Only a handful of historic theaters remain in Florida. The Milane Amusement Company developed the building, which originally was known as the Milane Theater. Incorporated in 1922, the Company derived its name by combining parts of the names of its president, Frank L. Miller, and Vice-president, Edward F. Lane. The incorporators organized the company with fifty thousand dollars in stock at one hundred dollars per share. A pioneer resident, Frank Miller served on Sanford’s first city council, and later as city judge, Edward Lane, known as the “the man who knows Sanford best”, was born in Sanford in 1891, and graduated from Rollins College. A Realtor and insurance businessman, Lane was considered “Sanford’s best promoter for growth and development”. In the early 1920s, Miller and Lane developed several subdivisions in Seminole County.
The Theatre is built on the site of the former Star Theatre, which was a failed movie house that had stood abandoned several years, and began making plans for the new entertainment center. Augusta, Georgia Architects Scroggs and Ewing were hired to prepare the plans. The Georgia architects associated with Sanford Architect Elton J. Moughton for the project. Moughton, over the years, prepared plans for many of Sanford’s buildings, including the Great Atlantic & Pacific Store, Sanford City Hall, Sanford Public Library, Sanford Armory, Sanford Fire Station, Seminole County Jail, Seminole County Home and Seminole Memorial Hospital. Other projects consisted of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, Congregational Christian Church, First Christian Church, Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Sanford’s Masonic Temple and Hotel Forrest Lake.
In November 1922, after the plans were completed, the businessmen hired Jacksonville contractor R. J. Gallespie to supervise construction. Gallespie, a native of Jacksonville, was no stranger to Sanford. In 1922, he completed the Meisch Building on First Street
When completed in July 1923, Sanford's Milane Theater seated 823 patrons, contained a four-story fly, and included a proscenium arch and orchestra pit. Live dramas and movies were well- attended. The editors of the Sanford Daily Herald proclaimed the building as “a much needed asset in the City Substantial”, and boasted that “this city now has a real theater and one of which the City can well feel proud”. The owners of the competing Imperial Opera House and Princess Theater were, undoubtedly, less generous in their praise.
The hollow-tile-and-brick building raises the equivalent of four stories, is protected with a built-up roof obscured by a straight parapet, and displays a rectangular shape. The Masonry Vernacular building has straight walls embellished with diamond-shape tiles and belt courses. It contains ninety-seven feet of interior floor space and displays a superior level of craftsmanship. A small, but significant feature along the south elevation is a secondary entrance. The entrance historically permitted African-American patrons access directly into an interior balcony-staircase during the Jim Crow period. An orchestra pit was discovered during the restoration of the theatre and has been restored. A passageway under the stage connects the orchestra pit with a hatch center stage and another hatch in the wing at left stage.
The second floor originally served a private, residential function, and contained some infrastructure. Historically not accessible to theater patrons, the space contained a small apartment with three Hundred seventy square feet of floor space. The apartment consisted of a living room, restroom and kitchen. This area has been converted into a lounge and restrooms for patrons of the Theatre.
Management and lease changes occurred soon after the theatre opened in 1923. George W. Brockholm of Tampa originally managed the Milane Theater, and FE Farmer worked as the projectionist. Then, in 1925, the Milane Amusement Company leased the theater to Sanford Enterprises, a subsidiary of the Saenger-Sparks Theater, Inc. of New York. The Saenger-Sparks Company negotiated a twenty-year lease agreement with the Milane Company. Annual rent was established at $8,112. In 1925, as part of a change in the lease, Brockholm was replaced by Joseph Marentette of Atlanta.
During its historic period, 1923-1950, the Theatre building accommodated live stage shows and motion pictures. Early features at the Milane included “Sherlock Holmes” with John Barrymore, “Good-Bye Girls” with William Russell: and “Three Ages” with Buster Keaton. Segments of “Good-Bye Girls” were filmed in Sanford. In 1936, the management inaugurated its “March of Progress” season with hits that later received nominations for Academy Awards—“Tale of Two Cities” and “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”.
To help sustain the business, Marentette periodically upgraded the theater’s equipment. In 1937, the theater purchased new “Peerless Magarc” projection apparatus. New sound equipment was also installed, prompting the management to claim the theater to have the “Best Picture, Best Sound, Best project”. In 1931, the Miss Seminole County contest was held at the theater. Twenty-three girls from throughout the county competed in a “beauty review” which consisted of a “pajama parade”, and “swim Suit Parade”. Miss Dorothy Haynes of Sanford won the Contest. The winner was given an all-expense paid two-day trip to Clearwater, Florida where she competed in the “Miss Florida” contest.
In 1933, the theater was sold to Lake Mary investors Frank and Stella Evans. The Evans changed the name of the Milane to the Ritz in 1936. The Evans heirs held the property until the 1990s. The Ritz struggled to retain its viability in the 1960s and closed in 1978, after failing to compete with the new multiplex theaters. It stood vacant until 1984, when it reopened as the Showtime Cantina. Four years later, the building again was taken out of service as a movie house. It remained vacant and without maintenance or repairs until the mid 1990, when Ritz Community Theater Projects, Inc., acquired the property and began rehabilitation in 1998.
The Ritz community Theater Projects, Inc., under the leadership of Helen L. Stairs, a local resident and real estate broker, a Not-for-profit Corporation was formed and they began applying for grants to restore the building. A grand total of $1,046,760.00 of grant funds has been received, Seminole County Community Block Grant Program supplying a large bulk of the funds $581,969.00,plus additional $37,500.00 from General County Funds. The State of Florida total grants consisted of $367,041.00 and the City of Sanford $60,250.00. The private sector contributed over one-half of a million dollars with in-kind services and donations.
The Board of Directors of the Ritz Community Theater Projects, Inc. renamed the Theatre the Helen Stairs Theatre for the Performing Arts in honor of Helen Stairs who lead the restoration effort. The newly restored Theatre was dedicated to the Community during the grand re-opening gala, May 6, 2000. Congressman John Mica officiated and famed actress/singer Melba Moore performed. The Theatre enjoys recognition in the Congressional Records of the United States and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In July 2001, former President/CEO of the Sanford/Seminole County Chamber of Commerce and Theatre Board member, Ronald E. Rose, was hired as the newly restored Theatre's first full-time employee.