Austin's Paramount Theatre Turns 100
A century on, this grande dame of live performance isn't getting older – she's getting better
In the final month of 1973, the Paramount was a terminal case.
What we cherish now as the grande dame of Austin theatres had at that point about as much life left in her as the Nixon presidency. The once-glamorous vaudeville house, which in its first year had hosted illusionist Harry Houdini, amazing the locals with his startling Chinese Water Torture Cell escape, had become a down-at-heels dowager, showing every one of her 58 years. The theatre's last makeover had been 15 years earlier, and even replacing seats and expanding the concession stand hadn't done much to lure suburbanites away from their 24-inch television screens. The Paramount's last stab at reclaiming the eminence of its glory years – the world premiere of a motion picture! – had been in 1966, and even that was a sign of the times: The movie was based on a TV series, and an unabashedly campy one at that. Holy cathode-ray backfire, Batman!
Who cared about a theatre from their grandpappy's day, anyway? Not the drivers of the Ford Pintos and Buick Regals zipping past 713 Congress. They were just in a hurry to get of out the dead zone that was Downtown Austin. I mean, what was there to keep them in the '01 after they clocked out of the office? No Antone's yet. No Liberty Lunch. No Steamboat. No Esther's Follies. Hell, those 1.5 million Mexican freetails hadn't even made a bat condo out of the Congress Bridge. Better to cross the river to the Armadillo World Headquarters or Palmer Auditorium, or head west of town to that new Soap Creek Saloon than stick around this urban corpse.
And better to let this shabby relic of showplaces past go the way of all things. That looked to be the plan of ABC Interstate Theatres, which held the Paramount lease. While the exhibition chain had, in its previous incarnations, booked many a prestige picture into the place, it had lately made the Paramount a dumping ground for Charles Bronson Death Wish knockoffs and kung fu fist-fests. With those drawing only about a dozen guys per screening, word on the street was that when the current lease term ended Oct. 14, 1975 – 80 years almost to the day of the theatre's opening – ABC Interstate would let the lease expire and the Paramount with it. There was talk of the building being razed and replaced with a Holiday Inn.
Let that sink in for a second, fans of the Summer Classic Film Series: a Holiday Inn.
People Who Cared
That the Nation's Innkeeper didn't add another green-and-white outlet next door to the Stephen F. Austin and that Austin still has the Paramount this Sunday, Oct. 11, to mark the centenary of its debut, is because someone did care. Actually, as the decade wore on, a lot of someones cared, but in December '73, you could count them all on your right hand: John Bernardoni, Stephen Scott, and Charles Eckerman, who that month formed Paramount, Inc., a for-profit corporation intended to rescue the neglected venue and reinvent it as the Paramount Theatre for the Performing Arts. Indeed, Bernardoni was the someone who started that ball rolling after watching Bruce Lee kick his way through an army of hoodlums with a paltry handful of patrons. The recent graduate from the University of Texas Radio-Television-Film program was seized with a desire to restore the theatre, and that led him to manager Charlie Root, whose own love affair with the Paramount went back decades to when he was Bernardoni's age and got a job there as an usher. (In those green days, he was responsible for a memorably awkward moment during a performance by fan dancer Sally Rand, but that's another story.) Count Root as the fourth someone who cared, as he not only introduced Bernardoni to the person who became the Paramount's greatest benefactor, Roberta "Bobbie" Crenshaw, but also tipped off Bernardoni when ABC Interstate made the decision not to renew its lease in '75 and, when Bernardoni, Eckerman, and Scott took it over, helped persuade the bank to cut the lease by over half, to $1,500 a month.
Still, Bernardoni was the spark, and his vision for a revivified Paramount, always related with feverish fervor, ignited in Scott, his co-worker at the Point Venture resort on Lake Travis, and Scott's pal Eckerman, who moved to Austin from Chicago to help them realize this crazy dream. Over the next year, the trio pulled together a prospectus – part love letter to the Paramount's past, part budget for the renovation and operations (both wildly optimistic). Then, in February 1975 they got their feet wet as presenters with a pair of jazz concerts (Dave Brubeck and Herbie Mann) and an opera (Britten's Turn of the Screw by Texas Opera Theatre). Could Brubeck's show have been the first live performance on the Paramount stage since Eddie Bracken headlined The Seven-Year Itch two decades before? Could be. The key thing, though, was that Brubeck opened the door to a new era of live performance on that stage: giants of jazz, from Count Basie to Bill Evans to Miles; pioneers of comedy, from George Carlin to Rodney Dangerfield, Firesign Theatre to Cheech and Chong; and great musicmakers of all kinds, from John Prine to Laurie Anderson, Sarah Vaughan to Stevie Ray, Chuck Berry to Joe Ely (on the same bill, no less!). You had Ben Vereen, Merce Cunningham Dance, the Juilliard String Quartet, John Houseman's the Acting Company, and national tours of the all-black revival of Guys and Dolls starring Richard Roundtree and Leslie Uggams, Freda Payne in Sophisticated Ladies, and Brenda Vaccaro and James Farentino in California Suite.
As more and more such acts toured through, the Paramount regained more and more of its bygone luster. Of course, much of that was due to the $2.2 million restoration overseen by David Hoffman of Bell, Klein & Hoffman Architects, which saw the return of the opera boxes that had been removed during the theatre's 1930 makeover (the one to make it more palatable as a movie house and that saw the name change from the Majestic to the Paramount). But at times it seemed as if the theatre itself was an active participant in reclaiming its past grandeur, as when Bernardoni released a strange backstage cable and down from the flies came the original fire curtain, the pastoral scene painted on it as vivid as it had been in the Roaring Twenties – which was likely when it was last seen. It was as if the theatre was preserving it in the dark of the rafters, until someone who cared for it came along. That description certainly applied to Bernardoni, Scott, and Eckerman; Root; Hoffman and wife Binnie; the philanthropic triumvirate of Bobbie Crenshaw, Sue McBee, and Mary Margaret Farabee; Congressman Jake Pickle and Gov. Dolph Briscoe, who loosened the federal purse strings for $1.85 million in renovation funds – all displayed such a deep commitment to the Paramount as to seem as saintly as winged Cecilia gazing benevolently from the theatre's ceiling.
