The Paramount Theater

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It’s the grandest room in town; a neo-classical beauty with brass chandeliers, plaster molding, and lush silk tapestries. It was the Saturday night dress-up destination for decades of Charlottesville families eager to catch the latest Technicolor Hollywood hit. First opened on East Main Street in Charlottesville in 1931, long before the street was turned into an outdoor mall, the Paramount Theater went dark in 1974, a victim of hard times in the movie industry and the advent of indoor shopping malls, which drew consumers away from traditional downtowns. Plans for the empty structure came and went for years until a group of community leaders set their minds to restoring the historic building to its former glory and pride of place in Albemarle County cultural life. 

Since 2004 evenings at the red brick building with the Greek Revival-like facade have been special occasions again, opportunities to catch a wide variety of nationally and internationally known acts and even a few films from yesteryear in a grand old movie palace that’s a source of visual delight and civic pride. Visitors to Charlottesville marvel at the “European atmosphere” of the bricked-over Downtown Mall with its charming specialty shops, restaurants and cafés. The revived and rejuvenated Paramount sits smack dab in the middle of all that charm and creativity, drawing people there to discover it.
 
Situated on East Main Street on land originally owned by Martin Hardware Company, the Paramount was designed by Rapp and Rapp, a Chicago architectural firm with over 400 film theaters to its credit throughout the United States. In a nod to the area’s favorite son and unofficial first decorator, Thomas Jefferson, the Rapp brothers eschewed the then popular Art Deco style and built an octagonal auditorium with damask walls framing colonial scenes. Twelve hundred and sixty-one seats faced a stage 50 feet wide by 26 deep and proscenium 50 feet high.
 
The state of the art, air-conditioned theater opened on Thanksgiving eve, November 25, 1931, with a showing of the gridiron drama “Touchdown,” starring athletic legend Jim Thorpe alongside Richard Arlen, Peggy Shannon and Jack Oakie. “A line, with people three and four abreast, was extended down the block to Second Street East, and around the square to the post office” (today’s Jefferson-Madison Regional Library building), the Daily Progress reported. Some people had to be turned away. “The popular impression of the playhouse was that it is a place of charming design, harmonious varicolored lights and luxurious seats.”
 
Stars including Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford sent congratulatory cables and flower baskets that night, and the inaugural screening was followed by fireworks—eight “aerial bombs”—shot from the rooftop.
 
Although it opened early in the Great Depression and was situated just down the street from another ornate movie house, the Jefferson Theater (in operation since 1912), the new theater thrived, operating as part of the nationwide Paramount Pictures theater chain and presenting cartoons, fashion shows, and live musical entertainment along with first run films. Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and other top stars took the stage in the Swing era. Sock hops, limbo parties and rock ‘n rollers including Roy Orbison came later.
 
Nights at the Paramount were elegant and theatrical, with valets stationed at the front doors and a red velvet rope splitting the grand lobby down the center for entering on the right side and exiting on the left. Ushers helped patrons find seats and attendants dispensed toiletries in the ladies rooms. Inside the auditorium, a Wurlitzer organ would rise dramatically from the orchestra pit before film showings, glowing in colored lights and manned by a vivacious gentleman known as “Brownie” who would lead the audience in “Good Times are Here Again” and other popular songs. Admission was 25 cents for adults, 10 for children.
 
But the fancy treatment was undercut for a large part of the audience by Southern segregation. African-American patrons suffered the indignities of a separate entrance on Third Street, separate concessions and restrooms, and balcony seats. Not for three decades did the theater integrate, finally closing the balcony and the side entrances in 1963, the same year Sidney Poiter made history as the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field.
 
Decline and Decor
Back in 1959, the Paramount’s owners had given it a dubious remake. Paramount Executive Assistant Sandy DeKay grew up in Charlottesville, a daughter of two avid movies buffs, and spent Friday nights at the theater with her parents and sister. “I remember the big old candy counter,” DeKay remembers, “and having popcorn and Baby Ruth candy bars and coming up the grand lobby.” But the place was “suffering from its 1959 redecoration,” Dekay says, a “huge alteration in color scheme from the original muted earth tone beige and calm green to burgundy and black.” 
 
And there were mirrors, oodles of mirrors. “Each mirror was a square foot and they just attached them to the wall in the lobby.” The mirrors may have seemed hip in their day, but “they pretty much obliterated the 1931 atmosphere.” The decorators gave the auditorium a facelift as well but, perhaps due to prohibitive expense, spared the lovely murals.
 
Whatever the merits of the makeover, by the early 70s the theater was showing its age. “It became very bedraggled,” DeKay says. “It needed some TLC.” The crowds that might begin shopping on Main Street and then take in a show at the Paramount had fallen off, hurt by the 1959 opening of Barracks Road Shopping Center, which billed itself as a “progressive shopping center typical of Charlottesville’s modern expansion program, offering its residents the latest in every form of shopping conveniences.”
 
