Indianapolis Then and Now: Ritz Theatre 3430 N. Illinois Street

Written by on April 5, 2012 in Then & Now - 23 Comments
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Sometimes these “then and now” columns get frustrating. When I discover a great old photograph of an unknown building, I check out the location on old maps and in aerial photos, then search the address on current sites such as Google Maps and too often find an empty lot or an ugly pole building. Sigh. So for my mental health I’m going to focus the next few weeks on existing buildings with happy endings or great potential, such as the neglected but wonderful Ritz Theatre.

The Ritz Theatre at 3430 N. Illinois Street was constructed in 1926-1927 by Oscar Markum and Son, owners of four other Indianapolis theaters. It was designed by Indianapolis architect George V. Bedell, who began his career in the 1880s as a decorative spindle and trim maker. On a personal note, in the early 1890s he added onto my former cottage at 815 N. Highland Avenue which was owned then by his sister. In the 1980s I tracked down his elderly son who shared that his father designed many churches, houses, and four Indianapolis theaters: the Dream Theatre in Brightwood, the Tacoma Theatre on East Washington Street (now home to El Sol Restaurant), the Talbott Theatre at 21st and Talbott (now Talbott Street Nightclub), and the Ritz Theatre. The Ritz is brick and decorated with limestone carvings. When it first opened it had streetfront stores on either side of the central entrance and a separate smoking room with piped-in sound for the smokers. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company, negative 333784)

(Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company, neg. 201130)

According to cinematreasures.org, the Ritz opened on February 22, 1927 with seating for 1,400. Just on the cusp of talking movies, the theater was equipped with a two-manual Geneva organ. After years of success as a neighborhood movie theater, it became known as the Northside Theatre in August of 1958 and had a short-lived stint as a burlesque site in the 1960s before complaints led the managers and strippers to court. In June 1970 the theater was remodeled. All of the seats were removed to make way for a rock concert venue called Middle Earth. The popular hang-out featured some big names such as Richie Havens, Frank Zappa, and Savoy Brown. The name was changed back to the Ritz Theatre in January 1972, but the concerts were unsuccessful and the Ritz closed in late 1972.

Today the marquee is gone, the windows are boarded up, and the theater has sat mainly empty since the early 1970s. People have cited the shaky neighborhood and the lack of parking as reasons the building has not been revived. Come on Indy, we are an urban area. Let’s get better public transportation, stop requiring so many parking spots, and bring back these neighborhood gems. (2008 photo courtesy of Kevin Kastner of Urban Indy, another great blog about our city. Check out his entry on the Ritz Theatre to see many more photos.)

[Would you like to see your old photographs featured in this Then and Now column? If so, send a high resolution scan and any details about the building to thenandnow@historicindianapolis.com.]

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About the Author

Joan Hostetler and John Harris own Heritage Photo & Research Services. The company specializes in house and building research and historic photograph preservation, interpretation, archiving, and digitization. Since they see so many cool photographs tucked away in attics and basements, they recently created "The Indiana Album" to borrow, scan, and share hidden Indiana images with the public. Like them on facebook or send them an email to share your photographs.

23 Comments on "Indianapolis Then and Now: Ritz Theatre 3430 N. Illinois Street"

  1. Jason Hathaway April 5, 2012 at 8:48 am · Reply

    Thanks for this post. I used to live at an apartment building near Shortridge, and I always wondered about this and the other closed-up buildings at 34th and Illinois. Dan Wakefield spoke highly of that corner in “Going All The Way.” I think one of the 1950s-era hangouts there he mentioned was a jazz club called the Hi-Tone or something like that. It’s been a while. I could stand to read that book all over again!

  2. Pete Kuhns April 5, 2012 at 10:44 am · Reply

    Next to this theater sat a tiny motel until a few years ago. I so regret not taking a picture at dusk as i drove by it back in 1995. The light was magic in the dilapidated, abandoned entrance.

  3. Alice Ashby Roettger April 5, 2012 at 8:57 pm · Reply

    As a teenager in the 50s, I used to (for pay) take younger neighborhood children — via bus and a walk from Central to Illinois along 34th Street — to the Ritz children’s matinees. Saw many classics.

  4. David Neidlinger April 5, 2012 at 9:18 pm · Reply

    I remember going to this Theater every Saturday morning when I was a little tyke to watch the movies and the cereals that ran weekly. What childhood memories this brings back.

  5. Mark Radway April 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm · Reply

    Thanks, Joan…yet another time you’ve answered a question i’ve had before i asked it.
    It’s uncanny.
    Thanks also to the commenters.

  6. David April 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm · Reply

    In the 45 degree birds-eye aerial photo on Google Maps, you can see the gaping holes in the roof. The interior can’t be in good shape, sadly.

  7. Terry Wilson July 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm · Reply

    So, who owns the building now? I drive by it every day and wonder what its like on the inside…

    • Miranda Schoenborn July 13, 2015 at 6:41 pm · Reply

      I have wondered who owned this bldg myself, did you get a response?

  8. basil berchekas jr August 1, 2012 at 12:51 am · Reply

    Love these articles on Indianapolis’ former finer neighborhood movire theaters! In my case, they were the Tuxedo, Irving, Emerson, Rivoli, and one on Station Street in Brightwood, but can’t remember the name…oh, yes, a later one (as in built later): the Arlington.

