There were once more than 30 theaters located north of Dodge Street and east of 72nd Street. Among them, one stood out for its longevity and meaning to Omaha’s African American community. This is a history of the Ritz Theater.
Located at 2041 North 24th Street, the Ritz Theater was a neighborhood institution in the Near North Side. A standout among Omaha’s theaters, the Ritz eventually served African Americans as equals to white people. Then white people moved out of the neighborhood and the Ritz became an exclusively “Black theater,” meaning that it was staffed by African Americans and patronized by African Americans. A white person continued owning it though.
The Glendale Realty Company started construction on the theater in August 1929. However, there were legal issues that kept it from opening until 1931, when it opened as the Ritz Theatre. Popular Omaha theater owner and operator Harry L. Taylor, who had owned the Franklin and the Alhambra Theaters before the Ritz, opened it and owned it throughout its entire existence.
Movie listings for the Ritz were never printed in the Omaha World-Herald. Instead, since it was an African American theater, they were listed in the Omaha Star and other Black-owned newspapers throughout its existence.
During the Great Depression, the theater served as a relief to a lot of neighborhood residents. The Omaha Urban League held several events there, as well as the Near North Side YMCA and the Works Progress Administration had regular events there, too.
Seating almost 600 moviegoers, the theater resumed normal service after World War II. With the surrounding neighborhood nearly completely African American, the Ritz was a Black theater, meaning that it operated as a place where white people and Black people were treated equally. This was different than the vast majority of theaters throughout Omaha, which segregated Black people from white people.
Located in a historically packed business district, the theater was next to a grocery store and several apartment buildings. It was across the street from a social hall and other businesses, with regular streetcar service delivering moviegoers there into the 1950s.
In the 1940s, Taylor also ran the Music Box located at 19th and Dodge Streets. Throughout the 1950s, the popular Beau Brummel Club held an annual Christmas party at the theater. Inviting neighborhood kids between the ages of 4 and 10, they came with no admission, recieved free gifts and watched a movie.
Taylor regularly donated the Ritz for charity use that supported local community groups and political movements. In 1951, a midnight event at the theater supported a fair employment act in the Nebraska Unicameral. The bill didn’t pass, but the event was successful at rallying a great deal of support from the community.
In 1957, the doorman at the theater was charged with murder after the death of a 17-year-old. Russell Jordan, the doorman, worked at the Ritz for a long time. In his position, he shot Arthur F. Thomas, killing him. He later claimed the The young man’s father took the theater’s owner, Harry A. Taylor to court to sue for wrongful death, charging that Jordan shot Thomas “negligently, carelessly and recklessly.” Jordan was indicted for manslaughter and sentenced to five years. He served until 1960.
Another longtime worker at the theater was Paul Barnett (1909-1991), who acted as a manager, doorman and usher.
The Champion Bar was a longtime neighbor of the theater, and in later years the Leo Bar was next door. A short-time neighborhood was the ¢.09 Store, a Black-owned five and dime variety store in the 1930s.
The theater was closed in 1967 and demolished in the 1970s. Today the lot still sits empty.
You Might Like…
- A History of Theaters in North Omaha
- A History of North 24th Street
- A History of the Near North Side Neighborhood
- Original 1929 architectural drawing of the Ritz Theater, courtesy of the City of Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission