By Alexandra Fradelizio | m/Oppenheim Media Writer
Embedded within the diverse city of Jacksonville, Florida, the neighborhood of LaVilla is home to a renowned arts center, one that deeply represents the area’s history and culture. The Ritz Theatre & Museum is among Jacksonville’s most iconic landmarks and stands as a “beacon in the LaVilla area and a staple in the neighborhood,” says Business Development Manager Vanessa Davis.
The organization is celebrating its 90th anniversary while the location of the current theater and museum is observing its 20th anniversary. During segregation, the original location of the Ritz Theatre was only one of two theaters in Jacksonville that welcomed African Americans. Today, the theater and museum work together to educate and connect LaVilla residents with the past of the Northeastern Florida city.
The Ritz Theater has hosted both world-renowned artists and local talent through various stage productions. Among its world-class shows are the Ritz’s annual Golden Nutcracker that is produced by a local African American ballet company and Scribes and Vibes, a poetry event that unites local poets with nationally recognized artists. The adjoining museum “holds a lot of the history for the area,” with its extensive archive collection, explains Davis, and features both permanent exhibits and galleries that can be altered or rented by local community members. Most recently, the museum hosted an exhibition on the hairstyles featured in the Academy Award-winning movie Black Panther. With continuously changing performances and exhibits, the theater and museum function cohesively to present a fully immersive experience for visitors.
The Ritz organization not only represents LaVilla but is also actively working to revive and rebuild the primarily low-income neighborhood. In order to overcome budget cuts that have impacted the Ritz and other nonprofits in the area, the center partners with other community organizations and small businesses to engage the LaVilla community. Many of the theater and museum’s 200 volunteers also act as the organization’s ambassadors by providing a wealth of knowledge regarding the area’s history, especially those who lived during the 1920s-1960s in which LaVilla was dubbed the “Harlem of the South” for its output of vibrant art. Building on its current shows and exhibits, the Ritz organization has turned its focus from preserving the artistic culture of LaVilla to now sharing that recorded information with the larger Jacksonville community.
“I want to see a lot of activity,” says Executive Director Stacy Aubrey, who works with SMG, a venue management company that helps to manage the Ritz’s building with the city of Jacksonville.
With the rest of the Ritz staff, Aubrey and Davis are poised to increase the theater and museum’s awareness with the rest of Jacksonville. Prior to becoming part of the Ritz organization, Aubrey ran a nonprofit concert series within the city for nearly 10 years. Davis joined the organization last year but holds personal ties to the Ritz. Her parents played an instrumental role in the planning of the theater and museum 20 years ago, and Davis herself was an usher on its inaugural day.
“We really are a center for the community,” she says, “and a beacon for the history of LaVilla.”