Heritage, 2010, Volume 4 Page: 10
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hose are the memories that endure. Thankfully,
they trump the memories of kids growing up
and never coming back, of going-out-of-busi-
ness sales, and a town square dying a slow death.
So it wasn't hard for Hatch to imagine on a
sultry night in August of 2004 what Wellington could be
like if people cared again, if they had something to hope
for once more. On that night, something magical happened
for him and the hundreds who gathered in front of the old
Ritz Theater. Local preservationists had recently acquired
the old building in hopes of at least saving it from the wreck-
ing ball. Restoration of the neon sign and marquee, they
decided, would be a great way to jumpstart a community
fundraising campaign. They threw a community block par-
ty on the same weekend as the annual ex-student reunion,
and a sizable crowd gathered on the brick streets in front of
the theater to witness something they hadn't seen in years.
At dusk, the crowd counted backwards from 10, and as the
count wound down, the big red vertical sign spelling out R-
I-T-Z electrified the darkening sky in blazing neon glory for
the first time in more than two decades. Bill Hatch knew
instantly the game had changed for the town. "It feels like
Wellington is alive again," he said to those standing near
him, nearly drowned out by the cheering of the crowd.
It's quite possible Hatch's hunch was, and might be, true.
The lighting of the Ritz Theater sign in 2004 was the kick-
off for a campaign to rebuild and restore not only a ruined
Wellington icon, but the heart of the town itself. By the time
of its 2007 grand re-opening, the Ritz had lifted the town's
spirits just enough to make folks want a little more than
what they were accustomed to expect.
With a population hovering around 2,200, Wellington is
a Great Plains survivor. The annual Miss Wellington beauty
pageant offers proof that the girls are still pretty. Cotton
prices are high this year, and the crops look good. But there's
still something not quite right. Almost all the retail
establishments on the courthouse square-the dry goods
stores, hardware stores, grocery stores-are all mostly gone
now. Downtown's brick streets and striking art deco court-
house are still alluring, but it's a rare thing to get stepped on
by someone crowding too close.
This isn't the future the pioneers envisioned. The town
was founded around 1890 as the first county seat of the new-
ly organized Collingsworth County, located in the south-
eastern Texas Panhandle. Town promoters named their new
city for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, as a
way to curry favor with what was then the county's largest
landowner, the British-owned Rocking Chair Ranch. They
intended for Wellington to grow and prosper as a hub city
for ranching and farming interests.
As the Rocking Chair broke up in the latter part of the
19th century and the British moved on, hundreds of farm
families hunting for greener pastures began to migrate from
north Texas into Collingsworth. Eventually, the Wichita
Falls and Northwestern Railway reached Wellington, fol-
lowed in the early 1930s by the Fort Worth and Denver
Northern Railway. Farmers could now ship cotton, wheat,
and cattle to far-off markets and make more than just a
meager living. Just before the Great Depression, the town's
population peaked near 3,500, and the county population
was more than 14,000. A family lived on and worked almost
every quarter section of land in the county.
In 1928, when Judge R.H. Templeton decided to build
the finest movie theater and vaudeville house in the Pan-
handle, he couldn't have foreseen a looming Depression, a
Dust Bowl, or a world war that would trigger a long de-
cline in the town's fortunes. What he saw was a growing
town warranting a ritzy picture palace that would
eclipse the little storefront movie shows that dotted the
He designed a Mission-style theater faced in gold and red
bricks and dubbed it the Ritz Theater. Inside, a gilded pro-
scenium arch framed a stage that looked out onto an audito-
rium and balcony seating more than 500 people. Out front,
stairways cascaded down from the beautifully appointed
mezzanine and emptied into the brightly tiled lobby. Moms
with unruly children or crying babies could dart
into a crying room in back of the auditori-
S um and watch movies through a large plate
Important men from Hollywood showed
up before the grand opening in April
/ 1929 to install Movietone and
V taphone sound systems.
Left: Judge R.H. Templeton built the
,< . Mission-style Ritz Theater in Wellington
in 1928. Opposite: The ticket booth at
Y, the restored Ritz.
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, 2010, Volume 4, periodical, 2010; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth254219/m1/10/: accessed April 26, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.