The balcony will sport a fresh set of seats, purchased from the Virginia Samford Theater in Birmingham, just in time for the New Year and the to-be-announced spring season.
“One of the things we’re focusing on — you’ve got to today — is patron comfort,” he said, as a new heating and air conditioning system will be installed soon as well. “You have to keep improving.”
The role is nothing new for the Munford native, who stepped down after a 12-year run as executive director at the theater in 2008 to run the Birmingham Children’s Theater. Culver was already on the way to giving Talladega’s small playhouse a national name even then, recruiting highly regarded names such as Diahann Carroll, who brought her show to town for its world premier.
“That’s how we built a national reputation,” Culver said of the theater’s efforts around the turn of the 21st century. But in the wake of the economic downturn, Culver has found himself, like many arts organizations, in a compromising financial position.
“It’s been a very inhospitable three or four years for nonprofit arts organizations,” Culver said. Seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel now, Culver’s new mission is focused on “fueling an effort to re-boot the organization, which we’ll do.”
In the meantime, the theater is welcoming the holidays with two upcoming music performances — the melodic Mary, Did You Know? which involves collaborative performances by area church choirs — happening Saturday; and the Heritage Hall Jazz Band’s The Colors of Christmas on Dec. 17.
Culver is also turning his attention to working with the youth in the community. The theater recently hosted an annual visit with directors from the Missoula Children’s Theater, where kids from the community audition, rehearse and stage a performance every year, and plans to stage a similar workshop with local high school students. The theater also works closely with the city’s museum Heritage Hall and other nonprofits and civic organizations.
“Anybody that wants to do anything in terms of performance or a public gathering — it’s at the Ritz!” Culver said. “It’s a vital locale for the region, and I intend to keep it that way.”
While Culver is intently focused on making the Ritz bigger and better, he does not feel in competition with the presence of other local theater and arts organizations, and would prefer to collaborate with area groups on bringing their shows out to Talladega once their local runs are finished.
“It gives them a new audience [and] it gives us a different kind of product,” he said. The Missoula Children’s Theater event also saw several children from Calhoun County audition, says Culver. “We reach out.”
Culver is ready to attack the future head on — and is ready to bring along others for the ride.
“The arts organizations in this recession have taken such a hit,” he said. “We all kind of said that we’re in this together, and that we all have a common vision, a common mission … to enhance the quality of life and the quality of place for our respective communities. If there’s a way we can positively and constructively work together, so be it.”
As 2012 approaches and guests are comfortably sitting in their revived balcony seats, Culver is hitting the ground running, ready to reclaim the venue as the premiere place for culture and entertainment.
“We’re gonna focus on the children and arts education, we’re gonna really put together some first-class, appealing seasons, and that we’re gonna really try to begin to make investments in the facility for future generations.
“If I could put it in a phrase,” he said, “the Ritz is back.”
Erin Williams is a graduate of Faith Christian School and the University of Alabama. She is a performing arts aide for the Washington Post Style section.