Ever since “The Great Train Robbery,” a 12-minute film depicting a western train robbery, made its debut in 1903, America has had an ongoing fascination with the motion picture industry. The Nickelodeons, or nickel theaters, were replaced by movie palaces after 1910.
The motion picture industry soared after the introduction of “talkies” in 1926. It was that same year that Charles Richelieu began building an addition to his three-store-front building on Market Street in Clearfield. He added a large auditorium to the back of the building that was originally built in the 1890’s. Two years later, the Ritz Theater opened for business.
The Ritz Theater was decorated in the Movie Palace style with elaborate moldings, lights, columns and carpeting. Since then it’s seen a lot of changes. In 1971 the theater was “twinned” or divided into two smaller theaters. There were also some make-overs around that time with wood paneling and drop ceilings in the lobby.
Bob Knepp bought the theater in 1986. He recalls his first day of business. While the sale of the property was still not finalized, the previous owner agreed to let Knepp open. But he did not want to show movies. He only wanted to have the concession open for parade watchers during the Clearfield County Fair Parade that passed down Market Street.
Knepp said he made enough from the concessions that first day to buy two, brand new mirrors for the film projectors for when he first opened the theater. He said the new mirrors made the motion pictures brighter and clearer, giving a great first impression as the new owner.
The parade tradition has continued every year. Knepp said the only other day the theater is closed is on Christmas Eve. Otherwise the Ritz Theater is open seven days per week.
Unfortunately the Ritz Theater is at risk of closing its doors permanently. Knepp said the film industry is going digital, and doing away with the 35 mm film all together. This change is to be in effect the beginning of 2014.
In order to make the necessary changes in equipment to accommodate the changes, Knepp said he will need all new digital projectors, which will cost around $56,000 each. These projectors will be computer operated, with brighter lamps, and high definition images.
Presently Knepp has a 1960 film projector and three years ago replaced his 1950’s projector with a new 3-D projector, along with a new digital sound system. Knepp said he was excited about being able to provide the new 3-D movies, hoping to beat the DuBois theater in having it first. But there was a hold up that allowed Dubois to be the first theater in the area to offer 3-D movies.
He said the Ritz Theater actually does not do very well with 3-D movies. He has to charge a higher price, and the customers just don’t seem to be very impressed with them.
Knepp explained the 3-D movies cost $2,000 extra, along with the usual 70 percent of ticket sales that goes to the film company for new movies. He said the percentage goes down to 60 percent after the second week and down to 50 percent at the fourth week of showing.
Knepp said he made more changes over the years. Four years ago, he and his family took down all the paneling and drop ceilings and brought back the original movie palace look. Knepp said he replaced the carpeting in the theater three times and has added new chairs.
One thing he hopes to do if the Ritz Theater stays open is to reduce the seating and enlarge the aisles for more spacious and comfortable seating. Presently the Ritz I has 280 seats and Ritz II has 300. These would be reduced to 250 and 280, respectively.
Knepp said the latest sell-out movies were the Twilight series. Before that was The Passion. But the all-out best seller was Titanic, which was held over for 12 weeks.
Matinees are still shown Saturdays and Sundays, but mostly in the winter, because there are too many other things going on for people during warmer months to come to the movies.
The Ritz Theater employs three people, one of whom came with the place, Knepp said. Fred Brown was the operator in the projection room when Knepp bought it. He said Brown taught him the movie business and is still employed at the theater.
Knepp explained what the new digital projection system will replace. In the projection room is a tall stand with large rotating disks from which the film is threaded into the projector, and then feeds back out to wind back onto the next disk on the stand.
The film comes in segments on reels, which need to be spliced together before placed on the disk. The film feeds in front of the lamp house, with 2,000 watt lamps lighting the images on the film and projecting it through a small hole in the wall onto the screen in the auditorium.
Knepp said the 1960 projector rarely needs repaired. But the new projector recently had a breakdown. The motor that feeds the film quit, and the heat from the lamp melted the film. Knepp said he had to replace the motor with an older one to keep it in operation.
Saving the Ritz – Saving Tradition
Pamela Babic is a retired teacher who was looking for a cause, when she became aware of the predicament with the Ritz Theater needing new digital projectors by the end of the year. She got together with others who want to see the Ritz Theater continue to be a part of the Clearfield community. Their cause solidified when they considered the risk of the theater closing because of the high costs of the new projector systems. Thus the ad hoc Save the Ritz Committee came to be.
Babic said the committee first met in late March, and scrambled to get into the Berry and Blossom Festival. She said the Clearfield Revitalization Corp. (CRC) was very open to letting the committee be part of the festival. That was the kick-off for the committee’s objective, to raise money to help pay for the new projectors and keep the Ritz open.
Babic said the Save the Ritz committee has several fundraising efforts in the works. Buy a Seat plaques are for sale at $50 each. The metal plaque will have the donor’s name engraved on it and placed on the back of the theater seats. There are also “Save the Ritz” T-shirts for sale for $16, available at the Ritz.
Knepp said the committee will be ordering new neon-orange T-shirts, plus they are selling Save the Ritz arm bands. Babic said an account is set up at CNB Bank to accept donations for Save the Ritz. Market Street Gallery co-owner Steve Albert said the gallery is sponsoring the Corner Concerts at the Shaw Park and has been accepting donations toward the Ritz cause.
The committee is also selling tickets redeemable at South Side Subs for $7. Plans also include a sandwich sale through the Country Butcher in August. The committee has been collecting recyclable metals during July. A 5-K walk/run/stroller push is being planned for September, Babic said.
Babic said a generous person in the community has made a commitment to provide one half of the costs for the projector upgrades via a low-interest loan, if the committee can come up with the matching funds. She said the committee’s goal is to raise $65,000 by the end of the year.
So far they have raised $7,672, according to a Save the Ritz account balance update that was posted on Facebook earlier this week. Last night the Save the Ritz page reported receiving a check for $942 after a Mabel’s Pizza fundraiser for this month. A progress chart is displayed at the Market Street Gallery storefront, next to the Ritz. A light on the Ritz marquee is colored in for each $500 raised.
The committee has a Facebook account – Help Save the Ritz, where people can follow the committee’s progress, find out about fundraising events and post comments. Babic said she is available by phone for information, at 814-762-6430.