Most of you won’t recognize the name Ray Posel, so I’ve excerpted heavily from a great piece that ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer (its well worth reading in its entirety—I would link to it, but you need a login). I only know him only through a handful of phone conversations, legend, and his terrific theatres (to which this Southern Jersey shore lad would trek to regularly come summertime), so I leave things to someone who knew Ray well.
By Carrie Rickey
INQUIRER MOVIE CRITIC
Ramon L. Posel, the film showman and real estate developer who cultivated community at his Ritz Theaters and shopping malls across the region, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer at his New York apartment. He was 77.
A tenacious man with the physical presence of Russell Crowe, the intellectual force of William Rehnquist, and a pompadour that looked good only on him and Ronald Reagan, Mr. Posel gave the impression that he could outmuscle any comer.
When naysayers told him he’d lose his shirt trying to bring quality retail to North Philadelphia or quality movies to Center City, he persevered, turning a forlorn parcel into the bustling Station Center at 2900 N. Broad St., and the Ritz Five into a local chain that Sony Pictures executive Tom Bernard ranks as “one of the best in the country.”
In 29 years, the Ritz has become as irreplaceable a Philadelphia cultural institution as the Museum of Art. “He revolutionized the moviegoing experience in the region and developed the audience,” said Juliet Goodfriend, president of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
Robert Frost thought that good fences make good neighbors; Ray Posel thought good theaters make good neighborhoods.
In the days before 1976, Philadelphia was a film wasteland with a handful of derelict movie houses. That Bicentennial summer, Mr. Posel built the Ritz Three (now the Ritz Five) on Walnut Street near Second, developing an audience for independent and international cinema.
“Before the Ritz, I had to go to New York or Chicago to see art films,” said Bernard Watson, chair of the Barnes Foundation. The Ritz took Philadelphia from a film-illiterate burg into one of the five top-grossing American markets for off-Hollywood movies.
And in the multiplex age, when most new theaters sport a Naugahyde ‘n’ neon casino aesthetic, Mr. Posel took care to build chrome-and-halogen chapels with the streamlined elegance of an ocean liner. “Cunard Modern,” he called their style.
“He was very passionate about quality and taste, both in the physical facilities as well as the product,” said fellow developer Ron Rubin. Mr. Posel personally programmed the Ritzes – where She’s Gotta Have It, A Room With a View, and Pulp Fiction enjoyed long runs – developing a clientele who loved his theaters as much as the movies. It is not uncommon to see patrons buying a ticket to “whatever movie starts next.”
The son of Russian immigrants, he was born in August 1928 at Second and Morris Streets, next to the Lyric Theater, one of seven movie houses owned by his father. Mr. Posel had two theories about his moniker: Either his mother named him after matinee idol Ramon Novarro or could not spell Raymond.
Mr. Posel grew up watching movies in the family theaters, working his way up from cleaner to cashier to usher. By the time he was at Central High, where he was both a football and academic star, he was working in the projection booth. He preferred jazz clubs to movie houses, said his friend Arnold Roth, the political cartoonist.
As a youth, Mr. Posel dismissed movies because they lacked the resonance of novels. He studied English at Swarthmore, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1950 and on whose board he subsequently served, and at Columbia University, where he was awarded a master’s in 1951.
While attending Harvard Law School, he saw Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and was converted.
“People used to go to the movies as they now watch television – not to see something but to see anything. We’re trying to select… features for those who want to see something.”
“Ray was never motivated by the bottom line,” Rubin said. “He got pleasure in showing offbeat product in the best possible environment.”
The Ritz Five, which has a pre-feature slide show celebrating the work of area artists, premiered M. Night Shyamalan’s 1992 debut feature, Praying With Anger, and local filmmaker Susan Rosenberg’s experimental shorts. Mr. Posel hired local architects Bob Geddes for the Ritz Three (rechristened the Ritz Five in 1985) and Jerry Cope for the Bourse and Voorhees theaters.
Given its current status, it’s hard to believe that the first Ritz took seven years to turn a profit. By 1990, when Mr. Posel opened the Ritz at the Bourse, a chic art-plex at Fourth and Ranstead Streets, he had developed an audience so insatiable for independent films that the Bourse was in the black in less than a year.
He was vigilant about protecting the Ritz’s exclusivity, said Sony’s Bernard, who characterized him as a formidable negotiator.
Perhaps years of eluding extortion demands made swimming with movie sharks seem easy.One legend about Mr. Posel, confirmed as fact by two Philadelphia lawyers, is that in the 1970s when a New Jersey mobster told him to use the mobster’s vending machines or else, Mr. Posel looked him in the eye and shrugged, “You’ll just have to kill me.” The thug folded.
Hopefully someone will come along and carry the torch for Philly.