Witness to History – Paramount Theatre’s 100 years

by Julie Tereshchuk on September 14, 2015 in Entertainment, Film, Living Texas, Austin,

As if a free street party and a concert by great singer-songwriter Patty Griffin weren’t enough, Austin’s Paramount Theatre is celebrating its 100th anniversary by adding another landmark chapter to an already storied history.

Although you can see signs of the new arrival being installed starting today, Wednesday, September 23rd is when the night will light up as the switch is flipped on a 48-foot, 1,386-bulb blade. That really is a Texas-size birthday candle! The new, historically accurate (and energy efficient) sign has been constructed to be an exact replica of its predecessor.

The Paramount's new, historically accurate blade under construction, August 2015.
The Paramount’s new, historically accurate blade under construction, August 2015.

The original Paramount blade was removed in the early 1960s and has not been seen since. It’s a disappearing act worthy of Harry Houdini himself–who is just one of the many icons of stage and screen to have performed at the Paramount over the years.

The original Paramount blade, a Congress Avenue landmark, 1947.
The original Paramount blade, a Congress Avenue landmark, 1947.

From Houdini to Katharine Hepburn, to current artists like Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett and Sheryl Crow, the Paramount and its audiences, have seen it all –including multiple name changes. Known as the Gaiety during construction, it was the Majestic that opened its doors at 713 Congress Avenue in October 1915. Many years before reality TV shows, Kardashians or YouTube, vaudeville was the hot ticket and crowds flocked to the 1,316-seat theater. It was a “hemp house” with a system of ropes and sandbags for stage effects and had a hand-painted stage curtain. Both the hemp-house system and the curtain are still in use. Ticket prices, on the other hand, have seen some changes. Opening night tickets back in 1915 went for 25 cents.

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The theater has weathered many other changes, starting in 1930 when modifications, including an art deco interior remodel that cost almost as much as the original building, were made to show the increasingly popular “talkies.” The re-opening brought the name change to the Paramount.

The first decade as a movie house brought many now classics to the Paramount’s screen, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. (Many of those films are still shown today during the Paramount’s Summer Classic Film Series.)

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As the years went by, the Paramount continued to bring both live performances and movies to Austin audiences, however changes were afoot. Movies became increasingly dominant–and the Paramount underwent yet another re-design, including a marquee over the canopy. Then, entertainment habits changed again. With families increasingly moving out of downtown to the suburbs, and the rise of TV, a downward slide began that would almost bring the Paramount to ruin.

A dreary B-movie house limped into the 1970s. It was the foresight of former college roommates John M. Bernardoni, Charles Eckerman and Stephen L. Scott, along with an unsurpassed groundswell of support from all quarters of the local community, which saved this gem from closure and the wrecker ball.

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Today, the revitalized Paramount plays a pivotal role in the fabric of Austin. Triumphantly surviving as one of just a handful of historic theaters nationwide that continue to use the sandbag and pulley system backstage, the Paramount has returned to its roots as a vibrant live entertainment hub. Through its own restoration and preservation project, this jewel in the crown of Austin’s historic Congress Avenue also provided impetus to a wave of vibrant revitalization throughout the capital’s downtown.

Happy Birthday, Paramount! Here’s to another 100!

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By Julie Tereshchuk
All images courtesy Austin Theatre Alliance