- Associated Press - Thursday, September 25, 2014

NATCHEZ, Miss. (AP) - A half-century after the last movie there, the Ritz Theater in downtown Natchez may be in line for a comeback.

Developer Charlie Watzke tells The Natchez Democrat (https://bit.ly/Y5BVKV) that he hopes to be working on it by New Year’s Day.

Historic Natchez Foundation official Mimi Miller says it’s the first time in nearly 12 years that a would-be developer has wanted to restore the building as a movie theater.

Through the years, several offers have been made, but none included restoring the structure back to its original function, she said.

“Our first desire has always been that the Ritz be a movie theatre and get its history back,” Miller said.

Earlier this year, foundation treasurer Dennis Switzer read an article in the Mississippi Business Journal about two brothers who were restoring a historic theater on the Gulf Coast. Switzer reached out to Watzke and his brother and convinced them to come to Natchez to see the Ritz.

To the delight of the foundation, the Watzkes expressed interest in the Ritz. Since then, Watzke’s brother has left the business, but Watzke said he remains excited about the Natchez project.

“I want to the restore (the Ritz) and bring it back to life,” Watzke said. “(Coming to Natchez) is the first thing on my agenda after we finish with our theater in Waveland.”

Watzke grew up in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and New Orleans. He said he hopes to have Waveland’s historic Choctaw Cinema finished within 45 days. The theater was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Watzke and his brother bought it last year.

He says they had to gut it and rip out moldy insulation.

When the Choctaw Cinema is complete, the theater will have four screens and run first-run movies. Added attractions will include a candy counter, cocktail lounge and dinner theater space, Watzke said.

Plans for the Ritz have not been finalized, but will probably have similar amenities. It will more than likely include a dinner theater courtyard and separate interior theater space, Watzke said.

The Ritz Theater was first opened in December 1935 by Louis Fry, of Natchez, and Laz Abraham, of Port Gibson.

Miller said Watzke’s interest is “the first glimmer of hope that (the Ritz) can be restored to its original use.”

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Information from: The Natchez Democrat, https://www.natchezdemocrat.com/

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