In Akron, there are buildings which are precious to us because of what they represent. These structures’ architecture may be unremarkable, but their location, purpose or story mark them out for recognition. One such building is the Interbelt Nite Club.
Long before it became The Interbelt, it was The Ritz Theatre. It was built in 1948 by the Howe Construction Company of Cuyahoga Falls and designed by architect M. M. Konarski. When it opened in 1949, it was the first theatre designed for Akron’s Black community. Residents from all over the city would come to The Ritz to enjoy entertainment created by and for African Americans. It was also the only theatre in Akron that wasn’t segregated.
Ads from 1955 in the Ohio Informer, Akron’s Black newspaper, show a line-up of mostly western films. Some were re-releases of well known Hollywood productions like Humphrey Bogart’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” but many others were Black productions featuring all-Black casts like Louis Jordan’s “Look-Out Sister.” When the theater opened, it had contracts to show films featuring Black artists such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, patrons could catch the All-American News newsreel, the first national newsreel created for Black Americans. The Chicago production featured reports on Black inventors, Black entertainment and current events specific to Black communities.
The venue also had live entertainment. Live shows included musicians, vaudeville acts and stand-up comedians. Moms Mabley, B.B. King, Della Reese, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thorton and Bull Moose Jackson all performed at The Ritz. Early rock and roll acts like The Dominoes also appeared regularly before this new genre became a national sensation.
The Ritz was the crowning achievement of Howard Street, the commercial and entertainment heart of Akron’s Black community. Unfortunately, it only stayed in business until 1955. By then, the Akron Armory was booking the rock and roll acts who drew crowds too large for the 800-seat Ritz. Also, more and more Akronites were staying home to watch television for free instead of going to the movies.
But the building survived. For a time it was a roller skating rink, an office and even a house of worship. Urban renewal projects between the 1960s and 1980s destroyed Howard Street landmarks and turned the once-thriving cultural strip into empty lots, but the old Ritz remained. The ill-planned Innerbelt roadway project spared it as well, thanks to partial ownership of the building by an electric company.
In 1988, Vernon Baker opened The Interbelt Nite Club, now known as one of Akron’s oldest nightlife venues for the LGBTQ+ community. Once again, the building provided a safe and welcoming space for another marginalized group. The Interbelt also carried on the legacy of hosting the latest trends in musical entertainment. The sounds of techno, electronica, rap and hip-hop have all been heard and danced to within its walls. Today, the club hosts weekly drag shows and theme nights.
The Interbelt’s importance is not tied to its architecture, but to what it represents. When it opened it was a symbol of empowerment for Akron’s Black community. The building’s survival makes it possible to tell the history and stories of that community on Howard St., as well as discuss the urban renewal projects which targeted it. It must also be recognized for its role in Akron’s LGBTQ+ history, and its continued significance for that community.
So, while it may not look like much, The Interbelt happens to be one of downtown Akron’s most notable historic structures.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist and a photographer. Right now she is all about wearing a mask, washing her hands, and keeping her distance. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.