At the Opening Gala, the first thing the audience heard was the Star Spangled banner played on the organ. The first performance to use the organ was Phantom of the Opera.
That night, Bristol was host to the world premier of “It Pays to Advertise” (pictured here).
The theatre was only the sixth such built in the country specifically for acoustics for movies with sound, a property maintained during the restoration which contributes to excellent sound during performances.
The theatre was designed to seat 1400, but many were removed during the 1950s remodeling to accommodate Cinemascope and stereo sound. Also around this time the original organ (later to be replaced) was dismantled.
It was built by the Paramount-Publix Corporation, formed with the merger of several movie companies including Paramount, Lasky, and Famous Players. The design came from the Chicago architectural firm Rapp & Rapp. The design is a combination of Art Deco and Italian Renaissance styles. Rainero Tile was one of the many local contractors employed.
During the Depression years, “Bankers” and “Dish” nights, where patrons won prize money or dishes toward a complete set were commonly used to draw audiences to the movies.
In the 1950s, we began showing Sunday Features.
After 49 years, the Paramount closed and was soon slated to be demolished to make way for 36 parking spaces, which would surely have occurred if it were not for the protective and foresightful Bristolians who organized to save it.
On November 9th, 1982, the building’s owner Harry D. Daniels donated it to Theatre Bristol who agreed to establish the Paramount Foundation on that day.
In June 1985, the theatre received national recognition by being named to the National Register of Historic Places (listing) and by being “deemed worthy of preserving as an elegant example of art deco architecture.”
In September 1986, Theatre Bristol deeded the property to The Paramount Foundation, which is today the non-profit organization that continues to own and operate the theatre.
Our first Executive Director Cathy De Caterina was the Paramount’s stalwart leader during the restoration period. Frank Leonard served as an integral part of the Paramount Task Force, helping to chart a course forward. Many others were directly responsible for realizing a true restoration project including Ronan King, Mike Riley, Mary Beth Rainero, (future Executive Director) Merle Dickert, Lea Powers, and many others.
The Task Force helped procure a one million dollar grant from the State of Tennessee (special thanks to State Senator Carl Moore and State Representative Dana Moore Patterson), which was eventually matched by individuals and business of the region. However, the burden of the task at hand was indeed difficult and the Board at times were not sure they could follow through such a momentous project to the end.
On June 1st, 1987, a critical meeting was held to decide once and for all whether to demolish, sell, or restore the theatre. An empassioned plea for restoration was made by Pat Hickie during this long meeting, after which it was formally decided to proceed with a complete restoration, no matter the hardship.
After much research and hard work, the Paramount Foundation hired their Architect of Record William D. Price, A.I.A., who worked with Associated Construction Services to execute his vision. The restoration took 17 months to complete.
On Friday, April 26th 1991, the fully restored Paramount was opened to much fanfare and a signature performance by Tennessee Ernie Ford who sang accompanied by the Charles Goodwin Orchestra. Mr. Ford had also appeared at a highly acclaimed and sold out show in 1949 at The Paramount Center.
Today, The Paramount Center for the Arts looks much as it did when it first opened; for example, the marquee is a replica of the original. The chandeliers in the lobby are the original fixtures, except for Tiffany or Lalique glass as the base.
Corned Stemmata Studios, historic restoration specialists, were in charge of tracing and later re-applying all the stenciled patterns in the theatre. The only restored original gold leaf is in the upper lobby.
There is a rumor that a man hanged himself in the attic of the theatre. At multiple times, footsteps have been reported coming down from the attic with no explanation.
The Paramount Center for the Arts Mighty Wurlitzer Organ will be raised and lowered from the orchestra pit by a hydraulic lift at stage left. This organ came from the Paramount in Charlottesville, VA, but it was originally moved to Elon College.
The Piedmont Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society is responsible for bringing it back to life and singing again in Bristol. It was leased to the Paramount for $1. A $25,000 campaign to raise funds for a new computer was part of its restoration.
More Early History: “Where memories will be made…”
The advertisement promoting opening night gala described the theatre as
“One in a thousand… This theatre introduces a modern note, distinctive, colorful, appealing in forms. Grace, atmosphere. Combining the gifted touch of artist, craftsman, and builder.
A theatre to charm with its restful a harmony of color, its luxuriousness, its simplicity. Affording a new conception of the ultimate in theatre construction.
And equally modern will be Paramount’s presentations… the finest features from eh world’s greatest procures. A surrounding program of units of dissection and uniqueness selected with infinite care. A tribute to the living screen.”
The Paramount truly became the regional center for fine arts, a hub of entertainment. The cost was a dime for kids and up to 50 cents at night, or $7.50 in 2017 dollars. The Popeye club grew to 1200 members of kids under age 15 who enjoyed the namesake cartoons.
According to an article that ran opening day, the Star Spangled Banner was the first thing to be heard on the organ. Movie Star Buddy Rogers gave a speech followed by comedy act. After the movie, a “Talkartoon” was shown. The original design of the theatre allowed 1400 seats. It was described as being a combination “medieval and ultra-modern art.” The paintings on the walls were copies of Italian Renaissance paintings.
