Ritz Theater Oral History Project Reveals Poignant Stories

Ritz Theater 1930’s

SANFORD – The Ritz Theater, a majestic performing arts center sits proudly at the corner of 2nd and S. Magnolia Avenue in historic Sanford. Its design, reminiscent of the Art Deco years, beckons tourists and locals alike into its stained-glass doors to experience an entertaining performance–just as it did when it was built 100 years ago. Many memories, of good times and some not so quaint, have been created over the decades. Some of those stories are being captured in an oral history project the Theater has undertaken as part of its 100th anniversary season, which began in July.
One of the stories is the building’s long history of ownership. The land was first purchased by Sanford founder Henry Shelton Sanford from the Florida Land & Colonization Co. in 1883, likely as part of his efforts to make the area the transportation hub for all of southern Florida. Sanford sold the site to the Sanford Opera House in 1887 and a building was erected that contained both a stage for opera and a skating rink, both popular activities at that time. The bones of the building remained long after the Opera House closed later becoming the Star Theater and then Herndon’s Garage. The Herndon family sold the land and the building to developers Frank Miller and Edward Lane. The partners founded the Milane Amusement Co., Inc. to embark on a grand theater project, not unlike other cities throughout the nation.
Miller and Lane completed the building in 1923 and opened the Milane Theater, a combination of both their last names, to great fanfare. The Milane was later sold to Lake Mary investors Frank and Stella Evans who renamed the venue the Ritz Theater in 1936. The 823-seat theater was extremely popular; however, like many cities throughout the South operated under misguided Jim Crow Laws, including Sanford.
While the stained-glass doors beckoned all patrons, not all could use them. African Americans entered through an imposing, steel door located in the alley before making their way to segregated balcony seating. Originally, the water fountains and restrooms were also segregated and included signage signifying whether it was for use by “whites” or “colored” people. While segregation legally ended in Florida in 1954, it persisted culturally for many years.
Through the 1950s, many children took advantage of using RC Cola bottlecaps to receive free and discounted movie admission. One of those children was Nancy Ford, from Goldsboro, who often attended movies at The Ritz and remembers standing in the alley with her friends with bottle caps in hand. “The alley seemed so huge to me, and I remember so many of us squeezed in there waiting for that big steel door to open,” says Ford. She also recalls the stained-glass windows on the main entrance which she could not enter through.
Ford’s memories, didn’t end there, for fifty years later in 2013 she auditioned and was cast for a role in “Crowns,” a moving and celebratory musical play in which hats become a springboard for an exploration of Black history and identity as seen through the eyes of a young Black woman. Once casting was complete, Ford and her fellow actresses toured the alley and the Theater with producer Steve Nelson. Ford’s emotions welled and by the time the tour stopped on the stage, she was overwhelmed and began to sob. She was proud to be on stage with a talented team of actresses doing what she loved, something that was not possible on the very same stage during her youth. “Crowns” went on to become one of the most attended productions at the Ritz Theater.
Annye L. Refoe, Ph.D. submitted her story which presents a similar experience. “While the Ritz Theater holds fabulous memories of my youth, I am not blind to its symbolism of segregation, separation, and division.” While still in high school she and her two friends sat upstairs in the balcony on the other side of the wall (for the first time) to see Psycho. Then, when Annye was 19 and home from college after her freshman year, she and a friend decided to go see The Great White Hope. She says, “It was the first time I had ever sat downstairs.” She ends her story with, “The Ritz Theater is a symbol for all that was wonderful about growing up in Sanford during the 1950s and 1960s, and it is a symbol of the times which were not all quaint, comfortable, safe, and equitable. Much like times today, I can embrace the innocence of that time while simultaneously being aware that things could have been and should have been a whole lot better.” Read her full story on the Theater’s website.
The theater also has its own transformational stories. Like many grand theater houses across the country, owners struggled to keep their property viable. During the late 60s and 70s having to compete with modern multiplexes the once thriving Ritz Theater unceremoniously closed in 1978. It reopened briefly as the Showtime Cantina again showing films for movie fans. Unfortunately, it only lasted 4 years and the property, again, sat vacant with no maintenance or repairs leaving it broken, rotten, and forgotten until 1994 when it was donated to the Ritz Community Theater Project, Inc. a nonprofit under the leadership of Helen Stairs.
Helen Stairs, a real estate broker at the time, was dedicated to restoring the Theater to its original glory. After 6 years of fundraising and a huge restoration undertaking it reopened as the Helen Stairs Theatre on March 6, 2000. That first year, the grand lady welcomed 13,750 patrons.
In 2006 efforts were underway to recreate the iconic Ritz Theater corner sign on the 2nd street corner and by 2008 additional renovations were completed and the theater was renamed the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center in honor of donor Wayne Densch Charitable Trust Fund. In 2020, in preparation for its 100th Anniversary, the theater, in honoring its heritage, returned to the name the Ritz Theater.
The Ritz Theater has been Sanford’s home for the performing arts and an entertainment hub for a century. This historical gem has a new season of programming to offer the community and encourages everyone with a Ritz story to be a part of the next 100 years by sharing their stories with them.
Learn about upcoming performances and the oral history project at www.ritztheatersanford.com.