    • Carolyn Charisse Roesbery February 1, 2016 at 6:22 pm · Reply

      I am looking for the one of my youth — near the library, maybe on College Ave. It shaped my life and imagination

  9. David Brent Johnson August 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm · Reply

    The jazz club at 34th and Illinois was the Topper. Renowned Indiana University jazz educator David Baker used to play there frequently in the late 1950s.

    • al cerulli January 19, 2017 at 5:47 pm · Reply

      My mother father and baby sister at the time 1945 lived across the street from the Ritz and Topper before they moved north were I was born. Dad worked at the Turner barber shop just around the corner on the SE corner of 34th and Illinois the fellow that owned the Topper,s name was Gene as I recall last name escapes me but he and my father knew each other well I had the opportunity in 1972 to meet him as myself and 3 partners were the individuals that opened Middleearth. I also believe Wes Montgumery was an act Geno brought in at times. I do treasure the conversations I had with Geno over a brewsky or two.

  10. Miranda Schoenborn November 29, 2014 at 10:05 pm · Reply

    Hello, I am curious to know the current status of the Ritz Theater, has any progress been made on rehabilitating it. I can not find anything more current about this theater since this article, which is two years old.

  11. Kevin Spencer December 12, 2014 at 4:50 pm · Reply

    I lived directly across from the Ritz for most of my early childhood (1970-1974), where my home’s windows were partially filled with the place. I recall the marquee still being there and the main doors not yet boarded up in that time.

    The southern extension once had a roller skating rink during the summer of 1974. At the end of this structure at the extreme south once was a restaurant, named “Doyle’s.” He made, I am told, a spectacular hamburger. Since his passing, the last activity in the structure But, aside from the notes here, very very little has happened to the building except decay.

    The problem in renovation and usage, in my opinion, involves a higher-crime area (just a block south, the influence of property purchases by the Children’s Museum hold this slightly at bay) and a building that may be just too far gone. But every time I drive by my old home, I look at the Ritz and wonder what it might be, if anything. Many structures around and near it have been destroyed (my childhood home itself is now condemned). It may be only a matter of time before someone feels that the Ritz should be destroyed.

    But right now, it’s in a state of limbo. Seems removing a building that occupies a half-block would be too costly in a neighborhood not known for many sights and is generally drive-through territory. And it’s too damaged for anyone except a mad scientist to make it a lair of any kind to justify removing it for other reasons. Thank you for the story and photos.

  12. Jim June 25, 2015 at 4:41 am · Reply

    This was the home of Middleearth, an amazing rock concert hall in the late 60’s/early 70’s where you could see fantastic rock shows like Savoy Brown, SRC, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Alice Cooper, Yes, the Maudes, Coven, and many other rock acts in a small, intimate setting.
    My friends and myself had many amazing experience here!

    Does anyone have stories or posters of Middle Earth Indianapolis Indiana? I would love to see posters from this rock club! Or photos taken from inside or outside during the Middleearth period…

    • al cerulli January 19, 2017 at 5:56 pm · Reply

      Jim it”s nice to see someone remembers Middlearth I was one of the 4 partners in the venture and I probably have the only poster and bumper left framed and hanging on my wall those were great times.

  13. Carolyn Charisse Roesbery February 1, 2016 at 6:18 pm · Reply

    WOW! The Ritz is a gorgeous place! Indpls does not realize what it has! The old buildings are treasures in need of care and life. What would it take to make this stable and structurally safe? — refurbishing is not the hard part. This could be a community jewel housing so much and more than just a theatre! It could be a north side market, craft hub, museum, delicatessen, café, workout center, elder project, and so much more, and a theatre once again! history is who we are . This was built to last, and it has. North Indy needs this– community investment of heart and hope. This is a grand building. North Indy needs it. There should be many ways to fund it. Part of my heart is here on these streets — 3900 block of N. Delaware. Someone cut down my childhood English walnut trees, but there is one left in the back yard, the one with the Fergusons’ tree house. Space is never JUST ABOUT MONEY. It also defines who we are. North Indy was never homogenously glamorous, but it was always glorious.

  14. The Ritx Owner May 22, 2016 at 1:16 am · Reply

    I just inherited this building and the ones connected to it. I’m looking to restore the theater and the rest of the building. Does anyone have a idea of where and how to get funding to help out?

  15. Edith Glover August 8, 2016 at 8:07 pm · Reply

    Hi! I would like to talk to new owner of the Ritz. I’m interested in the building once known as the Topper. I have a facility near by in which I do Jazz/Blues periodically. The topper was once a wonderful Jazz Spot.

    • The Ritz Owner August 8, 2016 at 9:21 pm · Reply

      Hi what would you like to talk about?

  16. Edith Glover August 11, 2016 at 12:31 pm · Reply

    To Ritz owner, I might possibly be interested as an investor in renovation.

  17. rita curry October 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm · Reply

    my group is very interested in this property, due to the fact of how close it is to children museums and butler university. it would be great for children and seniors and performing artists to find and hon their skills and passions in the performing fields. please contact me.

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