Being one of the few air conditioned facilities in the area, it was known as a cool place to gather.
It was constructed by the firm Meyer and Engle of Birmingham, Alabama, which was experienced at constructing these kinds of theatres. The steel used in the building came from Bristol Steel and Ironworks.
The first General Manager was an experienced Paramount-Publix man Sam Suggs.
The original bathrooms were extravagant; The men’s was decorated like a hunting lodge and the women’s interior was covered in Carrara glass.
In the 1930s, a concession stand was installed that sold only candy. The outline can still be seen on the floor today. Prior to the installation, patrons would purchase candy and drinks at the “Sweet Shop” next door where The Whiskey Rebellion is. It was not until 1947 that there was popcorn, introduced by Mr. Gillenwater.
In 1933, a raffle was held to win a new Chevrolet Coach. People bought chances and the winner was announced on stage.
Around 1940, a lightning strike chipped a piece of the black tile that can still be seen today.
The showcases, mirror, and metal posts are original.
Additional reading from the Bristol Historical Society
The Paramount Theatre (now known as The Paramount Center for the Arts or Paramount Bristol) is a movie house built in 1930-31 by the Paramount-Publix Corporation, formed with the merger of several movie companies including Paramount, Lasky and Famous Players. The larger Paramount Theaters in major cities were designed by the architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp design whose trademark is the “starburst” seen in the lobby ceiling.
Once the building construction was completed, Paramount-Publix brought in their interior designer to decorate with the combination “art deco” and Italian Renaissance. Art deco, newly emerged from the 1925 Paris Exposition, was heavily influenced and encouraged by Frank Lloyd Wright. Art deco is design for design’s sake… that is geometrics and colors creating the simplistic clean lines.
The property for the future theater was leased from the Daniel’s family. The theater was built by local contractors, one of whom was Rainero Tile Company. The theater, as you see it now, is essentially how it looked originally. The marquee is a replica of the original. The first marquee, remodeled in the 1950s with much of the fan work removed, was deteriorated beyond repair. The marquee racing lights consist of two thousand 15-watt bulbs. The box office also had to be scrapped due to deterioration. The chandeliers in the lobby are the original fixtures, with the exception of the bottom plate. These originally were either Tiffany or Lalique glass. The concession stand which was located in the lower lobby was not installed until the late 1930s, and then only candy was sold. Prior to the installation, patrons purchased candy and drinks for the movies at the Paramount Sweet Shop on the KP Duty site. It was not until 1947 that popcorn and soft drinks were introduced by Mr. Gillenwater. The show cases mirror, and metal posts are original.
There were sets of doors in the upper lobby which were closed during performances. These doors have been salvaged and may be installed at some future point in the outside foyer.
All the ceiling patterns in the lobby and auditorium, the lobby walls, and the murals in the auditorium are copies of the original. Prior to beginning the restoration/reconstruction work, craftsmen from Conrad Schmitt studios, historic restoration specialists, came to work, craftsmen from Conrad Schmitt Studios, historic restoration specialists, came to make patterns and copies of all the interior designs. Then approximately 3-months before completion of the restoration, three craftsmen arrived to re-decorate the interior. Repetitive patterns were done with stencils; the star-bursts in the lobby ceiling were outlined with charcoal patterns then hand-painted.
The shiny material is not gold-leaf, but rather metallic-leaf. The theater was designed to seat 1200. During a 1950s remodeling, approximately 100 seats were lost in bringing the screen forward to accommodate for Cinemascope and stereo sound. Also, the orchestra pit was removed and the theatre organ dismantled with the pipes going to an amusement park in Alabama, the keyboard to King College, and parts to the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville. The 1989-1991 restoration reinstalled an organ which originally was used in the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia. The organ can be raised or lowered from the orchestra pit by a hydraulic lift at the left of the stage. Seating capacity today is 756. There was never a balcony.
At completion of construction, the cost of the theatre was $210.000. Opening night was February 21, 1931, with a Carol Lombard movie. Prices were 50 cents night, 35 cents matinee and 10 cents children. During the 30s and 40s there were live performances of vaudeville shows, the Big Band sounds of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Spivak, Harry James, Grand Ole Opry stars Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard, Gabby Hayes, Johnny Mack Brown, Ernest Tubb, and Cowboy Copus. The last movie was shown in 1979. The theatre essentially sat empty for the next ten years. The theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Plans to renovate began to form. Bristol and its surrounding community donated 1.3 million dollars to the project, which was matched with one million dollars from the State of Tennessee by a special act of the legislature. The restoration/renovation was started in December 1989 and completed seventeen months later for re-opening April 1991.
Many of those from Bristol who know The Paramount think of Merle Dickert, a much loved Executive Director (may she rest in peace) who led the theatre for years in the 2000’s during Historic Downtown Bristol’s transition from depleted and threatened into the thriving heart of the community it is today.
In 2016, the Board hired new Executive Director Miles Marek, who, tasked with modernizing Paramount Bristol’s operations, brand, and plan for the future, has already made a strong positive impact on the organization and the community.
A new website was constructed during a partnership with Ticketfly that modernized the digital ticketing system we use today.