Ritz cinema founder Ramon L. Posel dies Posel's Ritz theaters made region a top art-film destination

Posted: June 24, 2005

Ramon L. Posel, 77, 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.

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.

Robert Frost thought that good fences make good neighbors; Ray Posel thought good theaters make good neighborhoods.

"Ray Posel was neighborhood transformation before there was a Neighborhood Transformation Initiative," said Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz. The author of The Paradox of Choice credits the developer for the vitality of both Society Hill - where the Ritz at the Bourse, the East, and the Five anchor the area residents refer to as "Ritzland" - and Voorhees, where the Sixteen and adjacent Ritz Center mall function as the village green.

From Northeast Philadelphia, where the Shops at Red Lion is among his many retail operations, to South Jersey, he had a touch for turning deserts into oases.

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, president 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, developing a clientele who loved his theaters as much as the movies.

He was a showman with the modesty of a sideman, favoring the human-scaled to the monumental.

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 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 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.

After earning his law degree, Mr. Posel returned to Philadelphia, joined the real estate division of the Wolf, Block legal firm, and married Nancy Robinson. They had three daughters, Anne, Ellen and Frances, on whom he doted.

Soon he tired of negotiating for others and became a developer himself. In 1964, he built his first theater on Bustleton Avenue, the Leo, named for his father.

After a decade in development, Mr. Posel indulged himself by creating a theater that showed worthwhile films. That was the Ritz Three, which opened in 1976 to great fanfare and few customers. The back of every ticket bore Mr. Posel's philosophy, which he admitted cribbing from an unremembered source:

"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.

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.

Mr. Posel's implacability in the face of the Roxy, a rival art house, resulted in the latter's 1993 suit against Miramax Pictures for giving the Ritz preferential treatment. The jury found in favor of the Roxy and in 1997 awarded it $159,780 in damages.

His first marriage ended in divorce. In the late '60s he married Dorothea Lynch. They established their primary residence in Sarasota, Fla., where he watched birds and read.

According to Mike Dean, a Wolf, Block lawyer and a longtime friend, "Ray faced his last days with great dignity and courage, and without self-pity."

"Ray was a man of substance who spoke quietly," Schwartz said. "When he walked into a room, the room changed."

And when he came into a neighborhood, the neighborhood changed.

Mr. Posel is survived by his wife; his brother, Sidney Posel of New York City; his daughters Anne Posel of Ithaca, N.Y.; Ellen Posel of Bellingham, Wash.; and Frances Posel of Seattle, and two grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are private. The family has asked that any memorials be contributions to Interns for Peace, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 2022, New York NY 10115-0109, or other social-justice organizations.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

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