The story of the recession-era concert venue is usually one of declining proceeds and anxious belt-tightening. The same is true for the recession-era nonprofit, and the Paramount Theater is both. When the refurbished 1930s movie palace announced its new leadership at a press conference last week, recently hired Executive Director Chris Eure held that she “wasn’t brought on to save a sinking ship.” The backdrops of recession economics and the competitive local booking climate loomed, like they have over the last four year’s worth of conversations about local music, but the word that Eure and newly appointed Board Chair Mark Giles used most in their remarks was “community.”
“In a lot of places this building would be owned or supplemented by the city,” said Giles, who also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Virginia National Bank. “But the Paramount is fully owned and supported by the community.” The Paramount reopened in 2004, after $16 million in renovations paid for by The Paramount, Inc., which purchased the building in 1992, and for years it was something of a contradiction: a non-profit venue owned by community members whose ticket prices were too high for much of Charlottesville to afford. Over the last half-decade, message board complaints about $70 tickets have gone down, as the recession drove the Paramount to lower its prices and cater to a larger swath of the community. And if available figures are any indication, the recession economy may have spurred the exact changes that the Paramount needed to stay relevant and financially viable.
“In the beginning,” said the Paramount Theater’s General Manager Mary Beth Aungier to C-VILLE last year, “all the shows were sold out. There was an excitement in town, and everybody involved in the theater was so excited. I think they really wanted to view it as like the mini-Met, like the Lincoln Center or the Radio City Music Hall.” This was in 2004, before John Paul Jones Arena and the Charlottesville Pavilion (Now NTelos Wireless) had opened, before the Southern and the Coran Capshaw-funded restoration of the Jefferson Theater. Even by 2007, when the local booking landscape had started to change, the Paramount had much of the market cornered on high profile acts—that year saw performances by Jeff Tweedy, The Beach Boys, Ryan Adams, David Bromberg, and Dionne Warwick, to name a few.
The upcoming spring 2012 season is something more akin to what programming has been like since 2009: a show by blue collar comedian Ron White, a screening of Chocolat, a visit from China’s Golden Dragon Acrobats, an evening with chef and restauranteur Tom Colicchio, Moscow Festival Ballet’s performance of Romeo and Juliet, two shows from London’s National Theatre, and so far, a single singer-songwriter, soulful South Carolinian Josh Turner. All for an average of $34, or about 40 percent less than what the average ticket used to cost.
“It’s never going to be a theater that takes on 80 marquee artists in a year again,” said Aungier. “In fall of 2008, when we had an idea of what the next few years were going to be like, we took a look at our programming and decided we needed to lower our prices and broaden our offerings.” The last few years worth of plays, family events, and movie screenings—including this summer’s showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, which charged only 25 cents—were a diversified departure from what the Paramount featured during its three-year management deal with SMG, the company that manages John Paul Jones Arena. Under Larry Wilson, SMG’s regional manager, many more nationally recognized touring acts were courted to the Downtown theater. But over time, the big-name, high-cost model became less and less viable.
“We were done in by our own sense of idealism,” said Sandra DeKay, assistant manager of the Paramount, to C-VILLE in 2010. “We wanted to be everything to everybody. And we found out that, not only could we not do that, but we have physical limitations in this building.”
In the early years, it was the Paramount’s comparatively small 1,040 seats that necessitated high prices. “The artist fees for many well-known acts are simply astronomical,” said Aungier. “Now, we bring in one or two of them a year, and find an angel in the community to cover the artist fee. That’s really the only way we can bring these artists in, and make it affordable, for us and for the community.”
“We’re trying to simplify everything so we have a formula that works, so we aren’t just worried about breaking even,” said Eure, who previously served as the Executive Director for First Night and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexick. “I think they got the formula pretty good this last year.”
Though box office revenues and contributions to the Paramount dropped in 2007 and 2008, the change in programming soon looks to have had an effect on the venue’s proceeds. The Daily Progress reported last week that according to tax records, the theater’s donations increased from 2008’s $562,384 to $762,668 in fiscal year 2009, and proceeds from programming increased from $1.3 million to $1.5 million.
Arguably, this broadening of programming also put the Paramount in step with its community-oriented goals as a non-profit. For years, the Paramount has given away a number of free seats at each show to military personnel and their families, as well as members of the Virginia wounded warriors program. Since 2004, 86,000 children have come to the Paramount for free programming.
“I think it’s really important that we become community class before we try to become world class,” said Aungier. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”