Strand Theatre

The Strand Theater (UNF Library)

H.S. Walker’s Strand Amusement Company opened the Strand Theater on June 12, 1915 to a crowd of patrons at 701 West Ashley Street. Opening night entertainment was provided by the Russell-Owens Stock Company. In addition, the night featured an orchestra lead under the direction of former A.G. Allen Minstrel Company bandleader King Philips.

The Strand was known as one of the earliest examples of a theatre utilizing multimedia integration. However, by 1916, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads were already successfully drawing LaVilla residents and black workers away from Jacksonville due to the negative social effects of Jim Crow laws.

Despite the area’s changing economic demographics, the Strand became one of the original theaters on the Theatrical Owners Booking Agency (T.O.B.A.) circuit. After the opening of the Ritz Theatre in 1929, the Strand’s era as LaVilla’s main vaudeville theatre came to an end.

Eventually, the 900-seat, one screen theatre was converted into a motion-pitcure house and operated by National Theatre Enterprises. The Strand was closed down in December 1968 after National Theatre Enterprises failed to renew its lease. Less than a year later, the building was demolished in November 1969 after suffering significant fire damage.

Frolic Theatre

Sanborn map illustrating the location of the Frolic (741 W. Ashley) and Strand (701 W. Ashley) theatres.

The Frolic Theatre opened in 1925 and was owned and operated by Gus Seligman. Featuring a single screen with a seating capacity of 1,000, the Frolic Theatre was said to be the largest and best equipped colored motion picture theatre in the south. Located at 741 West Ashley Street, the brick theatre was situated just west of the Knights of Phythias Hall, between Madison and Jefferson Streets. During its heyday, the Frolic was known for serving up a consistent mix of programming. For example, in October 1927, a private screening of the “Moon of Israel” was held for 183 ministers, principals, and school teachers in order to use their influence to further interests of the picture. This film was followed up by a showing of Oscar Micheaux’s film “The Millionaire,” after it was sent from Ben Stein’s Douglass Theatre in Macon, GA. The Frolic survived 25 years before closing in 1950. Once home to the Frolic and its neighborhoods, this long lost block of LaVilla’s Great Black Way is now the site of the LaVilla School for the Arts.

Roosevelt Theatre

*1949 Sanborn map illustrating the location of the Roosevelt Theatre at 818 West Ashley Street.

Opened in 1949, the Roosevelt Theatre was located at 818 West Ashley Street. Anchoring the west side of the entertainment strip that was also known as the “Great Black Way,” the Roosevelt was home to one screen and had a seating capacity of 1,150. Surrounded by several retail shops facing Ashley, Madison, Church, and Davis Streets, the theatre included a 24’ tall entrance and balcony overlooking a 34’ high stage area. Like most of LaVilla, the Roosevelt only exists in our memories. Long demolished before the redevelopment of LaVilla during the 1990s, the site is now the location of the LaVilla School of the Arts.

The LaVilla School of the Arts was built on the former site of the Roosevelt Theatre.

Ritz Theatre

In September of 1929, Neil Witschen opened the Ritz Theater at the corner of State and Davis Streets, just a few blocks north of Ashley Street. Designed in the Art Deco style by local architect Jefferson Powell, the one screen, 970 seat theatre quickly became LaVilla’s primary performance venue and an important stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

The Chitlin’ Circuit was the collective name given to a series of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the country that were safe and acceptable for African American entertainers to perform in during segregation. Other notable venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit were the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.

After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Ritz lost the support of the declining community around it and closed. As a part of Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance Plan, the theatre was partially demolished and renovated into a new theatre and museum. The new Ritz Theatre opened on September 30, 1999.

Article by Kristen Pickrell and Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at