By BRENNA GRITEMAN
TIFFIN — In the age of digital streaming and abbreviated attention spans, some say the art of going to the theater is being lost.
Not on my watch, says Michael Strong.
As executive director of the historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Tiffin, Strong has spent the past 14 years working to assure theater culture thrives among all ages and demographics in northwest Ohio. The Ritz is known for bringing top-notch entertainment across a broad spectrum, and for its efforts it attracts eager audiences from Findlay, Toledo, Lima and beyond.
The 2018-19 season is no exception, with such famous names as Blue Oyster Cult, The Righteous Brothers, Michael McDonald and Sara Evans leading the lineup.
Niche performances by classical and jazz musicians help round out the more mainstream rock and country names on the marquee, with community theater and local dance troupes having their turn as well. This is, after all, a beloved theater situated in the heart of a tight-knit community.
“International stars to stars in your family. You can see almost anything here,” Strong says.
He believes theater should be available for the masses, and not the more traditional customer of a certain age and income bracket. The Ritz welcomes college students to show up 30 minutes before any performance, where they’ll be treated to a $5 ticket — no matter the headliner. The 35-year-old community theater group The Ritz Players draws families and friends of all ages to its four productions a year; and the theater’s resident trideaDANCE company regularly auditions and highlights local dancers. Once a month, the Ritz hearkens back to its earliest iteration and screens a $3 classic film, complemented by $3 bags of popcorn.
“It’s important that everyone has a chance to do something,” says Strong, adding for some that might mean starring in a community play. For others, that means buying a ticket, getting dressed up and taking their seat in the main house or the balcony. No matter what draws them in, he just wants the theater to be the kind of place where a couple looking for something to do on the weekend says, “Let’s go see what’s going on at the Ritz.”
That includes audiences from Findlay. While Strong says the Ritz does compete with theaters in Toledo like the Valentine or the Stranahan, the programming at Findlay’s Marathon Center for the Performing Arts works as a nice complement to what’s being offered in Tiffin.
“They are doing a different sort of flavor with their programming,” Strong says of MCPA.
Strong has worked in the theater business for over 30 years, having held a similar position in New York. A clear job perk is that he gets to see every act that he books. Some of his favorite shows at the Ritz have included Chicago, one of his favorite rock bands growing up, and the acoustic Peter Frampton tour a few years ago, which carried a friendly, living room vibe.
Looking ahead to the coming season, he says there’s not a bad act in the bunch: “There’s nothing on the list that I go, ‘eh, maybe I’ll leave early that night.'”
The Roots & Boots tour, featuring Aaron Tippin, Sammy Kershaw and Collin Raye, will be at the Ritz on Nov. 2. Brenda Lee, famous for the 1960 tune “I’m Sorry” and 1958’s “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree,” will present a Christmas concert on Dec. 22. And Here Come The Mummies, an eight-piece funk-rock band of 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies, will play April 20.
“It’s fun to see the different crowds that come out for the different shows,” Strong says, adding seeing kids in the audience is especially enjoyable.
Strong also has the pleasure of reporting to work every day in a regal, 90-year-old building.
“I mean, look around. … It’s gold and Italian Renaissance and rich and lavish. It’s a pretty cool place,” Strong says from his second-floor office.
The Ritz was originally built as a movie theater in 1928 and flourished for about 50 years, until the advent of shopping mall cinemas pushed it into bankruptcy. The building was sold at a sheriff’s auction in 1980 and reopened as a community theater. A major renovation from 1996-98 returned the theater to its roots, though the struggle to reclaim its original glory remained.
“We came within 90 minutes of closing in 2006,” Strong says, adding a press conference had been scheduled to announce the theater’s closure. At the last minute, five of the seven banks that were owed money wrote off most of the theater’s $2.7 million debt, and staff occasionally went without a paycheck so the electric bill could get paid.
Slowly but surely, the Ritz made a miraculous recovery.
In keeping with the unified look of many of Tiffin’s downtown establishments, the theater’s outside walls were tuckpointed several years ago. The roof was sealed with a protective, elastomeric coating last summer. But many of the structure’s original charms remain.
Technical and production manager Corey Zech knows every inch of the theater, and points to the old ticket booth in the outer lobby as a favorite bit of nostalgia among guests. Also highly favored are the four 30-foot-high murals in the main house, painted to resemble statues one might find in a Greek garden. A 1,200-pound chandelier, made of 20,000 Czechoslovakian crystal pieces, hangs from an atmospheric dome of sky blue.
Leading the way up a marble staircase to the balcony, Zech explains he came to Tiffin from Cincinnati to attend Heidelberg University, where he fell in love with the theater. He began volunteering at the Ritz in 2011 and gained formal employment in 2016. Last fall, he was married on the theater’s stage.
Zech’s job includes everything from running the theater’s original moviehouse projectors to handling all aspects of a performer’s visit to the Ritz, from the time of their contract signing to their tour bus pulling away from the parking lot. This includes arranging for hotel stays and advancing meals, among other tasks.
“Other than paying them, I take care of everything,” he says.
In keeping things professional, Zech says there is no time for “fangirling” over a particular performer. He, too, gets to see every show that goes on at the Ritz, and counts Clint Black and The Charlie Daniels Band as some of his favorites.
Zech is also responsible for monitoring lighting and sound throughout the theater, a task that occasionally puts him at odds with a little-known theater inhabitant: Gus the Ghost.
When a particular light kept going out in the balcony, Zech checked it daily and found there was no fault in the bulb or its wiring. As was the case with many other unexplained instances, Gus took the blame.
“He likes to mess with me with that stuff,” Zech says with a shrug.
Tickets for theater subscribers go on sale July 9, with new subscriptions available July 23. Flex packages (three or more shows) go on sale July 30, and single-ticket sales start Aug. 6.