The History of Paramount Bristol
Bristol in the early 20th century was a bustling industrial and commercial center with a flourishing arts scene, with the Paramount on State Street right in the center of it all. Opening day for the theater was February 20, 1931 at 8:00 pm with the showing of “It Pays to Advertise,” a romantic comedy starring Carole Lombard and Norman Foster. The prices were set at 50 cents for a night showing, 35 cents for a matinee, and 10 cents for children. The opening night was a tremendous success, and the enormous crowd blocked traffic for five blocks.
The Paramount’s unique architecture along with its state-of-the-art “refrigerated” air system drew enthusiasts from all over to marvel at the new theater and escape from the heat. In its heyday, The Paramount featured live performances of vaudeville shows, the Big Band sounds of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Spivak, Harry James, and Grand Ole Opry stars Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard, Johnny Mack Brown, Ernest Tubb and Cowboy Copas, but made its mark presenting Hollywood blockbusters. It rapidly became the hub of entertainment for the region. More than 1,200 boys and girls, members of The Popeye Club, came to The Paramount for Saturday morning cartoons and talent shows.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, times and tastes changed and downtown Bristol fell into decline. The Paramount’s owners tried to encourage business by offering admittance to the theatre in exchange for ten coke bottle tops. Unfortunately, attendance was not high enough to keep The Paramount in business.
The last movie, “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” was shown in 1979 and The Paramount went dark and fell into disrepair. Thanks to the determination of several Bristolians with vision, The Paramount was saved. When the building’s fifty-year lease expired in 1981, the property reverted to the Daniel family. They donated it to Bristol’s community theater, Theatre Bristol. Lacking the necessary resources to restore it, in 1982, Theatre Bristol deeded the property to the non-profit Paramount Foundation.
The Paramount Foundation spent the next 10 years conducting feasibility plans and evaluations for the possible restoration of the theatre. In 1985, the theater was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. A challenge grant was obtained from the State of Tennessee for $1 million, which required matching local funds. More than 1,000 contributors rose to the State’s challenge and restoration work was begun. Restoration architect, Bill Price, worked with contractor Associated Construction Services, Inc. from December of 1989 until April of 1991 to restore The Paramount to its original glory. The opulence of the original art deco and Italianate interior was painstakingly preserved, the facility was upgraded to present-day standards, and four stories of dressing, rehearsal and storage space were added. A new Mighty Wurlitzer organ was secured.
The original seating capacity of the theater was 1,200, but in order to build a performing stage house, the entire proscenium of the stage was brought forward which left the theatre with 750 seats. The chandeliers are the original fixtures, but the marquee is an exact replica of the original, holding 1,967 bulbs. Fully restored and ready for all manner of live performance, The Paramount reopened in 1991 with a gala event featuring Tennessee Ernie Ford, a native son of Bristol.
The Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ was originally installed in the Charlottesville, VA Paramount Theatre. It eventually became the property of the Piedmont Theatre Organ Society, a branch of the American Theatre Organ Society, which installed the organ in Bristol’s Paramount for a $1 a year lease. On April 18, 1993, renowned organist, Mr. Lee Erwin, introduced it to the public with a performance of “Phantom of the Opera”. It is a prized feature of The Paramount! A precious heritage to longtime residents, The Paramount still shows movies, and the venue has once again become a top destination for live entertainment. In recent years, Paramount Bristol has presented major touring artists in country, Americana, roots, jazz, folk, rock, chamber music, world music, bluegrass and gospel, as well as hosting many of the country’s best-known comedians.
A vibrant center for the arts in the Mountain Empire, The Paramount serves as a stage for world renowned artists as well as for local arts and civic organizations. Our talented community members relish the chance to perform on its stage and they shine in musical productions presented by local arts partners Theatre Bristol (Beauty & the Beast, Les Misérables, The Music Man, ANNIE), Bristol Ballet (The Nutcracker), Symphony of the Mountains, Bristol Music Club, Barter Youth Academy, The Paramount Chamber Players, and Senior Show Choir. The Paramount also provides a performance home for the Birthplace of Country Music’s annual Rhythm & Roots Reunion and Believe in Bristol’s PUSH! Film Festival.
* to read more about The Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ, click here.