“In the beginning,” says the Paramount Theater’s General Manager Mary Beth Aungier, “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.”
Mary Beth Aungier, general manager of the Paramount, says that she wants to honor the theater’s history. “That means we’re committing ourselves to having film here,” she says. The theater’s fifth anniversary celebration next month will feature Mary Chapin Carpenter.
But after five years and a few high level shake-ups, the theater is coming to terms with the limitations of running a refurbished 1930s movie palace in Central Virginia. “We were done in by our own sense of idealism,” says Sandy DeKalb, assistant manager, who was with the building through its reopening. “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.”
For one, the stage is too narrow for the Broadway shows that the theater invited. Shows like Smokey Joe’s Café looked like “really good high school performers in a really good high school auditorium” because 75 percent of the set was still in the truck, says DeKalb.
Another limitation was the theater’s 35mm projectors, standard for most movie theaters. Showing vintage films meant ordering vintage reels, which would often arrive as messy and crumbling spools of celluloid. While some local film purists bristle at the thought of visiting the 1930s movie theater to watch a digitally remastered version of Casablanca in high definition, Aungier says that it would be impossible to keep its regular schedule of screenings without its high definition screen.
Shedding the old technology has allowed the building to remain truer to historical purpose—after all, a movie theater is a place where people go to watch things on a big screen. Aungier recalled an elderly African-American woman who, after she spent years entering through the theater’s side door in the segregation era, broke a promise she’d made to herself never to enter the Paramount again. She was first of 1,400 people who stood in line to watch the inauguration of President Barack Obama, simulcast in digital HD. A weekly series, with the Virginia Film Society, is only growing in popularity. Two local documentaries recently packed its 1,040 seats to capacity. They’ll be broadcasting the World Cup championship in July. There will be kegs.
“We’re not in it for the money,” says Aungier. “We’re in it because it’s necessary for the building to be open.” And yet the theater has to balance its populist angle with the reality that, all told, it costs $3,200 to open the doors for a single day. High-profile performers like Itzhak Perlman and the Moscow City Ballet have continued to come through the doors.
Which is not to say that the Paramount is not distinct. Two physical features distinguish the Paramount from the theaters of its day. As opposed to the Art Deco style that dominated movie palace design, a team of Chicago architects designed the theater with an eye towards Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. The theater’s rectangular space underlies a larger octagonal form—y’know, Teej’s favorite shape. The second feature is the theater’s Third Street vestibule. In the South, most African-American theatergoers entering theaters at the time would have passed through a drab, undecorated entryway, whereas the Paramount’s side entrance—which led Black patrons to the theater’s upper balcony—is a scaled-down version of the grand vestibule that opens onto the Mall.
And the stage is not without its share of history. In addition to movies, the theater briefly hosted Vaudeville performances. A young songwriter named Roy Orbison performed at the theater when it welcomed rock ‘n’ roll acts in the ‘50s. In 2006, months before his death, George Carlin called and rented the theater under his own name to test material for his final HBO special, says Aungier.
With its ornate design, and gold tinge that seems to float in the air, the theater is beautiful, and certainly a far cry from our modern movie theaters. (Vinegar Hill Theater, for example, was converted from an auto showroom.) Does that put the Paramount on the national map? “Every community that’s fortunate enough to have a Paramount,” says Aungier, “feels as strongly as we do.”