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The Virginian Filled Arts Niche for Sarasota

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - The Virginian Filled Arts Niche for Sarasota photo

Sarasota in the 1910s was a small town in a state of transition. The population had nearly doubled in a few short years as more people were discovering the area. Investment in the downtown area was on the rise. Some of the people arriving in Sarasota between 1910 and 1919 that spurred this investment on were Mrs. Bertha Palmer and family, John and Charles Ringling, Owen Burns, John F. Burket, E.J. Bacon, Francis Walpole and Calvin Payne. As Sarasota grew, the need for a theater or opera house became apparent.

Sarasota's first "movie house" was a large tent that would be set up on an empty lot on Main Street beginning in 1910. An outfit from Bradenton would come down weekly to set up the show. Although this was a profitable enterprise, it was far from ideal.

With the building of the Palms Hotel and Theatre in 1912, Sarasota had its first true building for plays and movies. However, a fire destroyed the Palms Hotel/Theatre in 1915. The other movie theater was in the Hover Arcade but it closed when the city of Sarasota bought the building for use as City Hall.

With these two events, Sarasota was left without a theater. Within a few months of the Palm Hotel fire, a new structure was begun by B.D. Robinson that would replace the hotel/theater. Robinson saw the need for an opera house type building in Sarasota and had the Virginian Theatre built in 1915-1916. Robinson leased the Virginian to a movie chain and G.C. Koons was hired as first manager of the theater. The Virginian opened on March 21, 1916, with great fanfare. Performing for the opening were the Sarasota Minstrels.

The Sarasota Minstrels, headed by Dr. Jack Halton, performed with his group in blackface. Members of the group included Dr. Joe Halton, John Burket and Jake Chapline. The theater held 800 people, but it was estimated that more than that attended the performance that night.

The Sarasota Times reported on March 23, 1916, that "The Virginian and its owner have left nothing undone that would add to the convenience or attractiveness of the interior or to the safety of the audience."

The Virginian opened on Monday night, April 10, 1916, as a "moving picture theatre" with its' first movie show. The public was invited to attend free of charge.

According to Karl Grismer's "The Story of Sarasota," "the main feature was the five-reeler Jimmy Valentine. As an extra attraction, the first installment of a nationally-known thriller was shown - The Strange Case of Mary Page."

The Sarasota Times reported on April 13, 1916, that "the management showed a liberality that is seldom seen in matters of this kind and that was they gave two performances free to all who came. Both films proved to be ahead of the everyday films that have appeared in Sarasota. Koons told the Times Tuesday that it was the management's intentions to show nothing but the best films and that all the feature plays would show in Sarasota before they appear in Jacksonville."

The Virginian changed names in the early 1920s, becoming the Sarasota Theater. It later became known as the Ritz Theatre in the 1930s and continued to operate until it closed in the mid 1960s.