Ritz Theatre

36 Patio de Leon,
Fort Myers, FL 33901

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: E.J. Sparks Theatres, Florida State Theaters Inc.

Styles: Moorish, Streamline Moderne

Previous Names: Cout Theatre, Omar Theatre, Court Theatre, Little Playhouse Theater

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The Court Theatre - turned Omar turned Ritz turned Little Playhouse Theatre was a diminutive theater that served 50 years from 1914 to 1964 in an area known as Patio de Leon in Fort Myers. The building was razed at the terminus of a 50-year leasing cycle under protest by its final occupants, a plucky local theater troupe.

Two Michiganders, Peter and Henry Tonneller, reshaped downtown Fort Myers after moving their winter home from St. Petersburg in 1913. They had visited the city during a wind storm that forced them to take shelter within the fledgling community of around 2,500 residents. Seeing the potential, the Tonneliers acquired more than 50 parcels of land but deciding to move away from the wood framed, almost primitive architecture favored in the area to a more sturdy and progressive design.

One of their most ambitious plans was known as Tonnelier’s Court announced in 1913 that came along with the Hotel Leon and Annex that opened in 1913 at what is now 2232 First Street. These two projects are where this theater entry’s roots lie. Tonnelier’s Court Theatre was placed among a set of tightly placed businesses and services in a narrow stretch off of First Street. The Court Theatre along with the Grand Theatre and Arcade Theatre in 1917 were transitioning Fort Myers from a store-show era of movie exhibition to the first era of movie palaces.

Tonnelier’s Court Theatre opened on May 16, 1914 on a 50-year leasing agreement. The opening program featured the live act, Billy Lamont and his Banjo Girl, along with three reels of Mutual Studio films. The Court Theatre was filled to capacity on the main floor and balcony. But the Court Theatre had a serious design flaw that would absolutely need to be rectified in its redesign. Suffering from a lack of fire egresses with the safety of the balcony patrons a serious issue, the Court Theatre was closed for a refresh.

Hemmed in to Tonnelier Court in the manner that it was, a wise decision was made to remove the balcony while placing new fire exits within the complex. The stage was also removed in a compete gutting of the space performed by Claude F. Lee - an executive who had left Universal Studios, who remained close to the chain booking Universal films in his owned and operated theaters. Lee helped reimagine the venue as a full-time movie house.

The former Court Theatre would become the Moorish-styled Omar Theatre as a movie theatre designed in a new, second era of movie palaces whose design was more showy and atmospheric. Lee even built a walled, circular pool in front of the Omar and filled it with alligators and other creatures for effect. The Omar Theatre launched with a high visibility grand opening on March 29, 1926 with Reginald Denny in Universal’s “Skinners Dress Suit” and supported, of course, by the 1924 Universal Studio’s comedy short, “Omar Khayyam".

The Omar Theatre was all a part of the former Tolivier’s Court refresh into the Moroccan-themed, and renamed Patio de Leon that was still in existence 100 years later. But by 1930, Fort Meyers had grown to 9,000 residents and sound films had vanquished the silent medium. By any standard, the Omar Theatre was dated and at a competitive disadvantage due its diminutive size – at just 200 seats – and built for silent films. So after just three-plus years, the theatre was redesigned again.

Myron W. Booth had come in to operate Eddie James “E.J.” Sparks’ Arcade Theatre. With the Omar Theatre struggling financially to make the transition to sound, Sparks Theatre Circuit took on its operation overseeing another transition for the venue in 1930. The theatre was expanded somewhat with an entry and box office off of busy first street and a lit attractor for passersby to see. It had another box office and main entry in the Patio de Leon. The stage was removed and the venue now seated 350. That would be enough seats to recoup the transition to sound.

The Omar Theatre rebooted as the Ritz Theatre becoming a brighter, more streamlined atmospheric house. It was well designed for the 1930’s era of film exhibition and launched November 27, 1930 with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in “The Little Accident". But the theatre was rendered almost obsolete just over ten years later when the 600-seat Lee Theatre launched on August 27, 1941 and the 800-seat Edison Theatre opened on September 9, 1941. The Ritz Theatre was in trouble. Another issue was that while Patio de Leon was great for seasonal pedestrian, there was virtually no parking available near the Ritz Theatre – an issue as more citizens adopted cars.

When E.J. Sparks retired in 1941, the venue was in the hands of Florida State Theatres – the same folks within Sparks’ circuit and with very close ties to Paramount Pictures. Under Florida State Theatres' operation, the Ritz Theatre held on as a third-tier discount, double-feature grindhouse finally closing with Smiley Burnette in “Call of the Rockies” and Constance Moore in “Atlantic City” on November 26, 1944. The theatre sat vacant for the rest of the War but was then subleased thereafter to Fort Myer’s community theater. After a final refresh re-equipping it with a stage, the venue was rebranded as the Little Playhouse Theater with live plays.

The Little Theatre folks operated through the theatre’s 50th Anniversary and lease terminus. The film projection equipment remained, and sporadic films were offered between staging of plays. The theatre property was in the control of the Tonnelier Estate and they evicted the players at the lease’s end. When they fought the eviction, the City of Fort Myers had the last word condemning the building leading to its demolition in October and November of 1964. The last film presentation in the venue was Gregory Peck in “Gentleman’s Agreement” on March 22, 1964. Several plays followed that into early August. before the Playhouse closed permanently. The space was largely left open for wider pedestrian traffic and to reach parking more efficiently.

Contributed by dallasmovietheaters

Recent comments (view all 1 comments)

irvl on October 21, 2022 at 6:28 pm

I’m so pleased to find this thoroughly researched story on the Ritz Theatre. I lived in Fort Myers 1961-67 and visited the theatre once to see a live play named “Monique.” I remember the Ritz’s sign hung on First Street for many years after the movie theatre closed.

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