Listen to Austin 360 Radio

The Paramount Theatre sign is a local icon. This Austin family helps it speak.

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman

Before he retired earlier this year, Robert Luna installed many a memorable message on the Paramount Theatre marquee overlooking Congress Avenue.

"The one about my father's death in 2013 got to me the most," Luna says. "Also when our projectionist Walter Norris died suddenly in the projection booth."

Luna, 62, worked at the Paramount for 30 years. His father and mother, Jesse and Mary, worked there for 20 years. His three daughters — Monica, Leslie and Katie —  work there now.

One of them, Katie, has taken over his job of changing the messages on the grand marquee. Usually, it's a happy chore that takes strong arms and deft balance.

Luna, whose family specializes in facilities and custodial management, assumed those high-flying marquee duties in 2011, but he had changed them before that.

Robert Luna cheers as his daughter Katie Bagley puts the last letter up while changing the sign outside of the Paramount Theatre on April 5. Luna is officially retired from the Paramount Theater after a career that included being the "marquee man." His parents worked there and now his three daughters work there. His daughter Katie has taken over his job of changing the marquee.

Except during the pandemic, he changed the marquee as many as 500 times a year.

At his Paramount retirement party, the staff, theater backers and fans mobbed Luna.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," says Jim Ritts, president and CEO of the Austin Theatre Alliance, which oversees the Paramount and State theaters. "Whenever anyone walked in, he was there to greet them."

'Dad always had us hustle'

Robert Luna was born March 22, 1960, in Nuremburg, West Germany.

He was born in Europe because his father, Jesse Luna, from the Temple area had entered the military at age 19. He was stationed in South Korea, Vietnam, West Germany and the U.S. 

"They grew up with Little Joe y la Familia," Luna says of the popular Tejano band. "A family friend, Tony Matamoros, played sax in the band."

History is a click away:The best digital tools for Texas history buffs

His mother, Mary Mendez Luna, 86, started a custodial business while the family was living in West Germany.

"It was a mom-and-pop operation," Luna says. "Mom was Inspector No. 13 with the white gloves."

His father often helped, even during his years of active duty as a master sergeant.

"He could find gigs anywhere," Luna says with obvious pride. "They would clean the noncommissioned officers club. Mom cleaned out apartments when people moved."

"I can assure you that Dad always had us hustle, because he always hustled."

His dad started out at the Paramount in 1983 and died in 2013. Jesse Luna's wife, Mary, who started a small business, InterClean Austin, was often at his side.

Luna: "She definitely believed that cleanliness was next to godliness."

Luna grew up on Thurgood Avenue near East Boggy Creek Greenbelt in East Austin. He graduated from Johnston High School (now Eastside Early College High School) in 1978.

As a young adult, he worked four different jobs at H-E-B. He also took jobs at a property management company and Hart Graphics, a longtime Austin printing company. He started helping out his mother and father at the Paramount during the 19 years he worked at Hart Graphics.

He once held a job at the American-Statesman.

"Re-delivery," he explains. "If a paper got wet, I'd go to the location and make sure the people got their newspaper."

Luna went full-time at the Paramount on Feb. 12, 1992, but he was already an old theater hand at that point. He served as the point man during several emergencies.

Robert Luna goes down to the basement inside the State Theater to get some letters for the sign outside on the Paramount Theatre next door.

"There was the time some guy ran into the gas meter in the alley," he remembers. "You could smell gas all the way up to the lobby. I called the fire department. Then we had two floods in the State Theater. Jim Ritts, myself and the stage manager were passing buckets out to the alley."

He and his wife, Patricia Estrada Luna, reared four children. Their son, Robert Jesse Luna, teaches in an after-school care program. Patricia, by the way, is related to the large East Austin family that owns Estrada's Cleaners on East Seventh Street.

"When my dad died, Jim Ritts said: 'You have a legacy here through your father,'" Luna says. "Now with three daughters working here, I have a legacy, too."

Luna's daughters are making sure the tradition doesn't fade away.

"I pretty much grew up at the Paramount," Katie Bagley says. "I'd go to work with my father and see my grandparents there. Now, everybody I come in contact with tells me their stories about my grandparents and my dad. It's awesome to continue working there and to keep up that legacy."

'My arms were always so tired after that'

The previous "marquee man" at the Paramount, Tony Johnson, died in 2011. Luna took responsibility for the State Theater's smaller marquee, too. 

During the 10 days of South by Southwest alone, each venue hosts seven shows a day, for a total of 140 marquee changes.

Luna: "My arms were always so tired after that." 

'Kind and gentle':Remembering Texas preservation architect David Hoffman

Aside from the time when the sign announced the death of his father, he also was choking back the tears after longtime projectionist and union leader Walter Norris Jr. died while rolling "Casablanca" in the projection booth in 2000.

Yet there were many happy signs, such as a wedding toast to Patrick and Judy Cantilo, and a gender reveal for one family's first grandson.

"The whole family was standing across the street," Luna recalls. "I had left off the gender, but when I put up a 'B,' the family roared."

Katie Bagley, left, and her dad Robert Luna change the sign outside of the Paramount Theatre. "The one about my father's death in 2013 got to me the most," Luna says. "Also when our projectionist Walter Norris died suddenly in the projection booth."

In July 2020, he lettered the marquee for Army Air Corps veteran Bill Derenberger when he turned 100. A surprised Derenberger posed under the sign that read: "We know heroes are real because of you."

Derenberger had attended movies there with his future wife, Alvina, during the 1940s.

Currently, the letters are stored in the basement of the State Theater. In the past, they were kept in a third-floor office in the Paramount. 

"You made sure that you had all the letters before you went down," he says. "If you forgot one, you had to walk up 73 steps to get it."

Luna trained his daughter, Katie Luna Bagley, to change most of the marquees.

"She's 5' 11'," he says. "It takes some upper body strength to handle the metal pole."

(He flexes his biceps as a joke.)

Robert Luna installs light bulbs and the wording "And Yet We Are Thankful " on the marquee at the Paramount Theatre on November 23, 2020.

On Nov. 23, 2020, Luna became a mini-celebrity when this newspaper ran a  Ricardo B. Brazziell photo of him on a ladder installing a light bulb under a pandemic-themed Thanksgiving message: "And yet we are thankful."

"I framed that picture," Luna says. "And the theater used it on a poster."

In retirement, Luna, a Christian by faith, hopes to devote himself to the ministry at the First Church in the Bluff Springs area.

"I find peace and solace in my belief," he says. "I'm rededicating my life to leading people to Christ."

Luna says he could not have asked for a better place to work than the Paramount.

"They used to say 'magic happens at the Paramount,'" he says. "There's the performers, yes. But the people that work there make it magic."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.