Puttin' Off the Ritz

May 07, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Over the years, many of you have written to me to tell me about your favorite theater - often an oasis of sorts away from the impersonal, generic insides of a multiplex. For eleven years, I have had such a place. Called the Ritz 16, it was run by people who cared first and foremost about the movie-going experience. For them, film was not a product - it was something magical and deserved to be seen in the finest setting. They spared no expense on the theater, creating a lobby that would have been more at home in a hotel than a theater, and crafting sixteen immaculate auditoriums, each with state-of-the-art sound and projection systems, and hundreds of the most comfortable seats to be found.

On April 27, 2007, the Ritz 16 died.

The building still stands, but the name has changed. It's now "Showcase at Ritz Center." The lobby is still as cavernous as always. There are still sixteen theaters. But the soul has departed. Ray Posel, the land developer whose love of cinema led him to build a small theater empire (three venues in Philadelphia and one in Voorhees, New Jersey), died in 2005. It has taken two years for his most ambitious project to give up the ghost. (The three Philadelphia theaters were bought by Landmark and continue pretty much as always. However, they were never as nice as the Voorhees location.)

The death of independently owned and operated theaters is almost as sad as the decline of independent cinema. It's hard to find a place to see a movie that isn't under the heel of Regal, AMC, Clearview, or National Amusements. The corporate mindset has turned these places into cold and uncomfortable places with minimum-wage ushers who would rather be texting friends than checking to make sure the picture is in focus and in frame and that no one is causing a disturbance. It's a bottom-line business, and it has resulted in a multiplex movie-going experience that's often more of a trial than a pleasure. How often has seeing a motion picture unfold on a big screen been interrupted by a ringing cell phone or other patrons who think they're in their living rooms?

Until that fateful Friday two weeks ago, the Ritz 16 was king among New Jersey theaters. Now, as a National Amusements satellite, it has come back to the pack. The theater mixed mainstream fare with art films, but gave the latter more than half the screens. Now, National Amusements has helpfully volunteered that it intends to continue to play foreign and independent films at the theater – on perhaps two screens. The adult-friendly admission policy is also gone. It used to be that no children under six were allowed at all, and children six to fifteen only with an adult companion. Now, admission is based on the MPAA rating, although adults have been thrown a bone. After 8:00 pm, no one under twelve is admitted without a parent or guardian.

Before each feature, the Ritz 16 used to show a slideshow of artwork by local artists or historical photographs. The speakers played classical music. Now, commercials have invaded. The two or three previews have been replaced by an unending reel of loud Hollywood trailers. It's startling to realize that the place where I once saw Citizen Kane, Raise the Red Lantern, Rear Window, and The Third Man is now peddling Pepsi and showing a two-minute version of Shrek the Third.

Many of you are now silently remarking, "Welcome to my world." The point of this article, however, is not to express sour grapes but to sound a cautionary trumpet. The theater-going experience has become so soulless in recent years that the loss of one of the good ones, regardless of the reason, is a cause to grieve.