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Ode to the Ritz

| Sunday, April 29, 2007

It's almost impossible to overestimate the value of a movie theater in a small town, suggests Freeport native Gay Revi.

"It's a place to meet and greet, a place to laugh or cry together, a place to feed our fantasies, a way to be challenged by new ideas," Revi says. "Sitting on a couch in front of a TV can't match the excitement and stimulation that comes from getting with friends to watch a movie together, and then talk about it afterward."

Revi and fellow members of Freeport Area Historical Society and friends are hoping to strike up the conversation again, decades after the last film flickered in the late 1950s on the screen of the Ritz Theater, the borough's only movie house.

Like many of the communities throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley that once housed a cinema, the Ritz, believed to have opened in the early 1900s, provided generations of memories for residents.

Revi, the Web master, and the society have launched a Ritz historical Web site in hopes of keeping those memories alive forever: www.peanutheaven.net .

The site takes its name from the balcony section of the Ritz, which was known as Peanut Heaven. In the early 1950s, an admission ticket to one of these relatively posh, padded seats could cost as much as 30 cents.

Unpadded, hard seats in the front rows, where children were expected to sit, were 14 cents. Lightly padded seats in the rows in front of Peanut Heaven were 20 cents.

Those who log on to the Web site are invited to:

• Read and share their stories about the theater and movies they saw there, including their first and worst films.

• Learn more about Freeport native son Don Taylor, actor-director who hitchhiked to Hollywood in 1942 and became a star. Among his work, which likely would have been screened at the Ritz, are his wartime films with John Wayne; Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" with William Holden; 1950's "Father of the Bride," in which he played Elizabeth Taylor's husband; the 1948 film noir "The Naked City," in which he was a young detective; and 1951's "Father's Little Dividend," a comedy with Spencer Tracy.

• Peruse a movie database to refresh their recollections.

• And, what the society believes might prove to be most intriguing, search for and help identify relatives and other people and locations in a gallery of 208 photographs that were taken by a professional photographer who came to Freeport in 1926. In the days before "talkies," these photos were shown on the Ritz's screen before the movie began and during intermission.

The photos were painstakingly scanned late last year and early this year by Revi and her husband, Ben, from glass slides loaned to them by Clyde Leri, of Freeport.

Leri discovered them when he bought the closed theater building in about 1962 to use for his contractor business. It was in the decommissioned Ritz where Leri built much of the playground equipment, including the Rocket Ship and the former miniature railroad, for Freeport Community Park.

Through the years, he borrowed an old projector to show the glass slides to civic organizations.

Leri, who will be 81 in June and who still lives next door to the former Ritz location at Market and High streets, across from Freeport Fire Department, recalls that a Tom Mix movie probably was the first one he saw there.

"We would go once a week, stand out in front and wait for somebody to give us pennies to get in," he says though laughter. (Revi, now a resident of Texas, remembers cashing in pop bottles for a movie ticket.)

In 2005, when his son Dan Leri, who lives in the State College area, discovered the online activities of the Freeport Historical Society, including Revi's ode to Freeport , Dan felt inspired. He contacted Revi.

"I knew the person behind the Web site work had to be a passionate individual who viewed the documenting, archiving and publication of the history of Freeport as a ministry," Dan says. "It occurred to me the Ritz Theater glass slide collection that my father carefully preserved all these years may be a wonderful addition to the collection of historical assets of Freeport."

Equally important, he believes, evolving technologies offered a way to preserve and distribute the photos to people who might be able to identify Freeport's ancestors in the collection.

"I'd like to see the people who belong to the people in those photos ending up getting those pictures," Clyde says. Dan hopes that people can experience the emotions the photos evoke.

They would like to see print copies of the slides distributed to Freeport Library, the borough office, Freeport senior center and high-rise, churches and other organizations in the Freeport area to encourage identification of the photos.

