Michael Melcher thinks Sylvester Poli would approve.
It was on Labor Day weekend in 1907 that Poli, an Italian immigrant considered the largest theater magnate in the world at one point, debuted his newest showcase at 222 Wyoming Ave. in downtown Scranton.
The Poli, as the beautifully ornate structure was called, was the second-most expensive theater in the United States at the time.
On Friday, what is now known as the Ritz Theater & Performing Arts Center celebrated its 115th anniversary with a ceremonial reopening ribbon-cutting and birthday cake.
It’s no longer what The Poli was — the current theater space occupies what was originally the mezzanine and balcony area — but after 115 years during which the theater changed with and for the times, it is still opening shows and bringing in performers, said Melcher, Ritz executive producer.
It’s a legacy Poli would appreciate, he said.
“While I hope he would be impressed, he didn’t seem like the type who sat in the shadows and waited for someone else to be the innovator,” Melcher said. “I think he would applaud what we are doing, getting this place back up and running.”
The Ritz is heading into its seventh year as home to the Creative and Performing Arts Academy of NEPA, a program created for children ages 4 and up who want to pursue their passion in the arts.
Melcher said about 200 children are enrolled in the program, with classes and workshops after school, on weekends and during the summer. CaPAA participants put on close to 20 productions annually at the Ritz, he said.
The Ritz is also home to the Ritz Mainstage Players, the theater’s professional company, Melcher said. Among its upcoming productions are some new pieces that, in one sense, will take the Ritz back to its roots.
During the theater’s vaudevillian heyday, it hosted some of the 20th century’s most storied performers — people like Harry Houdini, W.C. Fields, Ray Bolger, Mae West, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Will Rogers — who often came to Scranton to hone their acts before taking them to bigger stages in bigger cities.
“They were all here,” Melcher said. “It was literally a testing ground. George Burns used to talk about it all the time: ‘If you can get the Scranton audiences to laugh, they are going to laugh anywhere.’”
While the children who are following in the footsteps of those legendary entertainers may not know their names, Melcher said most understand the importance of the building and the things that happened there.
He is still amazed by the theater and its history, he said. The theater will present some of that history this weekend with an exhibit at La Festa Italiana on Courthouse Square.
“It’s easy to take this place for granted, but it’s the coolest damn space,” Melcher said. “Most days I walk around here and I feel like I found a copy of the Declaration of Independence behind an old beer poster. It’s such a spectacular piece of entertainment history.”
Attorney Scott Schermerhorn, who bought the then-vacant theater building in 2001, said he thinks all the time about its history and wonders now if it was his destiny to take the risk. At the time, he thought it could be brought back to life.
“The most satisfying part for me is watching CaPAA bring in all these young kids through adults, and their lives are completely changed,” said Schermerhorn, whose offices are on the ground floor. “They will forever always have memories of their activities and participation in events in theater, music, dancing, singing.”
He compared it a child playing Little League baseball on a Little League field.
“These kids are having the same kind of memories, that this is their field, that this is where they grew up,” Schermerhorn said.
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