Philly art-house theater Ritz at the Bourse closes

Earlier this month, Ritz at the Bourse management delivered this statement to moviegoers: “We regret to inform you that the Ritz at the Bourse is closing. Thank you for your continued patronage and we look forward to serving you at the Ritz East and the Ritz Five.” The message relayed the last showings would be on Jan. 26, and the theatre officially would close on Jan. 31. 

It was a disheartening loss for cinephiles, who saw LGBT films, documentaries and independent features at the venue for three decades. 

Art-house theaters become centers of the local community, especially in cities like Philadelphia that have a rich history of LGBTQ culture.

The art-house cinema opened Sept. 19, 1990, under the aegis of Posel Management, which owned the Ritz Theater. Four films unspooled — yes, back in 1990, celluloid was projected — on five screens: “Metropolitan,” “White Hunter, Black Heart,” “Jesus of Montreal,” and out gay filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli’s 1982 screen adaptation of Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

Landmark bought the three Ritz Theatres in 2007. In December 2018, Landmark sold the Ritz chain to Cohen Media. The future of the Bourse is pending; there are whispers it may reopen.

However, the closing of a cinema in general, and an art house in particular, is cause for alarm. In this day and age of streaming and “dine-in” theaters, with IMAX and heated seats, the art house holds a special status. The Bourse has long been a place where queer films thrived. Documentaries, like the classic “Paris Is Burning,” screened back in 1990 to packed houses. “Boys Life,” a collection of three short gay films, played at the theatre in 1994. Queer Film Festivals at the Bourse screened the films of out gay directors Todd Verow and Marco Berger, among many others; their work would never play Philadelphia otherwise.

Out gay filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” will have the distinction of being the last image to flicker on the theater’s screens. 

Film critic Carrie Rickey, observed, “For LGBT as well as straight moviegoers, theaters like the Bourse offered films off the beaten track. Now we’ll have five fewer screens — and opportunities — to see Almodóvar and Céline Sciamma films.”

One of the highlights of the Bourse’s programming was its Midnight Madness program, which, of course, included regular screenings of camp classic, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Robert Drake, the out gay host and producer at WXPN-FM and longtime art film fan, said that, “The amazing TNP – Philly’s Own Rocky Horror Cast were just about to mark their seventh anniversary at the Bourse location. It offered a community of fans a gathering spot week after week.” The Midnight Program moves over to the Ritz East starting Jan. 31; the next “Rocky Horror” screening will be Feb. 21.

The idea of community that Drake mentions is essential to seeing films on a big screen in a theater. Out gay filmmaker Lucio Castro, whose queer romance, “End of the Century,” played at the Bourse last year, acknowledged, “Watching movies has historically been a communal experience. The film’s soul is suspended in the darkness of the room and sensed by the strangers that have physically convened to witness these lights flickering. Any threat to this experience is sad news.”

Jesse Cute, a longtime film publicist at Allied Global Marketing, echoed the idea of community, “It is such an important part of the moviegoing experience for everyone — and that includes LGBTQ audiences who find comfort in the ‘it’s OK to be me’ environment places like the Bourse provide. Queer content has had a home at Ritz Theatres, so losing some of our art houses is troublesome.” 

Last year, Cute brought out gay filmmaker Michael Engler to the Bourse for a screening of “Downtown Abbey.” 

Filmmaker talkbacks were essential to the Bourse’s mission. 

Trans writer and director Kimberly Reed, who did Q&As at the Bourse when her documentary “Dark Money,” played in Philadelphia in 2018, acknowledged, “Our screenings became organizing rallies for campaign finance reform, and showings of ‘Prodigal Sons’ became something like group therapy sessions for LGBTQ folks. Art-house theaters become centers of the local community, especially in cities like Philadelphia that have a rich history of LGBTQ culture.”

Out gay filmmaker Rodney Evans, concurred, “The Bourse gave us the opportunity to have a weeklong run of ‘Vision Portraits’ and engage with Philadelphia audiences in person for Q&As moderated by knowledgeable critics and filmmakers. This probably wouldn’t have happened without the Ritz on the Bourse available to us as a venue.”

Out gay writer and director Ira Sachs, whose film “Frankie” screened at the Bourse a few months ago, added, “Without the exhibitor, it becomes harder and harder for queer films, foreign films, avant-garde and truly independent cinema to find audiences — or income. As filmmakers, we are part of an ecosystem that relies on the art-house movie theater, and so when we lose a cinema like the Bourse, the impact is immediate and devastating.”

While filmmakers suffer, so too, do the passionate moviegoers. Natalie Hope McDonald, an out gay journalist and fine artist, recalled the importance a theatre like the Bourse had for her, “One of the first perks of moving to Philly from a small town 20 years ago was being able to see independent, foreign and art-house films so easily. In fact, until I physically moved to the city, it wasn’t unusual for me to drive an hour and half one way just to see a movie, like ‘I Shot Andy Warhol,’ at the Ritz.” 

Brad Windhauser, a queer professor in the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program at Temple University, also had fond memories of seeing key films at the Bourse. He reminisced, “When the buzz surrounds a queer film, I have to see it. And in 2009, when ‘A Single Man’ finally debuted in Philly, I was fortunate to be able to walk a few blocks to see this lush story on a big screen. An indie film, the movie did not play in the multiplexes, which is insulting, because the content then discouraged larger chains from screening it. But in that darkened Ritz theater, the film unspooling was a light of hope that our lives were breaking through to the mainstream — and so exquisitely rendered.”

Likewise, William Way Executive Director Chris Bartlett effused, “The Bourse has played a key role as a venue for the viewing of LGBTQ and other outside-the-mainstream films. I remember seeing “Milk,” the Harvey Milk biopic, at that theater in 2008. We were all lined up on Ranstead Street waiting to get in. It was such an experience of community and excitement — knowing we would get to see our story, finally, told. The Bourse is part of a legacy of queer-friendly art-house theaters where we could see films that might not show up at other theaters. I’ll miss the cozy feeling of descending that escalator to enter into our dreams.”

But all may not be lost with the closing of the Bourse. J. Andrew Greenblatt, executive director of the Philadelphia Film Society, emphasized the need to keep cinemas alive.

“We love the Bourse and theaters in general — and we wholeheartedly believe in the theatrical experience. We are committed to preserving the theatrical experience as we did with the Roxy and expanding the Philadelphia Film Center. We want more theaters in Philadelphia, not less.”