A view of the Paramount's proscenium arch, where the hole Harry Houdini drilled in 1916 is still visible. Photo by Shelley Hiam

 

The Paramount Theatre: Austin's Thriving Cultural Landmark

Now in its second century, the venerable downtown institution still dazzles its audiences.

At SXSW

An in-depth look at some of Austin's most fabled SXSW venues | Part 1

Now in its 104th year, the Paramount Theatre stands on Congress Avenue as both a historic monument and a vibrant cultural center. One of only an estimated 25 theaters of its era that have been in continuous operation with the same building footprint and roughly the same seat count, the Paramount welcomes some 200,000 audience members per year, who attend its annual slate of 250-plus live performances and 100-plus film screenings. “There’s a lot of history here, but it’s not a museum,” declares Scott Butler, Paramount’s Creative Director.

SXSW attendees get to enjoy the Paramount every March when it hosts multiple daily screenings throughout all nine days of SXSW Film. The theater also hosts the Opening Night and Closing Night films, two of the festival’s most high-profile premieres, and welcomes many of the festival’s biggest names and emerging stars on its red carpet walks. “It has a soulful presence, great acoustics, and a tie to past grandeur that still feels intimate,” says Janet Pierson, SXSW’s Director of Film.

 

“This is where Austin has come to gather for 104 years, and that’s a remarkable testimony to the fortitude of its citizens.” – Jim Ritts

Originally known as the Majestic, Ernest Nalle built the theater for a reported $150,000 on his family’s land in the 700 block of Congress Avenue. Upon opening on October 11, 1915, the Majestic immediately became a showcase for touring acts on the popular vaudeville circuit.

“It was the middle of World War I. The total population of Austin was under 35,000, and they built a 1,300 seat theater,” explains Jim Ritts, the Paramount’s Executive Director/CEO. “Today, it would be the equivalent of building an 80,000 seat stadium and saying ‘We’re gonna fill it!’ Yet, they were absolutely right. Vaudeville was such a major part of the American landscape that they did very well economically.”

In February 1916, the Majestic hosted an extended run of performances by famed Harry Houdini. Over a third of the population of Austin turned out to see the superstar illusionist, and Houdini left behind a legacy in the form of the “Houdini Hole” in the theater ceiling, which was apparently cut to accommodate a performance installation and has never been repaired.

After roaring through the ’20s featuring both live performances and silent films, the next big change came in 1930, when the Majestic was bought by the Paramount-Publix Corporation (later Paramount Pictures) to provide outlets for Paramount Studios films. Thus, the Majestic was renamed the Paramount, and the iconic Paramount sign (known as the “blade”) was installed on the front of the building.


The original Paramount blade shortly after its 1930 installation (photo Courtesy of the Austin Theatre Alliance), and the new blade, which was installed for the 100th year celebration in October 2015 (photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for SXSW).

During an era when there were several movie houses in the downtown area (including the State Theater next door, built in 1935 and the only one still remaining), the Paramount was known as Austin’s largest and most glamorous first-run theater. However, live events were still staged, including appearances by such stage legends as Helen Hayes, Orson Welles, and in 1941, Katharine Hepburn, starring in The Philadelphia Story.

Yet by the 1950s, the Paramount’s downturn was beginning. First in 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that movie makers could no longer also own the outlets in which their films were screened, forcing Paramount Pictures to sell off its theater interests. Following some reshuffling and mergers, the theater management company known as ABC Interstate took over operation of the Paramount Theatre and used it strictly as a movie house.

Meanwhile in Austin, as well as the rest of the country, the growth of post-war suburban housing developments and home television sets cut into the Paramount’s ability to attract audiences. This decline was exacerbated as central city businesses moved to suburban shopping centers, leaving behind a growingly neglected downtown and making trips to the theater even less attractive for Austin families.

In the 1960s, the downward trend continued with two major events; one that signaled its fading glory and another that offered a glimpse of the theater’s future potential. First, in late 1963, the Paramount’s iconic blade was removed from above the entrance, ostensibly for renovation, although it was never re-installed. “This thing weighs two-and-a-half tons and is fifty feet high …” Ritts speculates about the blade’s fate. “My guess is that it became unstable, and maybe they did intend to repair it, but when they took it down and realized how much it was going to cost to repair it, it was better that it be scrapped.”


The Paramount interior in 1935 (photo courtesy of the Austin Theatre Alliance), and the crowd awaiting the Isle of Dogs world premiere at SXSW 2018 (photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW).

Then in July 1966, the theater hosted the world premiere of Batman, a feature film based on the popular television show of the time. The event was the result of an agreement between the filmmakers and Glastron, an Austin-based boat company that had built the Batboat for the movie. The premiere event featured the film’s stars in full costume riding in convertibles down Congress Avenue. An estimated 30,000 people came out on a scorching summer afternoon, unknowingly offering a preview of the many star-studded events that would come decades later during SXSW.