(Anyone who would like to have the entire collection of slides on a CD can send a donation of $25 to: Slides, Freeport Historical Society, Box 107, Freeport, Pa, 16229. The society is raising funds to transform a Fifth Street building, donated by Evangel Heights Assembly of God, into a museum and meeting room. The society's Web site was created by Frank Craig.

Dan also would like to determine whether oral stories (similar to the model of the Story Corps ) could be gathered and linked to individuals identified in the photos. "I would like to see the oral stories project taken on by a passionate high school teacher at Freeport to determine if interested students could do all or parts of the project as part of their course work. Such projects are rated very highly by most colleges as part of an entrance criteria," he says.

Revi was excited at the opportunity to preserve the photos and immediately volunteered to assume the undertaking and, eventually, created the Ritz Web site. "She was the true catalyst for the Ritz project," Dan says.

"My husband Ben and I were astounded when we opened the box of slides and started looking at them. What treasures: an immediate glimpse into the past," Revi says. "When we put the pictures onto the Web site, we deliberately chose to let them flicker as they come into view, almost as though they are ghosts shyly emerging from the past to tell us about themselves." (She can be reached via e-mail )

Each time he looks at the photos, Dan says, he has a deep sense of appreciation. "It is an appreciation for the town our ancestors built, for the sense of community that was built and maintained through very hard times," he says.

"This is an important step to re-establishing the connection between the past and present generations."

The people in the photos helped build Freeport, Revi reminds. "Keeping alive their memory honors them, their hard work and their dedication to building a community," she says.


Ritz memories

In its day, recalls Al "Gege" Petri, The Ritz Theater was "The" place for entertainment in Freeport.

"It was Technicolor, Cinemascope, new movies twice a week, double features, refreshments and a place where all ages and genders could go," recalls the Freeport native who now lives in Moon. Petri graduated from Freeport High School in 1961.

During the grade-school years, he and his friends would act out the movie they saw. "We played cowboys and Indians, war, sword fights and the like, but no mushy stuff. No sir, not in that phase," he recalls, laughing.

They cheered when John Wayne and the Calvary came over the hill on the Ritz screen, shouted warnings to Roy Rogers and the other good guys to "Look out!" and laughed from their bellies when Francis the Talking Mule did something funny.

Then, Petri adds, the "adolescence or the hormone years" arrived. "We still hung out with our group, but we started to stray on occasion, and would enter the Ritz a little cautious with a girl, and try and sit where our buddies couldn't see us. Thank God for Peanut Heaven!"

With dating, moviegoing also became more expensive, he says. "Two soft seat tickets were 50 cents, and don't forget we were now feeding two," he says, laughing again. "But a buck still went a long way. All in all, a pretty good era."

It certainly was in his era, too, recalls Paul Blystone, 84, a 1940 graduate of Freeport High School now residing in Hayes, Va. "We had lots of fun then, although most of us were sure not rich. It didn't take a lot of money to have fun. It may make some of the folks now appreciate the things they take for granted and realize how lucky they are."

Marlene Osheskie, of Allegheny Township, who was 10 in 1953 when her family moved from Freeport, remembers her aunt giving her and her cousin 19 cents on Monday evenings to go to the movie: 14 cents for the movie and five cents for a candy bar from a machine. "I can remember counting down the rows to the hard seats, which is where our ticket prices entitled us to sit." she says.

Nancy Reeser, 73, of Buffalo Township, a 1951 graduate of Freeport High School, recalls those hard seats "and sticky floors" well. "My parents did not permit me to sit in Peanut Heaven," she says.

Joe Wesolosky of Louisville, Ky., grew up in Freeport on Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis and Ma and Pa Kettle movies in the mid-1950s. "Where else could you get an evening's entertainment for 14 cents?" he asks.

Robert "Pat" Ralston, of Freeport, saw his movies for free at the Ritz in 1955 and 1956. He was an usher, making $2 per show. "I saw 'Student Prince' so many times that I memorized every lyric to very song in the movie," he recalls.


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