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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.)

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42 responses to “Indianapolis Then and Now: Ritz Theatre 3430 N. Illinois Street”

  1. Jason Hathaway says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

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

  8. basil berchekas jr says:

    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.

  9. David Brent Johnson says:

    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.

  10. Miranda Schoenborn says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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…

  13. Miranda Schoenborn says:

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

  14. Carolyn Charisse Roesbery says:

    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.

  15. Carolyn Charisse Roesbery says:

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

  16. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    If by “the one of my youth” you mean a theatre, that would have been the Uptown Theatre. Sadly, it (as well as the library) are gone. Here’s a link to a photo of the Uptown, taken in 1929: http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/dc012/id/14069/rec/3 .

  17. The Ritx Owner says:

    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?

  18. rita curry says:

    my son has promised to let me use this building, what I would like to do is turn the theater into a workshop theater for youth from 8yrs to 22yrs with senior citizens mentoring the youth by telling their stories. my thinking is now with the ugliest going around country that children of all races and cultures need to know what they bring to table through history. Thank you

  19. rita curry says:

    Hi I am trying to reach the owner to see if he wants to work with me on getting funding. I hate to see this building be razed for lack of funds. what has happened in the nation lately I would like to see the building be used for the youth and senior citizens to have a theater building to learn in and outs of the whole entertainment business. please pass this on to him.

  20. Edith Glover says:

    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.

  21. The Ritz Owner says:

    Hi what would you like to talk about?

  22. Edith Glover says:

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

  23. rita curry says:

    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.

  24. Rhonda Dunn says:

    There isn’t one person who inherited the property on Illinois and no single person can make any deals or sales lawfully without the consent of the others who inherited it as well.the building is to be up for sale. Contact me via email Rhonda. DDunn@yahoo.com

  25. al cerulli says:

    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.

  26. al cerulli says:

    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.

  27. Taylor Martin says:

    It’s been empty since the late 70s. It was Middle Earth and then The Famous Door, a drag club as late as 1979.

  28. Jay Hillenbrand says:

    Building collapse today at 34th and Illinois had me in fear it was this structure that was destroyed. Fortunately that is not the case. The lost building was in the middle of the non-descript row to the South. Sure would like to get a look at the inside of this building.

  29. Doug Thompson says:

    ‘– Successful urban areas adapted to the automobile and provide parking and lighting. History has proven the auto isn’t some passing fad. It provides the “freedom” that no other form of transportation ever has, however it isn’t for those to young or to old to drive. Buy the worn out stuff behind the theater and put in parking. Downtown Ollie’s is a big success. Xoxo.

  30. Jim says:

    LOL, just saw your post Al. My friends and I went regularly to Middle Earth from Crawfordsville. It was amazing!
    We saw Zappa and the Mothers, Savoy Brown, Yes, the Maudes, Alice Cooper, and many other concerts there! It was one of the most memorable times of my life.
    Could you post a pic of your remaining poster on a site and leave a link to it here?

  31. James says:

    If anyone has any lists of who appeared at Middle Earth and on what dates, that would be so great! If you would just post a link to photos of them or a text document or anything like that… Just for nostalgia for my friends and myself; as we had such great times at Middle Earth!
    Thank you.

  32. Terry says:

    Would be so great, Al, if you could put a page up or just post a pic somewhere or video on youtube showing some posters from middle earth, or list of dates and acts that were there. My friends and I forget some of them we saw there and need our old noggins re-awakened to this info! Thanks! You guys had a truly great place for music, there in the 70’s!

  33. Amy says:

    Has there been any follow-up or new developments in the plans for this building since the 2017 posts? With the potential Maple Crossing redevelopment nearby this could be a perfect opportunity to revive this beautiful structure.

  34. David Allison says:

    Al: Do you remember the names of all of the partners – collaborators – in Middle Earth? Also interested in who took over after ME and returned it to the Ritz name for more music for a while. All of my ME information, contracts & posters went into the dumpster when I left Indy in 1976 or 77 for Alaska.

  35. Chris Hodapp says:

    Probably 30 years ago, my old boss told me that Wally Bruner and his wife Natalie (of ‘Wally’s Workshop’ fame) briefly installed their TV production studio in the empty Ritz building. That would have been in the mid- to late-1970s or so. Even though the building looked abandoned on the outside after Middle Earth closed, inside was a brand new, if primitive, studio. Wally was an interesting guy. He did Wally’s Workshop after being the host of What’s My Line?, and he was one of the very first heart transplant recipients in the world.

    By the 1980s, Wally relocated from the Ritz down to East Washington Street and Tacoma in a building the city knew as El Sol Mexican Restaurant, but behind the eatery was a full-sized production studio. After Wally’s Workshop went off the air, the Tacoma studio was opened up for hire to the many film and video production companies that flourished in Indianapolis in the 1980s and 90s.

    Up by the Ritz Theater was a little hotbed for the Indianpolis production community. In the 1960s, a film producer built a cinder block production studio just north of 34th Street across from the Crown Hill main gate. The other direction, over at 3445 Washington Blvd, Dean Crow Productions built a studio behind Reverend Cadle’s old Spanish hacienda mansion, and it was where two decades of HH Gregg, Waffle House, Hook Drug, and hundreds more commercials were shot.

    Between 34th and 38th up and down Washington Blvd. was a major hub of film and video production from about 1980 through the early 2000s, with four or five production companies, an editorial house, two sound studios, and a handful of art and advertising agencies. All gone now.

  36. Chris Hilt says:

    David,

    I was one of the partners that took over after ME. We returned it to The Ritz Theater and opened on a very, very cold mid-January night in 1972. Like you, I have none of the posters and contracts. I do have some tickets from a couple of the shows the ads in the Indy Star.

  37. Gloria Eley says:

    I live near the Ritz Theater, and it would be nice if an individual would buy the building and restore it. The building is for sale, but unfortunately falling apart. There is a lot of traffic on Illinos Street, and I do not want to hear the falling building falling on vehicles and hereby homes.

  38. Gloria Eley says:

    Contact the Indianapolis historical society, the indiana department of natural resources, and councilman Barth, on the Indianapolis City Connty Council.

  39. Mike says:

    Still hoping someone or ones will add all the info they have on which bands played on which dates at Middle Earth.
    Thanks!

  40. Lisa Williams says:

    I hung out and worked there when it was ME, ever so briefly, in 1970. It was a cool idea and brought in some important musicians.

  41. Ron Adams says:

    I am acquainted with one of the promoters of Middle Earth – he says Frank Zappa was hard to work with, lol. I like that they were still using the term “Burlesque” in the 1960s.

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