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Is Austin's Paramount one of only a few century-old theaters still operating in the country?

People in line outside a theater with "KUT Presents: ATXplained Live" on the marquee out front
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
People line up to enter the Paramount Theatre for KUT's ATXplained Live show last September.

This story was originally performed live at the Paramount Theatre on Sept. 28, 2022. Our next ATXplained Live show is Wednesday night. Find tickets here.

While Austin might not have the glitz, glamour or history of cinema-rich cities like Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco, there’s no doubting the fact the city is one of the best in the country for catching a flick.

You can see a movie on the forest screen of the Blue Starlite drive-in, stop into Hotel Vegas for the latest offering from the Hyperreal Film Club or head over to the Austin Film Society to see your favorite old films brought to sparkling new life with the help of today's technology.

No marquee shines brighter, however, than the crown jewel of the Austin movie scene: the Paramount Theatre.

KUT listener Chris Reid saw nearly every film featured during last year’s annual Summer Classic Film Series. That’s because he loves the Paramount, and because it’s one of the few places where a hoodie and jeans might be necessary during the sweltering Central Texas summer.

“It’s just one of those places where I keep coming back year after year," Reid said, "and it just keeps getting better."

For more than a century, folks have been entertained at the Paramount not only by films, but also by concerts, comedy shows and — for the first time last September — ATXplained Live.

Reid wanted to know if the Paramount was one of a few century-old American theaters still in operation.

Act I

The theater opened as a vaudeville venue back in October 1915 and was known as the Majestic. By the 1930s, the Paramount Publix Corp. took charge and bestowed its own name on the venue, thus it became the Paramount Theatre. (This is the same studio responsible for the small 2022 film Top Gun: Maverick.)

A black and white photo of a theater with a neon blade out front
Austin History Center
The Paramount Theatre's original neon blade illuminates Congress Street in 1936.

The name on the front of the building wasn’t the only change that took place over those years. Silent movies with live orchestra accompaniment soon became a regular part of the entertainment schedule.

And then there was sound. Movies with audible dialogue — rather than title cards displaying character’s words or thoughts — became all the rage. The release of classics like The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs brought audiences out in droves to theaters across the country for many years to come.

Almost 600 miles away from the Paramount, at the Plaza Theatre in El Paso, the memory of watching Snow White in the 1950s still sticks with Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor of film at UT Austin.

“That experience — as much as anything — transformed my life. It’s the reason I’m a film professor. I just fell in love with movies,” Ramírez Berg said. “How could I not have my life transformed?”

He wasn’t the only one fixated by the silver screen; the booming movie business was bringing good business to downtown theaters across the country.

Act II

Following a few decades of film dominance, the Paramount hit a lull as Austinites began moving away from downtown and spending more time in front of their TVs.

Viewing habits were changing, and so, too, were attitudes about who was allowed into the Paramount. Before the 1960s, Black patrons and other persons of color were relegated to the balcony, if they were even allowed entry at all.

All that changed after a group of young activists called Students for Direct Action began picketing local movie theaters to end whites-only and segregated seating policies.

“You know we were out there: ‘1, 2, 3, 4, we broke down Woolworth’s door,'" Leon McNealy said in a 2014 documentary about a protest in front of the Paramount in 1963.

A month or so after that protest, the Austin Chamber of Commerce adopted a resolution that led to the integration of public facilities.

A memorial including a portrait, gloves and hat hangs on a wall
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A memorial to Edward Walter Norris Jr., one of the first Black projectionists in Austin, hangs in the Paramount's projection booth. Norris worked for the Paramount for 30 years.

That same decade the Paramount employed one of the first Black projectionists in Austin: Edward Walter Norris Jr., whose union hat and gloves still hang in the theater’s projection booth.

The Paramount was changing its ways and altering its looks, too: The original blade that lit up Congress Street in the previous century was taken down to be refurbished, but the sign never did return. It wasn’t until the Paramount celebrated its centennial in 2015 that a new sign finally rested atop the venue’s marquee.

In the 1970s, the owners thought the Paramount’s days were numbered, and this regal house of entertainment was set to become something else entirely: a Holiday Inn.

Before that fateful move, however, new leadership stepped in to protect the Paramount. As a means of adding a little extra revenue and putting butts in seats, the theater held its first summer classic film series in 1975.

A pink sunset behind a blade outside an old building that says Paramount
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
Hundreds turn out in 2015 to see the Paramount Theatre's new blade sign turned on for the first time since the original sign was removed in 1964.

By the time The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas premiered at the Paramount in 1982, the theater had regained its status as a gem of the city.

Propelled by its new leadership, funding from members of the community and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the Paramount underwent a restoration that would set the foundation to see it through its first century of entertainment.

Act III

The time following those renovations was prosperous for the theater and prosperous for the Austin movie scene. It was around the time Ramírez Berg started teaching at UT Austin and about the same time he met another movie nerd: Richard Linklater.

“He decided he wanted to make films and also decided he wanted to have a place where we could watch films, and that became the Austin Film Society,” Ramírez Berg said.

Less than a decade later, Tim and Karrie League launched the Alamo Drafthouse, further cementing Austin as one of the best movie towns in the country.

And it all began with the Majestic back in 1915. More than 100 years on, the Paramount's doors are still open to screen some of the greatest films ever recorded in history.

But is the venue one of only a few century-old theaters still showing movies?

A lot of theaters around the country went up around the same time as the Paramount. A few are still operating.

But many have closed their doors for good, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and a seemingly unlimited supply of streaming services.

For Reid, the idea of losing the Paramount is the stuff horror movies are made of.

“It’s such a unique place that can never be rebuilt again," he said. "Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at jerry@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
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