By the beginning of the ’70s, the Paramount’s future looked dim. It hadn’t hosted a live event in years and was reduced to screening kung fu and blaxploitation flicks to audiences that often barely numbered in the double-digits. Indeed, the decline seemed terminal when a plan was proposed to demolish the building and replace it with a Holiday Inn hotel.

But fortunes changed with the arrival of John Bernardoni, Charles Eckerman, and Stephen Scott. “By their own admission, they had neither money nor influence,” says Ritts, but they still decided to save the Paramount from an ignominious end.

On February 2, 1975, Bernardoni, Eckerman, and Scott presented a successful concert by jazz star Dave Brubeck. This was the first live performance at the Paramount in decades and proved that Austinites would still turn out for downtown events. On April 15, the three took over the lease and in order to find a cost-effective way to draw audiences, that summer launched the first of its annual (and still occurring) Summer Classic Film Series, which attracted audiences and effectively kept the theater open.

Though the odds seemed stacked against them from the start, the trio made an astonishing and seemingly auspicious discovery in the early days of their stewardship. During a much-needed marathon cleaning by the three and some friends, Bernardoni accidentally unfurled the original hand-painted fire curtain from its hiding place high in the rafters, where it had been forgotten but fortuitously protected from light and damage.


Paramount marquee in 1977 (photo courtesy of the Austin Theatre Alliance) and during SXSW Film’s 25th anniversary in 2018 (photo by Ann Alva Wieding).

“It was in almost pristine condition, and nobody knew it was up there,” says Ritts. “We’ve been told that it’s one of only seven or eight in existence in the United States and one of the top two or three in terms of its condition … it’s one of those things where something that happens out of economic bad times accidentally serves as a preservation tool.”

The new operators set about coordinating with local officials and political figures, including Rep. Jake Pickle and Lucy Baines Johnson, to spur preservation efforts. They received a major boost when Roberta Crenshaw donated her family’s 50% ownership of the building. This enabled the Paramount to be established as a non-profit organization, helping launch fundraising aimed at restoring the building to its past glory.

State and national historic designations came in 1977. Renovations began the same year and led to the 1979 return of the second-level opera boxes, which had been removed once the theater became a full-time movie house. This rebirth set the stage for the ’80s and ’90s, when the Paramount returned to its rightful place at the center of Austin’s live entertainment and film scenes.

SXSW Film debuted in the mid ’90s (first, as part of SXSW Multimedia in ’94 before becoming SXSW Film in ’95), and the Paramount became the logical spot for major festival screenings and premieres, though it took a number of years for the theater to become the daily screening linchpin that it is today. In fact, the most talked-about event of those first years of SXSW at the Paramount was not a film, but the surprise performance in 1999 by musician Tom Waits.


Batman world premiere in 1966 (photo courtesy of the Austin Theatre Alliance), The Bandit at SXSW 2016 (photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for SXSW), Burt Reynolds at The Bandit screening (photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for SXSW), and Ernest Cline, Tye Sheridan and Ben Mendelsohn at the Ready Player One world premiere during SXSW 2018 (photo by Danny Matson).

These days, the Paramount is the location of many of the festival’s biggest premiere events. “There’s nothing like experiencing a SXSW Film premiere to a completely packed Paramount house,” says Pierson. During SXSW 2019, the Paramount hosted 31 screenings during SXSW including the world premieres of Us, Booksmart, Good Boys, Stuber, Long Shot, The Highwaymen, and Pet Sematary.

“It’s where ALL the filmmakers want to premiere,” Pierson explains. “We’ve had artist after artist talk about having a Paramount screening in mind when they’ve been making their work.”

In addition, since SXSW Film has always been a fertile ground for music-related movies, SXSW Music performers have frequently given live concerts in conjunction with screenings. “One of the things I love most about SXSW is the broad gamut of what people get to see and experience, and that’s a microcosm of what we try to do throughout the year,” says Ritts.

For the theater’s centennial celebration of October 11, 2015, a great symbol of the theater’s triumphant return was unveiled with the lighting of the new Paramount blade, which had been painstakingly reconstructed as an exact replica (aside from new LED lightbulbs) of the original blade from the ’30s. “The thing that was so cool about it was that it was a celebration of preservation,” remembers Ritts about the relighting ceremony. “This theater had made it through all of the ups and downs.”

With the Paramount on more stable financial ground that it has been in decades and its status as an Austin institution cemented, Ritts looks toward the future by keeping an eye on the theater’s original function as a showplace for all entertainment lovers. “Fifth and sixth generations of Austinites are now attending shows at the Paramount,” Ritts concludes. “It exists solely because of the support of the city, not the government … the citizens.”


Congress Avenue, circa 1942 (photo courtesy of the Austin Theatre Alliance), and SXSW at the 2019 Austin PRIDE Parade on Congress Ave (photo by Mike Manewitz).

This feature is the first installment of “At SXSW,” a SXSWorld Magazine series that explores some of the iconic venues in Austin you’ll find yourself in at SXSW – stay tuned for more.

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