The Ritz Theater Lobby in 1941

The original structure was built for the manufacture of overalls, plumbing supplies, and cigars.

Cohen’s Opera House was created within the manufacturing building, opening on February 4 of that year. Many legends of the Vaudeville era played on its stage.

The opening of Cohen’s Opera House Monday night means much to the citizens of Newburgh… Monday night we establish a standard for vaudeville in Newburgh… We want to impress upon you the fact that the show for Monday night is the best for the money that can be produced. And our prices are no higher than the same class of show is obtaining in New York City. Our standard will never be lower… You have our personal word that you will always receive full measure for your money at Cohen’s Opera House.” —Newburgh Daily Journal (February 1913)

The East-West Theater Company found a home in the theater and changed its name to the State Theater. The East-West Theater Company was a major participant in the Vaudeville chapter of American culture.

Eugene Levy purchased and renovated the theater and renamed it the Ritz. It was then that the theater began its most illustrious chapter, with big-name films and live performances by stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Mary Martin, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman, Dick Powell, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddy Duchin, Red Skelton, Xavier Cugat, The Inkspots, Vaughn Monroe, Montana Slim, Ricardo Cortez, Les Brown, and many more.

The Ritz Theatre, most modern and luxurious in the Hudson Valley, will have its premiere tomorrow night at 7. Behind that simple declarative statement lies this miracle: Eugene Levy, Newburgh theatre owner, recently bought the old George Cohen Theatre on Broadway, and converted that playhouse of a gaudier era into an institution where cinematic and variety productions of the highest standard can be presented with amazing skill, and affording the fascinated beholder the ultimate in comfort and convenience.” —The Newburgh News (November 28, 1933)

During this vibrant time, New York City’s Paramount Theater regularly brought shows to the Ritz Theater to “test” them on Newburgh audiences before they debuted at the Paramount. Rumor has it that a sign posted backstage at the Paramount warned “If you think this audience is tough, try Newburgh.”

November 3, 1940
An unknown Frank Sinatra walked onto the Ritz Theater stage in Newburgh. With Tommy Dorsey’s band backing him up, he captivated the young people who had skipped school to see Dorsey’s band.

December 17, 1941
Lucille Ball made her stage debut at the Ritz Theater alongside her husband, Desi Arnaz.

Nervous as a kitten, Miss Ball was like a school girl with her first date as she prepared for her stage debut. She wasn’t quite sure she was going to be a success, but it turned out that she and her husband scored a tremendous hit with Newburgh’s theatergoers. Their act was a bit like most vaudeville acts, but it was good. They did a piece of comedy, a little singing, a little dancing. The audience loved it.” —The Newburgh News (December 18, 1941)

The Ritz continued to show movies, but the city and Broadway entered a slow decline as I-84 and the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge bypassed the downtown area, and the ferry closed.

The Ritz Theater closed, the stage was walled off from the house, and Cinemas I and II were carved into the house.

Cinemas I and II closed.

“Levinson (owner of Cinemas I and II) quietly closed shop earlier this month, reportedly opting to quit Newburgh after vandals damaged $15,000 worth of seating improvements inside the theater. In his wake, he leaves one more gap in a depopulating downtown commercial zone that some merchants feel will be a long time in recovering.” —Saturday Record (October 24, 1981)

A former owner reopened the movie theaters in February of that year, but closed it for good in June of that year after drawing only 700 customers in 17 weeks.

The Ritz Theater was purchased by Safe Harbors of the Hudson.

Scenes for the film Last Days by Gus Van Sant were filmed inside the then-dormant Ritz Theater. The interior of the old stage space was used as well as the rear entrance to the theater.

With Safe Harbors of the Hudson now owning the theater, the original Ritz Theater lobby was renovated, along with The Cornerstone Residence next door.

PARADE Magazine awarded the Ritz Theater a “History Happened Here” Award, for serving as the birthplace of the I Love Lucy show. The Ritz was one of only ten sites chosen out of a pool of over 2,000 applicants.

Lucille Ball already was a successful actress when she married Desi Arnaz, a handsome Cuban bandleader. But she confessed she was petrified when, on Dec. 17, 1941, she and Desi debuted a live act—a comic skit, some song and dance — at the modest Ritz Theater in Newburgh, NY. “The audience loved it,” proclaimed the local paper. Encouraged, the newlyweds went on to transform their lovebird lunacies into the show “I Love Lucy”, drawing audiences to the new medium that was TV.” —PARADE Magazine (May 7, 2006)

Safe Harbors of the Hudson created the nonprofit Ritz Theater Newburgh, Inc. to focus solely on the restoration of the theater. In that year, a new era of Ritz Theater programming began in the already-restored theater lobby, with performances from Tony Award-winning musician, Levi Kreiss, Grammy Award-winning musician, Pete Seeger, and Odair Assad.

Ritz Theater Newburgh, Inc. continued providing programming in the lobby while raising funds to restore the original theater. The Tom Humphrey Guitar Series, which started in 2008 (thanks to the Bardavon and La Bella Strings) with performances from Odair Assad and Pete Seeger, continued by presenting such notable performers as Bucky Pizzarelli, Grammy Award-winning musician Arturo O’Farrill, The Michéle Ramo Group, Jesse Lége, and many more. In July, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) secured $400,000 in restoration funding for the Ritz, as a part of the 2010 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Bill. Also in 2009, the first annual RitzKidz “Newburgh’s Got Talent!” Talent Show was held, providing an opportunity for Newburgh’s school children to showcase their talents, and Senator William Larkin (R-C, Cornwall-on-Hudson) secured $250,000 in restoration funding for the theater.

The Tom Humphrey Guitar Series continued with performances from Larry Coryell, Maria Zemantauski, and Duke Robillard, Cindy Cashdollar, Frederic Hand and Esopus Musicalia. In February, the Ritz received $200,000 in funding from the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s Urban Initiatives Program. The funding will help to build the future box office, which will be situated within the commercial storefront adjacent to the theater lobby. The 2nd Annual RitzKidz “Newburgh’s Got Talent!” Talent Show was held in November.

The Tom Humphrey Guitar Series continued its successful 2010-11 season with performances from Frank Vignola’s Hot Club, the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet and Laurence Juber. Renovations on the Ritz Theater Box Office (at 109 Broadway) began in March, with a completion date slated for mid-June. The 3rd Annual RitzKidz “Newburgh’s Got Talent!” Talent Show will be held in November.

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