One Friday night in 1974, a malfunctioning popcorn machine started a fire. The audience members were evacuated safely–all twelve of them. This was the year the Paramount’s operators took note of the times, declined to renew their lease, and decamped to Greenbrier Drive where they built a new double-screened theater.
 
Save the Paramount
In the years that the building stood empty and unused, proposals were made to raze it for a mini-mall, an office high-rise, and a national jazz hall of fame. But some people still cherished the old theater. As part of the festivities when the Tour de Trump bicycle road race came through town in 1990, 3,000 people toured the place and many signed a pledge to clean or paint or do whatever to restore it. Around this time, Save the Paramount shirts went on sale downtown.
 
In 1992, with grants from the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, the non-profit Paramount Theater, Inc. bought the building, restored the marquee, and lit it up on New Year’s Eve, a neon promise that the Paramount would live again. BAMA Works Fund, the charitable arm of the Dave Matthews Band, contributed $500,000. Over the next 14 years, hundreds of individuals, businesses and foundations made contributions ranging from $5 to more than $1 million.
 
The Washington architectural firm Martinez & Johnson Architecture was brought in to partner with Charlottesville’s Bushman Dreyfus Architects. A $16.2 million renovation plan was drawn up with the goal of restoring the theater to its original elegance and preparing it for a “new role as a regional performing arts center.”
 
Work began in March 2002. Seats were widened to 20 inches, and the space between each row was lengthened to 36. For better accommodation of live performers, the stage was deepened from 14 to 24 feet, and a retractable orchestra pit was added, reducing the number of seats from 1261 to 1040. The fly loft was modernized, and a three-story annex was built to house a box office, a ballroom and meeting spaces, and a community rehearsal room.
 
To undo the 1959 changes, researchers analyzed original carpet squares from theater storage room and paint samples from the walls to determine their original colors. “If you look up in the main lobby you’ll see a series of three barrel vaults,” DeKay says, “and they have a gold hatch marked stencil on them which we didn’t even know was there because they had painted them burgundy. Now they’ve been restored and it makes the whole structure much lighter. It was sort of like walking in a cave before, comparatively speaking.”
 
A Community Theater
The long awaited grand reopening finally took place in December 2004 with a fundraising concert by crooner Tony Bennett and an official opening show by opera star Denyce Graves. “I can vividly remember Mr. Bennett asking the staff to turn off all the microphones and the sound system in the theater,” says recently appointed Paramount Executive Director Chris Eure. “He then stepped to the front of the stage and sang without any technical enhancement. After he finished singing he stood there shaking his head with deep nostalgia in his eyes and said ‘they don’t make them like this anymore!’”
 
In the past seven years the Paramount has reached out to the whole community, presenting everything from country to classical, ballet to the blues, old time Hollywood to high-definition live broadcast. Bill Cosby, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis and Joan Baez have all appeared. So have Ralph Stanley, B.B. King, Randy Newman and Jeff Tweedy. Moscow City Ballet makes regular appearances and the theater’s elegance provides the perfect setting for high def (HD) broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre. The Virginia Film Festival reserves the theater for its top-billed films each November.
 
This year’s free Martin Luther King Community Celebration featured civil rights heroes Harry Belafonte and Julian Bond, and celebrity chefs like Peter Chang and Tom Colicchio have brought out the foodies. The theater serves local school kids as well. As part of Theater Education, programs intended to foster understanding and love of the performing arts, 70,000 Central Virginia students and have come for theater, poetry, dance, music, and science.
 
The Paramount was brought back to life with community support, and that support is what keeps it going. The 155 names on the donor wall in the lobby honor people who gave $5,000 or more to the theater’s restoration. Hundreds more made smaller gifts. Nowadays ticket sales cover roughly 47 percent of the Paramount’s operating expenses, but doubling prices isn’t an option, Eure says: “If we did, then we would only be serving part of our community.” Contributions to the annual fund, corporate and individual sponsorships of performances, fundraisers, foundation support, and gifts to the historic preservation fund make up the gap instead. Along with the theater’s 1000 annual financial supporters, several hundred volunteers serve as ticket takers and ushers, help with administrative work, and paper the town with flyers advertising upcoming performances.
 
Thanks to their work and support, Central Virginia has a jewel of a theater that’s both an arts and entertainment venue and an economic anchor to a revitalized downtown. More than 75,000 people came to The Paramount just last year. That translates into more than $1.7 million in incremental sales receipts for neighboring restaurants and businesses. Research indicates that each ticket the Paramount sells generates an additional $27 income for other downtown merchants.
 
The Paramount’s mission is to operate “for the artistic, educational, and charitable benefit of its community,” Eure says. “I want to ensure that it is around for generations to come to inspire more and more moments of magic. We are here for the community, and the community in return has responded with great generosity and support.” 
 
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