The Lost Theatres of LaVilla

March 23, 2016 2 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

During the formative years of Jazz and Blues in America’s late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jacksonville was a major performance venue in this part of the country. Unfortunately, not much is known by the majority of our population because much of this history resides exclusively on the black side of town during the height of the Jim Crow era. Much of this scene took place in the area downtown know as “LaVilla.” With this in mind, here's a brief a look at a few “lost theaters” of LaVilla.

Ritz Theatre

In September of 1929, Neil Witschen opened the Ritz Theater at the corner of State and Davis Streets, just a few blocks north of Ashley Street. Designed in the Art Deco style by local architect Jefferson Powell, the one screen, 970 seat theatre quickly became LaVilla's primary performance venue and an important stop on the Chitlin' Circuit.

The "Chitlin' Circuit" was the collective name given to a series of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the country that were safe and acceptable for African American entertainers to perform in during segregation. Other notable venues on the Chitlin' Circuit were the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Fox Theatre in Detroit and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.

After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Ritz lost the support of the declining community around it and closed. As a part of Mayor Ed Austin's River City Renaissance Plan, the theatre was partially demolished and renovated into a new theatre and museum. The new Ritz Theatre opened on September 30, 1999.

Article by Kristen Pickrell and Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at


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