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The Paramount Theatre - History

Paramount History 11

THE EARLY YEARS (1915-1930s)

On October 11, 1915, the Paramount Theatre, then called the Majestic Theatre, opened its doors to the public in what would become a legacy of theatrical service to Austin and its surrounding communities. Built by Ernest Nalle in only eight months for a cost of $150,000, the Paramount was designed by John Eberson of Chicago, who was one of the most respected theatre architects in the United States. Eberson built approximately 1,200 theatres during his career, but today the Paramount is one of less than 25 in existence across the country. Architecturally handsome and acoustically excellent, the Paramount is described by today's architects as Classical Revival (1915) in style and Baroque Revival (1930s glamorization).

The then Majestic Theatre was originally conceived as a stage for vaudeville, a popular form of entertainment at the time. Many performers including magician Harry Houdini delighted audiences in these initial years of operation. In the years following, the Theatre saw the demise of vaudeville and the rise of silent, and later, talking pictures. In 1930, the Interstate Theatre Circuit, owned by Carl Hoblitzelle, engaged in a major remodeling of the Majestic, adding wall-to-wall carpeting, replacing the wooden seats with upholstered chairs, and adding a state-of-the-art sound system, all of which cost almost as much as the original building. Once the extensive and ornate art deco remodeling was completed, the Theatre was renamed as the "Paramount." The Paramount had begun its reign as a first run movie palace along with other downtown theatres such as the State, the Queen and the Ritz. In addition to film, live theatre continued on the stage during this period.


During the 1930’s, Austin’s finest young ballerinas graced the Paramount's stage in the Christmas Revue of Miss Camille Long's School of Dance, and many a high-school girl rushed to the Theatre after school for a series of afternoon mystery movies. There was a new segment each week - "It was like modern soaps," remembers one Paramount patron. Although such movies were the norm, live entertainment still played an important part in the Theatre program schedule - for example, in 1935, Helen Hayes was accused of snubbing local interviewers after her "superb" performance in Mary of Scotland.

The Paramount Theatre was very active during the war years of the 1940s. Hoblitzelle's Interstate Theatre's slogan was "dedicated to community service." The Paramount was a big promoter of war bonds - it sold $8.4 million in war bonds from the first drive in 1942 to the victory campaign in 1945. The United States Treasury War Finance Committee recognized it with citations and awards and the manager, Louis Novy, with a war finance silver medal. The Theatre even ran Army training and recruiting films, such as Paris Under Ground, G.I. Joe and Pride of the Marines, along with the usual entertainment. Wally Pryor was an usher at the Theatre in 1947 and remembers the postwar chocolate shortage. He used to hide chocolate rations for his friends, including fellow UT swimmers.

As an usher, Wally found himself part of Harry Blackstone's magic act one time, participating in an amazing disappearing-bird act. The 1940’s also saw such quality entertainment as Katharine Hepburn in the stage production of The Philadelphia Story.

Under various managements, the Paramount experienced several decades of successful seasons playing top-rated films. By the 1950s, the Paramount was almost exclusively used as a movie house. However, the invention of television and a move to the suburban movie houses began to threaten the Paramount in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, the Paramount Theatre was in disrepair and operating as a "B" movie house. Many theatres across the country permanently closed their doors during this period.

THE RESTORATION (1970s-1980)

Before the Paramount could meet the same fate as so many other theatres like it, John M. Bernardoni, Charles Eckerman and Stephen L. Scott rescued it from obscurity. In 1973, the three formed a corporation with the hope of acquiring a lease on the theatre, which was slated for demolition, and of bringing in first class live entertainment for local audiences. In the beginning, Bernardoni, Eckerman and Scott had no money and no connections, and initially they did not get much encouragement about their dreams for the Theatre. At the time, downtown Austin had acquired a bad reputation, and nay-sayers insisted that no one would go downtown at night, that there was no parking, and that the building was too far gone.

Nevertheless, on February 2, 1975, the Paramount had its first live show in years, a concert with Dave Brubeck, and on April 15, 1975, Bernardoni, Eckerman and Scott acquired the Paramount lease.

One of Bernardoni's fondest memories was the night before that momentous date. It was around midnight, and he and his partners were cleaning up the theatre. It was filthy and they had the border lights on, and Bernardoni started lowering a drop. "It was the first time we had seen the painted asbestos curtain. No one knew it was there. It was an emblem of what the theatre was all about - a piece of history." The curtain was the original dramatically crafted curtain from 1915, and it is still there today.

