Developer still interested in renovation of Ritz Theater

Published 12:05 am Friday, December 4, 2015

Consign and Design owner Sissy Blackwood spruces up her Christmas decorations as the refelection of the old Ritz Theater glows from across the street. Blackwood says she receives almost daily inquiries from tourists and visitors to her store about the future of the old movie house. Inset below is a 1940s photograph of the theater. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Consign and Design owner Sissy Blackwood spruces up her Christmas decorations as the refelection of the old Ritz Theater glows from across the street. Blackwood says she receives almost daily inquiries from tourists and visitors to her store about the future of the old movie house. Inset below is a 1940s photograph of the theater. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

By Megan Ashley Fink

NATCHEZ  — More than a year after he last visited Natchez, theater developer Charlie Watzke said he is still interested in restoring the downtown Ritz Theater.

A developer who specializes in restoring historic movie theaters and drive-ins, Watzke said he expects his current project, the newly restored Beacon Theater in Waveland to open Dec. 11.

In Sept. 2014, Watzke had hoped he was just a few months away from opening the Gulf Coast cinema that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Months turned into more than a year after the project turned out bigger than he anticipated. Watzke had to gut the theater and remove its mold-infested insulation.

The completion of the Waveland project will allow him to come to Natchez to decide whether he can commit to the renovation of the Ritz.

Watzke, a New Orleans native, said he will visit Natchez in the next two or three weeks to make a decision.

“I’ve got some ideas and think it could be a unique place,” Watzke said. “It’s been over a year since I’ve been there to look at it. If everything’s still the same, I probably should be interested in it.”

Watzke said he has renovated many historic theaters throughout the South, including locations in Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

The Ritz Theater was built in 1935, In 1940, it was sold to the Saenger Realty Corporation, which operated more than 320 theaters in the Southern states. Jerry Oberlin purchased the theater in 1950, and his family continued operating the theater until it closed in the mid-1960s.

The theater was used for storage until its roof collapsed in 2000.

David Paradise and Burt Baker bought the property and immediately donated it to the Historic Natchez Foundation (HNF) in 2002 when neighboring property owners began to complain about the building’s structure and the threat to their properties.

Miller said the foundation has invested more than $100,000 in stabilizing the structure.

HNF plans to give Watzke the building, rather than sell or lease the property, in hopes it will be restored and preserved as an operational theater.

“We made it clear we would give them the building,” HNF Executive Director Mimi Miller said. “We do not expect to be paid for it.”

“(HNF) wanted to try to preserve the building despite the fact that the roof structure had collapsed,” Miller said.

Miller said she reached out to Watzke after reading about his other theater restoration projects.

“The fact that someone might (reopen the building as) a theater appealed to us,” Miller said. “It’s our finest art deco building.”