Past perspectives: New documentary collects stories from the Paramount’s segregated era

Lorenzo Dickerson premieres his fifth documentary, "3rd Street: Best Seats in the House" on Thursday at the Paramount Theater. Photo by Eze Amos Lorenzo Dickerson premieres his fifth documentary, “3rd Street: Best Seats in the House” on Thursday at the Paramount Theater. Photo by Eze Amos

Lorenzo Dickerson is always chasing down stories that he heard as a kid. “Stories I heard who knows when,” he says, local stories he now feels compelled to share with local audiences. His fifth documentary film, 3rd Street: Best Seats in the House, tells one such story—that of the Third Street side entrance to The Paramount Theater, when the theater was (legally) segregated. Black moviegoers were forced to use a side entrance and sit in the balcony (though those seats offered the best view, local artist Frank Walker notes in the film).

A tour of the Paramount in fall 2017 sparked the idea. A guide mentioned that the theater wasn’t sure how to best tell the story of that entrance, but Dickerson knew immediately. He shot more than 20 hours of interviews with black Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents, and combed through interviews conducted by Jane Myers in 1995 that have sat, unused, in the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society archives. Dickerson’s film premieres at the Paramount on Thursday. In advance of the screening, he sat down with C-VILLE to talk about the film, and what he hopes it can accomplish.

C-VILLE: When did you first hear about the Third Street entrance?

Lorenzo Dickerson: As a child. My father loves westerns, and his favorite film of all time is a western, Shane. The first time he saw it was when my grandmother took him to the Paramount to see it. He was 6 years old or so. [He told me] that he went in through that entrance, sat in the balcony, and saw that film.

When you started the project, what was your idea for the film?

The initial idea was really for people to tell their stories. What was it like to use that entrance?…And also, what segregated spaces were like in Charlottesville in that time period: The Lafayette Theatre, the Jefferson [Theater], the Woolworths, Timberlake’s. The University Theater, where you couldn’t go at all.

How did you decide who to interview?

I was trying to find people who could tell different stories, not only about that segregated entrance but about what that experience was like. For my previous film, Albemarle’s Black Classrooms, I interviewed Marcha Howard about her going to and teaching at Burley [which was Charlottesville’s black high school during segregation]. During that interview, she mentioned going to the Paramount and looking over her shoulder into the balcony after it was desegregated, sitting in the bottom, feeling weird about that. I always had that in the back of my mind.

Bernice and Kenneth Mitchell tell their love story, how they would go on dates at the Paramount, and how Kenneth at one point passed for white. …Phil Jones talks about coming in from Albemarle County on the back of a dump truck with eight other people or so.

The Reverend Nate Brown—I’ve known him my entire life, and to me, he’s the greatest storyteller ever—he has [used] a wheelchair his whole life. And at a family funeral, I had this moment, like, “Whoa. If you were handicapped in any way, and African American, what would you do?” So I asked him. He never went, because he couldn’t.

It’s likely that these people will be familiar to the audience watching the film.

That was the point, really, for people we know to tell these stories. …I hope that by watching it and being in that space, that you would think of it differently as you leave the theater that evening. And the next time you go to any of the shows at the Paramount, that you may think about that space differently, [that it’s not] just a theater on the Downtown Mall.

Think about it differently how?

What did it feel like to be sitting there watching a film where you were forced to sit in the balcony due to Jim Crow, and you were never watching anyone that looked like you there on the screen? You may have gone to Timberlake’s to get ice cream before the movie—and you could purchase it. The person working there, or making the food, may have been African American. But then you had to come outside to eat it.

I’m hoping that people will really feel, even just for a moment, what that experience was like. To understand that the experience that we have now is nothing like the experience they had at that time. Billy Byers mentions that he didn’t know that the front door even existed. Or that there were seats under the balcony, because [up there], all you can see is what’s forward. Your experience is completely different if you’re African American. It’s not simply, “you’re sitting up here instead of sitting down here.” It’s a lot more to it than that.

What got cut from the film that you wish you could have kept in?

I was going to interview a [black] woman and her white friend, and the friend had some type of health stuff going on. But they were going to be on camera, together, talking about walking to the Paramount, together, as friends, then getting to the Paramount and having to go their separate ways. And then after the film, getting back together and walking back home.

Lorenzo Dickerson premieres his fifth documentary, “3rd Street: Best Seats in the House” Thursday, August 29 at the Paramount Theater

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Bill Marshall
Bill Marshall

So when the paramount was segregated whites couldn’t sit in the balcony? Were whites also forbidden from riding in the back of the bus or using the colored only water fountain? It is sad that people feel a constant need to beat a dead horse. There are literally MILLIONS of black Americans who thrive in this society and wish that other blacks would just stop whining about the past and make a go of it in the best country on earth no matter what color you are. For every poor black child there is a poor white child who has… Read more »