Under its new management, the Paramount began showing classic films such as Top Hat, Citizen Kane and An American in Paris for 50 cents a ticket. Then the stage of the Paramount once again felt legitimate theatre return to its wooden floor after a 20-year absence when Center Stage and Austin Theatre Company produced the musical, Carnival, in June of 1975. Although the theatre grossed a quarter of a million dollars in its first year, the company lost $1,000-2,000 doing it and eventually sought outside funding as a nonprofit organization. As a nonprofit organization, the three men began the arduous task of raising money, programming national entertainment and restoring the theatre to its original grandeur. Bernadoni, Scott and Eckerman began to raise the $2.2 million needed to re-do the theatre. They applied for Texas landmark status and appealed to foundations, state and federal agencies, corporations and private citizens for financial support. On April 22, 1976, the Paramount Theatre for the Performing Arts, as it was renamed, celebrated its first anniversary with the return of Dave Brubeck. On May 6, 1977, the Paramount was the scene of a state historical marker dedication. Not long afterwards, on July 8, 1977, the theatre earned its place in the national register of historic places, which qualified it for federal restoration funds. Raising the money for the renovation was a constant struggle. For example, Actors Equity Association, an international union of actors, threatened to blacklist the theatre unless it made $120,000 worth of repairs by September 1977. Bernardoni then appealed to the city for part of a $1.9 million housing and community development fund.

By July 1977, the dressing room facilities had still not been renovated and the actors union threatened to cancel an appearance of the touring company of Guys and Dolls starring Leslie Uggams, Richard Roundtree, Debbie Allen and Maurice Hines. In a moment of inspiration, Bernardoni put out a call for seven motor homes to serve as dressing rooms for the 31-member cast and 31 make-up mirrors; the motor homes were donated by private individuals and the mirrors came from another source. A union representative inspected the facilities and declared that the show could go on; it did go on, playing two performances to capacity crowds, which allowed the Paramount to break even. More importantly, it proved that Austin was ready to support national touring companies. Restoration work on the theatre finally began in September 1977 and was divided into two phases. Phase one included restoring the facade, first and second floor lobbies, renovating the back stage and dressing room areas, adding a new marquee and installing new seats in the lower floor and first balcony.

Phase two began in the spring of 1979 and included major renovation of the heating and air conditioning systems, installation of the remaining one-third of the seats in the upper balcony, cleaning the rayon and cotton wall panels, and installation of a lighting system for the stage. Whenever possible, the theatre remained open during the restoration process, but this caused some big problems. For instance, in the summer of 1978, during a production of California Suite with Brenda Vacarro and James Farentino, the air conditioning stopped working after intermission. Fortunately, Bernardoni convinced her that the show must go on, and it did, despite sweltering heat and all. When Bernardoni went backstage to talk to her "she just about hit me in the face," he said. "She was hot and her makeup had melted. I explained to her that the air conditioning coils were frozen and that this was an old building which we were trying the restore." At the time, Bernardoni thought he was rambling on too much, "but it must have worked because she invited me to dinner with her and her mother the next night," he recalls.

A CULTURAL ICON (1980s-1990s)

The Paramount stage was now ready for whatever performers would come her way. Major events have included the national touring companies of such shows as A Chorus Line, My Fair Lady and Evita, the dance companies of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, comedians Lily Tomlin, Rodney Dangerfield and George Carlin, and musical groups of every possible type, ranging from the Texas Opera Theatre to Tibetan Monks who performed a program of sacred music and dance.

The theatre hosted glitzy Hollywood movie premieres - including the extravagant world premiere of the film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, with Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton and Jim Nabors along with country music stars Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed. Other offerings included Broadway plays and a children's programming, which began in 1987 and has featured such favorites as Charlotte's Web, The Wizard of Oz and The Velveteen Rabbit.

One of the most popular attractions at the theatre during this time was blockbuster comedy Greater Tuna, starring Jaston Williams and Joe Sears as various wacky, but strangely true-to-life characters from small-town Tuna, Texas. It first played at the Paramount in 1982. The show was such a hit that it toured nationally and returned to the Paramount many times. After continually packing houses across the country, Greater Tuna performed its farewell tour, in summer of 1991. Tuna fans were still able to enjoy the sequels, however, in A Tuna Christmas and Red, White and Tuna.

The Paramount not only hosted a variety of shows, it has produced its own shows as well. In the 1980’s, the theatre produced Deathtrap, Mass Appeal, Dracula and The Oldest Living Graduate. The Paramount also co-produced with Charles Duggan The Foreigner, a repeat smash hit starring those ‘crazy Tuna guys’ Jaston Williams and Joe Sears.

In June of 1992, the Paramount was chosen as one of the theatres to rerun the all-time favorite Casablanca in celebration of the movie's 50-year anniversary. The Paramount is one of the few theatres left which showed Casablanca when it was originally released.

In the late 1990’s, the Paramount Theatre for the Performing Arts began talks with the State Theatre next door to expand each organizations role in the arts community in Austin. In 2000, the two companies merged to form the Austin Theatre Alliance (ATA). An endeavor that began with two distinct operational and business models combined to become one of Austin's most uniquely productive performing arts organizations that both presents and produces a broad range of drama, comedy, music, dance and spoken-word events, in downtown Austin's most commanding venues.