On a recent Wednesday evening, a line about 30-adolescents deep forms at the corner of 15th Street and Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.
Wait — Tweens? In Ybor? On a school night?
They're there to see 21-year-old pop star Jesse McCartney perform at the Ritz Ybor. JMac's fan base isn't the most natural fit for the party district, but the Ritz is trying to change that. This spring, the venue will host a series of all-ages concerts in hopes of expanding its business and bringing a better-behaved clientele to Ybor City.
From the balcony of the McCartney show, Ritz co-owner Maria Capitano-Pardo overlooks the 18,000-square-foot ballroom. She knows underage girls aren't her core clientele. But she also knows many of their parents have dropped them off or escorted them to the all-ages show.
"So it exposes them to a reason to come to Ybor or to be on the lookout for the next calendar of events," says Capitano-Pardo, whose family has owned the 92-year-old building for two decades. The Capitanos leased the property to Masquerade nightclub from 1990 to 2006. When Masquerade closed, they decided to take the building in a new direction.
"We thought, 'Let's try to do something other than a nightclub that's going to bring a quality of people to Ybor, that might start to help bring Ybor back to what it should be,'" Capitano-Pardo says.
She hopes draw in the minivan set with acts like Ben Folds on April 3, while rock group Mudvayne, rappers Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, and electronica duo Ratatat will help lure 20-somethings back to their beloved Masquerade.
Before its grand opening last June, the Ritz team poured about $2 million into structural and aesthetic renovations, says Carla Vaughan, business coach and director of sales and marketing. They added chandeliers, tile floors, carpeted side rooms, an eco-friendly air-conditioning system, updated plumbing, a renovated stage and more user-friendly backstage dressing rooms. Concertgoers will also notice sleeker bars and bathrooms.
"It's a lot classier now than what we had," says Tom DeGeorge, who spent five years as Masquerade's general manager. He's now co-owner of Ybor's Crowbar but still lives in an apartment over the Ritz.
"This place doesn't encourage people to tag up the wall. ... You go into their bathroom, it's completely tiled and there's beautiful sinks and there's not a spec of anything. No matter what kind of concert it is, you're going to go, 'Okay, it's not cool to do that here.'"
The renovations are paying off. Last year, Maxim magazine contacted the Ritz about hosting its legendary Super Bowl party. At the Jan. 30 event, Vaughan networked with celebs in hopes of bringing them back to perform. Better still, three months ago, the Ritz booked a little-known techno singer named Lady GaGa for an April 7 show. Her single Just Dance is currently No. 1.
The staff is still working out a few kinks. The Nov. 28 Jojo Pellegrino hip-hop show had a poor turnout, so from now on "we don't let just every promoter through the building," Vaughan says. She's also learning to adjust to no-show vendors and singers who travel without security. And fans have been asking for food, so in addition to the cash bar, nachos and pizza will soon be for sale at concerts.
The Ritz will also continue to expand as a banquet hall for private events.
Overlooking the McCartney show, Capitano-Pardo surveys the crowd of nearly 800 teenieboppers.
"We don't really have a target crowd," she says. "I think we have the potential to be something for everybody."