Book draws back curtain on Paramount Theatre’s first century in Austin
Five years ago, the Paramount Theatre turned 100.
It did so in grand style. A place that loves a party threw a colossal one in 2015. And the biggest party favor of all: the replaced vertical “blade” sign — gone since the 1960s — that restored to Congress Avenue one of its iconic visual elements.
As part of that yearlong fandango, the Paramount drafted local author Terri Schexnayder to write a book about the theater. She did so promptly. Left in a holding pattern for years — not an unusual thing for a book project — the handsome volume has finally arrived at our door, and we are grateful for it.
It can be purchased for $40 at paramounttheatrestore.org.
The text also gives us a chance to write about another Austin arts group that has persevered through times even worse than these. So far in this periodic series, we’ve profiled the Austin Art League (age 111), Austin Symphony (age 109), the Contemporary Austin (age 109) and Zach Theatre (age 99). All came with distinctive survival stories.
The Paramount started out as the Majestic Theatre. The name changed in 1930 during a brief change of ownership.
It differs from the others arts groups that are at — or near — their centennial marks because it started out as a for-profit enterprise. It remained so until the 1970s, when a thoroughly documented renaissance as a nonprofit “populist palace” not only saved the precious building, it also fostered decades of good feeling for the place.
Still, to thrive, the Paramount, designed in the style of a European opera house, always needed to fill a lot of seats. That’s not happening during the coronavirus pandemic.
Good news, though, because of a land use arrangement, the new hotel project going up on the southeast corner of Congress Avenue and East Eighth Street will provide the Austin Theatre Alliance, which operates the Paramount and State theaters, with cash for building improvements. The alliance staff also plans to move its offices into the new tower.
Austinites associate the Paramount with stylish, unstuffy entertainment, but it wasn’t always fun and games. Although “A Majestic History: 100 Years at the Paramount Theatre” celebrates the spot, it does not skip over its precipitous decline in the 1960s, its multiple near-death experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, nor its ill-fated Austin-based tour of “Dracula” starring Martin Landau.
Yet if you are looking for the Paramount’s secret sauce, look to its list of leaders, carefully credited in Schexnayder’s history, who listened to the people of Austin and booked the place accordingly.
That’s a rare and intricate skill.
In the 1950s and '60s, downtown Austin started to empty out at night. It was a local example of postwar white flight: white residents fleeing to the suburbs, in part because of desegregation. In the 1970s, the value of the structure itself seemed in doubt. Through all its trials, though, the Paramount remained dear to the hearts of the citizens.
This beautifully designed new volume is packed with pictures. They tell a story, as well.
The Paramount started out as a vaudeville house. This family-friendly form of live variety entertainment lasted chiefly from the 1880s through the 1930s. A richly informative exhibit about vaudeville, presented at the Ransom Center in 2018, argued that some elements of the form never went away.
Almost as soon as it opened, however, the theater also showed movies, including a return engagement of the notoriously racist “The Birth of a Nation.”
The Paramount was segregated for decades until protests during the 1960s helped put an end to that practice.
Built by Austin’s Nalle family, the Majestic was designed by famed Chicago-based theater architect John Eberson, who spent his first 21 years in Europe, so he was familiar with the opera house form. He later became better known for his more elaborate “atmospheric” style, applied to even larger venues, such as the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio.
Schexnayder covers all the high points, while also giving the reader opportune peeks behind the scenes. One learns more about famed exploits of Harry Houdini, Sally Rand, Anna Pavlova and Katharine Hepburn. We also read detailed accounts of how the theater rolled out its rotating slate of movies, some of them world premieres, such as “Batman: The Movie” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
The Paramount fostered the birth of filmmaking culture in Austin, through its Summer Classic Film Series; its partnerships with Austin Film Society, which brought major premieres and artists to town; and its centerpiece roles during the Austin Film Festival and South by Southwest.
Periodically, the Paramount Theatre — despite its limited backstage space — also shined as a place for fully produced plays and musicals, notably the “Greater Tuna” series and the ambitious Austin Musical Theatre experiment.
Yet the Paramount has been better known of late for music and comedy, along with onstage interviews with celebrities. Just about every jazz and Broadway diva sang there. Lyle Lovett made it his clubhouse. What marquee Texas act worthy of the name has not performed there?
Stand-up comedians have always adored the place, big enough for a hefty crowd, but intimate enough to cement a bond between performer and audience. Perhaps theater’s signature development during the past decade has been the Moontower Comedy Festival, which offers several days of nonstop laughter at multiple venues each year.
Everything about the Paramount relates back to the people who have preserved the beloved home for arts and entertainment — it’s not easy keeping a 105-year-old building in top shape — so that they and others could enjoy it.
“To all the Austin ‘angels’ who over the years stepped in and stepped up to protect this precious part of our community’s history … you know who you are,” writes Jim Ritts, CEO and executive director of the Austin Theatre Alliance, in the book’s acknowledgements. “And five generations of Austin citizens are grateful beyond words.”
More about this story
As Austin arts groups continue to face historic challenges this year during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ll take a look at groups that have survived the decades — through wars, disease, natural disasters and economic and social disruptions — to see how they did it.