On State Street, Entertainment is Paramount
By Jonathan Austin
A step into Bristol’s Paramount Center for the Arts is a step back in time to the heyday of jaw-dropping movie palaces designed to entertain the masses.
The art deco theater attracted an enormous crowd on opening night, Feb. 20, 1931, with traffic snarled for five blocks as moviegoers came to see the Carole Lombard comedy “It Pays to Advertise.”
In the 21st century, Bristol residents can thank a handful of forward-thinking people who worked in the 1980s and 1990s to save the theater and transform it into a premier showplace for live music and theatrical performances.
Located on the Tennessee side of Bristol’s historic State Street, the performance center has recently hosted Country music legends Ronnie Milsap, Delbert McClinton and Tanya Tucker.
In March, the center will welcome Wynonna Judd and The Big Noise.
Miles Marek, executive director of the Paramount Foundation, said Bristol is “a town that is very rooted in its history” yet is “progressive and forward thinking.”
The Paramount is one example of how Bristol “has taken the trouble to preserve the best assets that it has and focused them on the future in making Bristol this happening place,” he said.
“If you’re coming down from the northeast—Pennsylvania, New York City—you’re going to stop in Bristol,” he said.
“The focus here is to preserve the theater, first of all, so it becomes the creative place for downtown Bristol, where all the creative arts groups can come together and do their thing.”
He said concert events at the theater “draw people from a six state region. People are coming from all over to see shows at the Paramount Bristol. That’s having an enormous economic impact on downtown,” Marek said.
“This is the birthplace of country music, and that’s very important to us. But Bristol is, in its own way, a very cosmopolitan place, and there are people who love jazz, and there are people who love classical music, and we have some amazingly talented people across the spectrum of entertainment,” he said, from music and theater to ballet.
“You can’t throw a rock around here without hitting somebody who can play an instrument or sing or dance. It’s a very important part of the culture down here, in a way that you don’t see everywhere else in the country,” Marek said.
“The arts and music flow in the bloodstream of the people here,” Marek said.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Paramount is an excellent example of the art deco motion picture palaces built in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
“Every time I talk to someone I hear about how they had their first date here, or their parents met here, or their grandparents met here, so I would say, unequivocally, that the Paramount in Bristol has done more than almost any place to affect the gene pool,” Marek said with a smile. “It’s really part of everybody’s blood around here. That’s kind of a cool thing; when the arts have that importance in a community,” he said.
“People come here and they build memories for a lifetime,” Marek said.