And thanks to their efforts, Austin came to care for the Paramount in a way it hadn't in 30 years or more. Now, people here could see what the theatre was always meant to be: a venue for live performance as majestic as its earlier name. They could appreciate the intimacy and remarkable acoustics of a classic theatre. And they could feel its history as never before, the ties to an Austin from before they were born – before their parents were born – which made it unique among stages here. After all, what else survives from the 1910s? Not the Hancock Opera House. Not the Queen Theatre or the Millett Opera House. The few other historic theatres around – the Ritz, the State, Hogg Auditorium – just go back to the Thirties.
So a theatre that's lasted a century here is a rare and precious thing. The Paramount gives us continuity with our cultural past as no other venue does. Threadgill's keeps the flame of the Armadillo burning, as the Long Center does for Palmer Auditorium, but neither is the actual venue that once existed on its site. The Paramount is, so we feel that connection across the years. We know when we howl at the Marx Brothers onscreen now that earlier audiences of Austinites roared at them in person, when we see Katharine Hepburn promise to be "yar" in the film of The Philadelphia Story that she once made that vow in the flesh on that stage, when we look up at the hole in the ceiling to the left of St. Cecilia that it was made by Houdini (unless, that is, it was made by Houdini contemporary Harry Blackstone, as some suggest). The past is present, which makes us feel not just that we're enjoying a great film or performance there, but that we're participating in a grand tradition of music, cinema, comedy, and theatre in that space; that a new concert by Lyle Lovett is part of a continuum that includes the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Carol Channing, Enrico Caruso, and John Philip Sousa; that the latest world premiere at South by Southwest or the Austin Film Festival follows in a line with Dolly and Burt's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Adam West's Batman, and the 1947 Western The Fabulous Texan; that the next headliners at the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival belong to a tradition of live comedy that encompasses Fanny Brice, Bob Newhart, Martin Mull, Kids in the Hall, Esther's Follies, and those mad Marxes. And when Olympia Dukakis steps on the Paramount stage in the drama Rose in January, she'll be treading the boards walked by Hepburn, Van Heflin, and Joseph Cotten in The Philadelphia Story; Katharine Cornell, Basil Rathbone, and an 18-year-old Orson Welles in The Barretts of Wimpole Street; Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Sydney Greenstreet in The Taming of the Shrew; Joan Bennett and hometown hero Zachary Scott in Bell, Book and Candle; Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in Greater Tuna and its sequels; the Broadway-level stars of Austin Musical Theatre; and many a local actor in an array of musicals and plays by Ken Johnson's Center Stage company and Live Oak Theatre.
Austin's Cultural Identity
Don't underestimate the role that Austin played in making the Paramount what it is today. All those marquee names from Tinseltown and the Great White Way have a way of dazzling us, but when Bernardoni and friends reopened the theatre to live performance in the Seventies, they opened it to homegrown talent as well, and the way that local companies and artists were embraced tells the real story of how we in Austin came to see the Paramount as our theatre. It wasn't just how people showed up when Live Oak or Center Stage or Tapestry Dance or AMT put on a show there. It wasn't just how their appearances at the Paramount helped rocket Lovett and Williams & Sears' servings of Tuna to new heights. It was how the Paramount soon became a place where the city came together to party, a space for civic celebration. In its early years, Esther's always marked its birthday with a show at the Paramount. Fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show threw a yearly bash there, too. (The first one brought Tim Curry himself to town.) Jerry Jeff Walker still does, and Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison have made a holiday tradition of doing a concert there. Whether it was the elegance that the renovated venue projected, our newfound appreciation for its history, or the role it played in making Austinites want to be Downtown again, the Paramount became one of those places – like the 'Dillo – that was central to the city's cultural identity. It's a place we want to go, maybe even need to go, on certain occasions, and we feel Austin wouldn't be Austin somehow without the Paramount.
A few times we've come close to losing the theatre, but as in 1973, there's always been someone who cared enough about the Paramount not to let that happen. You can point to certain stewards of the theatre who have been crucial in keeping the lights on – Paul Beutel, Ken Stein, current director Jim Ritts – but their heroic efforts would have amounted to little if Austin didn't care about the Paramount as much as it does.
That wasn't the case in late 1973 – the darkest of days for the Paramount. The sign of how far the theatre has come in 40 years is an actual sign: the re-creation of the blade that adorned the building façade from 1930 to 1964, when it was removed for repairs and disappeared. As a gift for the theatre's 100th birthday, its supporters sprung for a replacement and switched it on for the first time Sept. 23. How fitting for the Paramount to begin its second century with so much light, a beacon for Austin culture.
More Paramount Stories
For additional coverage of the Paramount's milestone celebration, visit:
The centenary celebration announcement: austinchronicle.com/daily/arts/2015-01-28/happy-hundredth-birthday-paramount-theatre
Photo gallery for the blade installation: austinchronicle.com/photos/paramount-theatre-blade-installation
Photo gallery of the blade lighting: austinchronicle.com/photos/paramount-theatre-blade-lighting
John Bernardoni's history: www.paramounthistory.org
The Paramount's look back: www.paramountaustin.org