When Dennis Sankovich took over the Ritz Theatre in 1988, the Tiffin venue was a tired landmark that hosted a handful of community productions on a shoestring budget.
“The Ritz was a beautiful facility at the time, innately beautiful,” he said. “But it was all behind soot and dust.”
In the years since, the Toledo native has overseen a $5 million renovation and expansion of the ornate 1920s movie palace and built it into a regional arts center that attracts nationally known performers like comedian Bill Cosby and country singer Randy Travis. The theater s annual budget has grown from $156,000 to $1.4 million during that time.
Mr. Sankovich, who is stepping down this month to take a job with Mississippi State University, believes he s leaving the theater in good shape.
“We have a reputation that the artists will be treated well and be part of a showcase of entertainment,” he said. “The agents and the management that I ve worked with over the years are very interested in being a part of our program. ... I would anticipate that that would continue.”
Brad Rees, director of musical arts at Tiffin University, said the refurbished theater has been an invaluable asset for students in the school s jazz ensemble. Thanks to Mr. Sankovich s efforts, those students have been able to meet and learn from professional musicians at the theater, Mr. Rees said.
“In recent years, as the programming has grown those opportunities have grown, so that s a credit to his work,” he said. “Dennis was definitely a help in growing our program.”
Mr. Sankovich officially begins his new job in Meridian, Miss., on Monday. As executive director of the Riley Education and Performing Arts Center, he ll lead a $31 million project that will renovate three 1890s buildings into a theater-convention center complex straddling the Mississippi State campus and downtown Meridian.
“It s a very special thing, and it s a nationally significant project,” he said. “It s going to mean a lot for the entire region as an economic generator, and for providing cultural opportunities for the entire area.”
With construction about to begin on the Mississippi project, Mr. Sankovich plans to shuttle between Meridian and Tiffin for the rest of March so he can help with the transition to a new executive director at the Ritz. Bruce Hannam, the theater s marketing manager, will be the Ritz s interim leader.
Mr. Hannam said Mr. Sankovich leaves the theater with a solid foundation.
“He couldn t be any more important to the fact that this theater is what it is today,” he said. “Dennis has pointed us, as an organization, in the right direction.”
Mr. Sankovich, 47, came to Tiffin from upstate New York, where he was regional manager for the Syracuse Symphony. A graduate of Woodward High School and the University of Toledo, he founded the Toledo Jazz Society in 1980.