Puttin' on the Ritz

The Ritz Theater of Spokane, Washington
circa 1924

"The little theater charms and satisfies and makes an attractive addition to Spokane's Playhouse Row" (Spokesman-Review, 11 May 1924).

As motion pictures replaced stage shows in the 1920's, Spokane's Playhouse Row along Main Street saw the need to move forward with the times as well. One of the earliest film theaters to arrive in Spokane was The Ritz, built in 1924 by local architect J.W. Allender. For nearly a century, The Ritz theater was a "Main Avenue fixture" along the Falls City Block.

Theater was always a big deal in Spokane. Before the prohibition of alcohol in 1916, the local bar scene included risque, burlesque style theater. There were 11 live theaters between 1880 and 1889. By 1910, Spokane was ranked nationally as the most "show conscious community west of Chicago." When motion picture theater was introduced in the 1920's, The Ritz Theater played a very important role in bringing Spokane to a new era of entertainment.

The Spokesman-Review praised The Ritz as a "little theater (that) charms and satisfies and makes an attractive addition to Spokane's Playhouse Row." Indeed, the little theater was quite beautiful in its period details and Italian Renaissance-style architecture.

Like many early theaters, The Ritz suffered from complaints regarding its selection of films. In 1950, the film "Street Corners" caused such a stir that it was banned by the city's censor board on the grounds that it was "objectionable from the standpoint of it's psychological reaction among the general public." Walt Hefer, who ran the establishment as Cinema 66 in the 1960's contended with similar complaints from the public. He discovered he had to run "sleazier and sleazier" films just to make ends meet.

After nearly a century of new owners, including Walt Hefer, who reopened the theater in 1962 as Cinema 63 and the efforts of conservationists, the old Ritz Theater has been carefully preserved. In 2003, it was added to the National Register of Historic places and is now an important addition to the historic East Downtown neighborhood of Spokane.

It was a choice he had to make and one that kept his little theater in business until the present owners of Rocky Rococo turned it into a pizza parlor. You can still find remnants of the old theater virtually everywhere you look in the building today.

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520 West Main Street. Spokane, WA