All theaters, in one way or another, are indebted to the vaudeville…
Built in 1906 by S.Z. Poli, an Italian immigrant and accomplished wax modeler on his way to becoming the largest theater owner in the world, the Ritz building was first known as “The Poli” and hosted the likes of Harry Houdini, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers. News accounts of the day said a young Buster Keaton worked as a bartender across the street before or after his Poli gigs! The large vaudeville house, which was constructed for the large sum of $250,000 (with inflation, roughly $6,801,582.82 in 2019), seated more than 2,000 attendees between its orchestra, balcony and second story balcony.
In 1924 the age of motion pictures emerged and the Union theater Co. acquired the Poli theater. Then, six years later, on Oct. 6, 1930, the theater started screening films and was rebranded as the Ritz theater. The theater was remodeled in an Art Deco style — a design style first born in France before the First World War —in 1937 and renamed for the third time as the Comerford theater. Seating capacity dropped to 1,600 after the second story balcony was removed.
By 1941, the legendary Paramount Pictures Inc. operated the theater through their subsidiary, Frank Walker, and endured another remodeling job by B. Allman & Co. of New York, reopening on May 5, 1950, with the film “Paid in Full,” starring Scranton’s own Lizabeth Scott, the actress described by UK’s “The Telegraph,” as “arguably the most beautiful face of film noir during the 1940s and 1950s” in her obituary.
The theater thrived for decades before falling into financial struggles against a local UA multiplex. And, in 1978, the main floor was converted into a mini-mall, and the theater operation was moved to the former balcony. Competition mounted in the area and the theater converted to showing short-run movies. The last, shown in July 2000, was “U-571.” Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, after a century of service, the Ritz theater closed.
A silver lining came when the current owner bought the building in the early 2000’s and found some forgotten treasures of the past. A gaslit movie projector was cleaned up and incorporated into a display. Ornate brass doors and rails were in excellent shape. Walls were lined with large, hand-painted murals on canvas featuring classical Greek and Asian scenes. New murals, featuring montages of Hollywood-era stars, are now on the walls. The lobby has a long bar overlooking Wyoming Avenue. The original Poli proscenium arch, out of view, can be seen backstage in the shadows. What an incredible treasure, right here in Scranton!
In the summer of 2016, the Creative Performing Arts Academy of NEPA- a vibrant arts program for kids, teens & adults- moved into the Ritz Building. CaPAA of NEPA has over 300 students who come to the Ritz for a variety of classes in theatre, music & dance in addition to over two dozen productions throughout the year. The Ritz Mainstage Players is a semi-professional audition-based company offering full musicals and plays for all ages here in this historic theater. We are so thrilled that performers of all ages can still experience the magic of this classic vaudeville theater nearly 110 years after Sylvester Poli first opened the doors on Wyoming Avenue. TheRitz Theater’s legacy continues to shine brightly in downtown Scranton!