Haddon Twp.'s Ritz theater staging its first fund-raiser

Bruce A. Curless recalls the Ritz Theatre Company's earliest days as "let's put on a show" time.

"We were like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland," says the affable impresario, who in 1985 inspired a volunteer group to begin transforming the former X-rated-movie house into a South Jersey cultural institution.

After 180 main-stage productions, nearly 30 years of summer theater camps, and countless opportunities for local performers to tread the boards, the Ritz faces an unhappy plot twist.

Box-office revenue is down nearly $200,000 a year since 2008. Subscriptions have dropped a third, from about 4,000 to 2,400. And the annual contribution by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts stands at $52,000, about half what it was in 2004.

"I'm scared," Curless says. The nonprofit company needs $100,000 to put its 350-seat, 87-year-old theater on the White Horse Pike in Haddon Township in the black by the end of this year; an additional $300,000, he adds, would "enable us to stop robbing Peter to pay Paul."

To trim expenses and raise revenue, the Ritz has cut two performances from the run of each of the six shows in its season; temporarily rented the auditorium for services by a local church; and laid off a quarter of its staff.

"No one is going to close us down tomorrow," says Curless, 66, an Indiana native who lives in Haddon Heights with his wife, the performer Kim Valdes, and their daughter, Roberta.

"The Ritz is up to date on the mortgage," Curless says. "We don't owe the government any taxes."

Nevertheless, the company will stage a first-of-its-kind fund-raiser, "Rock the Ritz," on Saturday, April 5.

The poster for this postmodern vaudeville extravaganza promises performances by local rock bands as well as "jaw-dropping juggling, beguiling belly dancers, awesome aerialists, and breathtaking burlesque."

The promotional pizzazz would do Mickey and Judy proud; it's the brainchild of Haddon Township businessman Doug Kelly, one of a half-dozen new members energizing the company's board.

"What really excites me is, we're going to open up the place to the community and let everyone know we're here," Kelly says. He describes the roomy, yet intimate, theater as perfect for concerts, comedy, and other live entertainment.

"Once people come in and see the theater, they love it," says board president Ken Funkhouser. "What we want to do is build a new subscriber base and a new audience."

Filling seats is tough for arts organizations everywhere (not for nothing did Philadelphia's Wilma Theater recently cut most ticket prices). Its architectural charms and high-visibility location notwithstanding, the Ritz has challenges.

Parking on or near the busy pike can be tricky. An adjacent diner, where theater patrons could get dinner before a show, burned down in 2010.

There's also more competition, not only in Center City - where theater has blossomed in the last 20 years - but in South Jersey.

Territory that the Ritz once had to itself now includes the South Camden Theatre Company and regular professional or semiprofessional theater productions in Hammonton, Pitman, Williamstown, and Millville.

And while Ritz shows have earned a reputation for high-quality, younger audiences hungry for material edgier than Broadway shows usually look elsewhere.

But individual donations are up 44 percent, to $55,261. There's talk of producing a "Ritz Idol" contest and of relighting the original marquee.

"The mood of our organization is hopeful," Curless says. "It's like, 'OK. We've got to fix this.' "


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