Lot of Livin' to Do
Father of the Groom: The Paramount's Paul Beutel
Once you know about The Bye Bye Birdie Experience, everything about Paul Beutel falls into place: his love of musicals, his film degree, his stints as an American-Statesman film critic and a UT Performing Arts Center publicist, his years as a song-and-dance man in local musical productions, his programming of the Paramount's Summer Movie Classics series, and especially his 15 years of service -- much of it above and beyond the call of duty -- to Austin's jewel of theatres. I mean, here's a guy who breathes celluloid, who gets a kick out of persuading the big Hollywood studios to strike new prints of their classic films so he can show them in Austin, who gets tickled at the prospect of running William Castle's old B-movie fright flick The Tingler with its original buzzer-in-the-seat gimmick or the movie version of Kiss Me Kate in 3-D, with everyone wearing glasses. Here's a guy who steered the Paramount through the stormiest years in its recent history, who spent 10 years inching it clear of a half-million-dollar debt, yet who still spends at least six out of every seven days at the theatre, running it, programming it, keeping it afloat, and even pitching in behind the concessions stand if the lines get too long. Where does that kind of passion and devotion spring from?
Bye Bye Birdie.
Specifically, the Hollywood version of Bye Bye Birdie during its first run at the Metropolitan Theatre in downtown Houston. When Beutel was 13 years old, he saw that movie at that theatre, and for him it was, he says, "a pivotal moment." The theatre was one of these huge old movie houses, a 3,000 seater, and watching a picture in it wasn't just a casual affair; it was an Experience, a larger-than-life Event. And this Event, played out on a giant screen -- in mighty-wide Panavision! -- was full of music -- "Put on a Happy Face," "The Telephone Hour," "I Got a Lot of Livin' to Do" -- and all these people dancing and singing, a lot of them teenagers (or playing them, at least), and there in the midst of them all was this redheaded siren, wriggling in all her kittenish glory. It was life-changing. "At that moment," says Beutel, "I fell in love with big old theatres like that (historic theatres as we now call them), the movies -- movie musicals in particular -- and Ann-Margret. That was it. After that, we used to go downtown to the movies every weekend."
Knowing about that experience, you can see Beutel as the kind of kid who'd want to spend hours in the dark, watching movies, who'd want to root around and find the older films, the ones that came out before he was born, and watch them, who'd fall in love with all the old stars and the old glamour, and who, when it came time for him to go to college and choose a career, would want to get a degree in film.
And so he did.
Knowing about the Birdie experience, you can see that Beutel was predisposed to fall in love with the Paramount when he moved to Austin.
And so he did.
On his very first night in town.
Considering the key role that this man has played in the life of that theatre, the idea of Beutel having visited his future place of employment on his very first night in town might seem too convenient -- a bad "meet-cute" in a movie romance. But that's the way he tells it: "It was in the fall of 1969, when I came up to go to the University of Texas," Beutel says, "and I went down to the Paramount with some guys who were at my boarding house. 'Let's go to the movies.' So we went to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the Paramount Theatre. It was my first night in Austin. Who knew? It was definitely faded at that point. All the richness that you see now had been painted over into a series of beiges and browns. The seats were not all that great, and there was a totally different façade, an old 1950s-style marquee that had been put up, and a tacky old aluminum Fifties concession stand. But I walked in and I loved it. It was like, 'Oh, wow, this is a great theatre, like we had in Houston.' I would go there to movies all through college."
Knowing about the Birdie experience, you can see that Beutel would be keen to take a job that let him review movies for a living -- and so he was -- and that he'd have a natural interest in the renovation of a big old theatre, especially the one where he'd seen Butch Cassidy and so many other films and that he'd want to cover it for his paper.
And so he did.
"John Bernardoni, Charles Eckerman, and Steve Scott came in and took over the lease on the Paramount in 1975 because Interstate Theaters, which had the lease, was not renewing, and nobody knew what was going to happen with it," Beutel recalls. "They came in with the idea of taking it over and restoring it. The first night that they had the theatre, they showed Top Hat and charged 50 cents. At that point, I had just started working for the Austin American-Statesman, so I covered the whole era leading up to when they shut down for the restoration in 1978. You go to the clip files at the Statesman or the library and you'll see my name all over it. I was intimately acquainted with all of that."
Knowing about the Birdie experience, you can see that Beutel, if offered the chance to work at a big old theatre, would be inclined to say yes.
And so he did.
"In 1985, John asked me if I wanted to come work there, and I had been at the UT Performing Arts Center and was kind of burned out on the great bureaucracy at that point, and I said, 'Sure. Sounds like fun. I love the place.' And he said, 'Well, I have to tell you: We've just had this disastrous tour of Dracula. We've lost a lot of money. There's a very real chance that the theatre might go down the tubes.' What did I know from cash flow? I'd been at the great breast of the University of Texas. Cash flow? You need money, you write a check. I had no idea how this worked in small businesses. So I said, 'Sure, why not?' and I rapidly found out what cash flow was all about."
And knowing about the Birdie experience, you can see that Beutel would make the most of working at a big old theatre, even if it meant working like hell to bail that theatre out of a half-million-dollar hole and seeing everybody laid off except him and two other staffers and having to be the general manager and business manager and marketing manager all rolled into one and having to play it safe and pinch every penny for 10 years to wipe out that debt and carefully and very slowly getting the theatre to grow again.
And so he did.
"We reopened in the fall of 1988 with a half-million dollars of debt," Beutel remembers. "For some organizations, that's no big deal. But when you have no cash reserves and no steady stream of income, it's a big deal. It wasn't until '97 that we finally paid off the debt. Our mentality was so debt-driven -- mine was, because I'd been through the trenches. I got a real reputation as Mr. Safe-and-Secure Programmer and Mr. Skinflint when it comes to budget stuff, but it was all driven by the debt. It was like the children of the Depression."
Austinites who have known the Paramount for only the past few years may be surprised to hear of a Paramount so close to closing its doors, a Paramount open only 80 nights out of 365. It's a hard image to reconcile with today's bustling showplace of classic cinema and Austin Musical Theatre spectaculars and Tuna for Christmas and the Fourth of July and concerts by the likes of Leo Kottke and Lyle Lovett that goes, goes, goes nonstop year-round.
But that's the way it was, and one person had a lot to do with making sure that it's not that way now. If the Paramount is part of the pulse of Austin, says new CEO Dan Fallon, "that is 98% due to Paul Beutel. Paul is there almost nightly making sure that happens. That is one thing that has enabled us to keep the lights on."
Don't expect that to change just because the Paramount is merging with the State and Dan Fallon is relieving Beutel of the managerial responsibilities that consumed so much of his time the past dozen years. Beutel will still program all the theatre's live performances and the Summer Film Series. ("I adore the Summer Film Series," he says. "One of my most fun things to do is program that every year. It's the only time I get to use my degree! I mean, I have a Masters in Film History, Theory, and Criticism. What the hell else am I doing with it?") And all the things he fell in love with that day in Houston so many years ago are still things he loves today and are all right there as part of his day job. So he'll still be a constant presence at 713 Congress, chatting folks up in the lobby, pitching in where help is needed, standing on the third step from the top in the vom connecting the mezzanine and the balcony, where no one can see him but he can see the stage and the audience to his left and right. There's still a lot for Paul Beutel at the Paramount, or, as Ann-Margret might purringly put it, he's still got a lot of livin' to do.