breathing new life into the space where Lucille Ball made her debut performance, a young Frank Sinatra performed with the Tommy Dorsey Band, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Prima sang timeless tunes and generations of memories were made!
A re-imagined Ritz Theater will feature a multi-faceted and flexible performing and visual arts space, and a venue for community celebrations and connection.
Progress to date: With support from our community and government and private grants and funding, Safe Harbors has made great strides toward the full integration of the Ritz Theater into the community.
- In 2006 Safe Harbors restored the original lobby of the theater to create the Lobby at the Ritz. This intimate performing arts space is host to a New York State Council of the Arts sponsored Music Series which brings world renown and local talent to the downtown Newburgh stage each year.
- In 2010, Safe Harbors built a state-of-the art box office which has enhanced the façade of our building and enlivened the block.
- A new marquee, which illuminates lower Broadway and shines a light on our bourgeoning arts and cultural district, was installed in the fall of 2014.
When the goal is neighborhood revitalization, economic growth and civic engagement, art works. —Rocco Landesman, former Chair, National Endowment for the Arts
History of the Ritz Theater
The original structure was built for the manufacture of overalls, plumbing supplies, and cigars.
Cohen’s Opera House was created within the manufacturing building and opened February 4, 1913. Many legends of the Vaudeville era played on its stage.
The opening of Cohen’s Opera House Monday night means much to the citizens of Newburgh… Monday night we establish a standard for vaudeville in Newburgh… We want to impress upon you the fact that the show for Monday night is the best for the money that can be produced. And our prices are no higher than the same class of show is obtaining in New York City. Our standard will never be lower… You have our personal word that you will always receive full measure for your money at Cohen’s Opera House. —Newburgh Daily Journal (February 1913)
The East-West Theater Company found a home in the theater and changed its name to the State Theater. The East-West Theater Company was a major participant in the Vaudeville chapter of American culture.
Eugene Levy purchased and renovated the theater and renamed it the Ritz. It was then that the theater began its most illustrious chapter, with big-name films and live performances by stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Mary Martin, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman, Dick Powell, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddy Duchin, Red Skelton, Xavier Cugat, The Inkspots, Vaughn Monroe, Montana Slim, Ricardo Cortez, Les Brown, and many more.
The Ritz Theatre, most modern and luxurious in the Hudson Valley, will have its premiere tomorrow night at 7. Behind that simple declarative statement lays this miracle: Eugene Levy, Newburgh theatre owner, recently bought the old George Cohen Theatre on Broadway, and converted that playhouse of a gaudier era into an institution where cinematic and variety productions of the highest standard can be presented with amazing skill, and affording the fascinated beholder the ultimate in comfort and convenience.
—The Newburgh News (November 28, 1933)
During this vibrant time, New York City’s Paramount Theater regularly brought shows to the Ritz Theater to “test” them on Newburgh audiences before they debuted at the Paramount. Rumor has it that a sign posted backstage at the Paramount warned “If you think this audience is tough, try Newburgh.”
- December 17, 1941
Lucille Ball made her stage debut at the Ritz Theater alongside her husband, Desi Arnaz.
Nervous as a kitten, Miss Ball was like a school girl with her first date as she prepared for her stage debut. She wasn’t quite sure she was going to be a success, but it turned out that she and her husband scored a tremendous hit with Newburgh’s theater-goers. Their act was a bit like most vaudeville acts, but it was good. They did a piece of comedy, a little singing, a little dancing. The audience loved it.—The Newburgh News (December 18, 1941)
The Ritz continued to show movies, but the city and Broadway entered a slow decline as I-84 and the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge bypassed the downtown area, and the ferry closed.
The Ritz Theater closed, the stage was walled off from the house, and Cinemas I and II were carved into the house.
Cinemas I and II closed.
Levinson (owner of Cinemas I and II) quietly closed shop earlier this month, reportedly opting to quit Newburgh after vandals damaged $15,000 worth of seating improvements inside the theater. In his wake, he leaves one more gap in a depopulating downtown commercial zone that some merchants feel will be a long time in recovering. —Saturday Record (October 24, 1981)
The owner of the then Hotel Newburgh re-opened the movie theaters in February 1999, but closed it for good in June of that year after drawing only 700 customers in 17 weeks.
The Ritz Theater and the adjoining Hotel Newburgh were purchased by Safe Harbors of the Hudson, a supportive housing and arts non-profit organization founded by Tricia Haggerty Wenz.
Scenes for the film Last Days by Gus Van Sant were filmed inside the then-dormant Ritz Theater. The interior of the old stage space was used as well as the rear entrance to the theater.
Safe Harbors of the Hudson renovated the original Ritz Theater lobby as well as the Hotel Newburgh, which re-opened in 2006 as The Cornerstone Residence.
PARADE Magazine awarded the Ritz Theater one of only 10 “History Happened Here” Awards, designating the space the birthplace of the I Love Lucy show.
Lucille Ball already was a successful actress when she married Desi Arnaz, a handsome Cuban bandleader. But she confessed she was petrified when, on Dec. 17, 1941, she and Desi debuted a live act—a comic skit, some song and dance — at the modest Ritz Theater in Newburgh, NY. “The audience loved it,” proclaimed the local paper. Encouraged, the newlyweds went on to transform their lovebird lunacies into the show “I Love Lucy”, drawing audiences to the new medium that was TV.
—PARADE Magazine (May 7, 2006)
A new era of Ritz Theater programming began in the restored theater lobby, with performances by Tony Award-winning musician, Levi Kreiss, Grammy Award-winning musician, Pete Seeger, and Odair Assad. Thanks to the support of the Bardavon and La Bella Strings, the Tom Humphrey Guitar Series was launched.
Safe Harbors continued programming in the lobby while raising funds to restore the original theater.
Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) secured $400,000 in restoration funding for the Ritz, as a part of the 2010 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Bill.
Senator William Larkin (R-C, Cornwall-on-Hudson) secured $250,000 in restoration funding for the theater
The Ritz hosted its first annual “Newburgh’s Got Talent!” Talent Show, providing an opportunity for Newburgh’s school children to showcase their talents.
2010 – Present
The Tom Humphrey Guitar Series continued through 2013, when the lobby was officially dubbed The Lobby at the Ritz and the music series was renamed The Lobby at the Ritz Music Series, to allow for expanding genes including Gospel, World Music, Latin Jazz and Percussion.
In February 2010, the Ritz received $200,000 in funding from the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s Urban Initiatives Program. The funding helped build the Ritz box office at 109 Broadway.