Winston-Salem playwright seeks to renovate classic venue
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The intersection of N. Patterson and Greenway Avenues in Winston-Salem might be described by some as an industrial no-man’s land. There is a gas station, a freestanding hot dog joint and the Dairy Fresh factory. Just off the intersection is 2014 Greenway Ave “” an abandoned structure that once housed The Ritz Theater.
According to Winston-Salem’s Architectural Heritage by Heather Fearnbach, The Ritz opened on March 10, 1968 and showed double feature films at a price of 50 cents for adults and 15 cents for youth, which today would be about $3.42 and $1.03 respectively. Fearnbach writes that the 500-seat theater catered mostly to the black community due to the low prices. In 1973 International Theatres Limited purchased it, and two years later the Ritz stopped showing films for good.
Local historian Fam Brownlee, who works in the North Carolina Room of Forsyth County Public Library, said the theater typically showed movies such as the 1966 western Duel at Diablo that were not popular with the neighborhood’s African American working class population.
“The kind of movies that they were showing there were not the kind of movies that a black audience was going to watch,” he said. “They’re not going to see movies like that. They’re going to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Brownlee said when International Theaters took over they began showing films targeted at an older, shrinking white audience. When the theater reopened, the first movie shown was the Italian film Goodbye Uncle Tom.
“It was a very controversial movie,” he said. “It was shot in Haiti, but it was supposed to be historical scenes of slavery from the United States. I think one critic said something like, ‘if there’s ever been a movie that was designed to insight a race riot this is the one.'” In the four decades that followed the theater’s demise, it has been housed a number of churches including Christ Cathedral Church of Deliverance, which worshiped there for six months in 1990. According to the Forsyth County GIS database, the building is 6,628 square feet and has a value of $66,800.
Local playwright Lizz Goins-Turner hopes to turn it into a working theater once again. Goins-Turner has had her company Diamondique Productions since 2010 and is looking for a permanent space for her shows. She said most of her productions have been in churches, but the historic nature of the building caught her eye.
“I just remember hearing so much about it and one day I was on Craigslist, and in the search engine I put in old movie theaters,” she said. “At the time I was looking for a theater to renovate. And that one popped up.”
Goins-Turner said she hated studying history in school but is fascinated by old structures and thinks this is a perfect opportunity to redevelop one.
“I found out it was closed and I was like, wow It’s been sitting for years,” she said.
Goins-Turner is in the process of purchasing the Ritz, with the hope of opening it in January. She said things are going well, and she has a good number of people helping out with the $100,000 renovation cost. She has started a donation page on gofundme. com and is also using social media and email to spread her message. She said number of American and African playwrights have already contacted her about producing a show in Winston-Salem.
Goins-Turner has lived in Winston- Salem most of her life except for a brief stint where her husband’s job in the navy took them to Jacksonville, Florida. She typically writes plays that deal with real-life situations.
“I tend to focus on subjects that a lot of people are afraid to speak out about for the simple fact that you never know who’s in the audience and the message that is in the play could be speaking to them,” she said. “If they’re going through abuse they may find a way out through that particular play.”
Goins-Turner said in renovating the theater her goal is to preserve as many of the original features as possible, including the concession stand and the projection room.
“I just want a lot to remain the same because I know a lot of people that used to go there as a kid and I’ve been contacted by so many people that are ready for the grand opening because they haven’t set foot in there in years,” she said. “So that building holds a lot of memories for people.”
Goins-Turner said she plans to hold live shows in addition to screenings at the theater. She thinks a successful use of the structure could provide a revenue boost for the city and reinvigorate the neighborhood.
“It would hurt me to see that building demolished or not to be restored,” she said. “There’s a lot there, and if they’re considering Winston-Salem as the city of the arts, there’s history right there. We can’t knock it down.”
She hopes to use surrounding abandoned property for parking.
“I want people to be able look at the jewel that’s in the area, not where it’s located or what goes on in the area,” she said.
Goins-Turner added that since she and her husband have been spending a lot of time around the building, others have seen them and expressed hope that the building will be restored.
Benjamin and Sylvia Coleman have owned the building since 2008. She said the theater itself did not spark their interest, but they were looking at business property. Six years later, they have put it up for sale.
“Once we bought it we realized it was going to be more of a challenge than we were able to handle,” she said.
Coleman said she does not think the building will easily be converted to a theater. She said structure is in sound condition overall but needs significant electrical and plumbing work before it can be put to use.
“It would take someone that wanted to take the time,” she said. “And doing the planning, you would have to get an architect. There’s a whole lot of stuff that needs to be done.”
Coleman said she had not had any contact with Goins-Turner since her real estate agent is handling all business transactions. She said she attended the theater a couple of times as a child when she was around 10.
“You just went to the theater,” she said. “I don’t remember any special thing about it. You walked to the theater right from your home, so it was a short walk from where we lived at the time.”
Coleman said she is not sure if renovating the building will bring life to the neighborhood, but thinks there is potential. !