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Volume 24, Number 11 — December 2017

A brief history of The Paramount Center

One of the murals that was restored inside the Paramount.
One of the murals that was restored inside the Paramount.
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | March 29, 2017

The Paramount Theatre was built in 1930-31 by the Paramount-Publix Corporation. The property for the Paramount was leased from the Harry Daniels family. Local contractors, one of which was Rainero Tile Company, built the theater. Once the construction was complete, Paramount-Publix brought in their interior designer to decorate with a combination of art deco and Italian Renaissance.

Art deco, newly emerged from the 1925 Paris Exposition, is design for design's sake ... that is, geometrics and colors creating simple clean lines. The cost of the theater was $210,000. Though many have wondered, there was never a balcony. The theatre was only the third in the South and the sixth in the country built acoustically for sound movies, and it was the first in this region to have refrigerated air.

Opening night was Feb. 21, 1931, with Carol Lombard in "It Pays to Advertise." Prices were 50 cents at night, 35 cents for a matinee and 10 cents for 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 theater essentially sat empty for the next 10 years. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and plans to renovate began to form. Bristol and its surrounding community donated $1.3 million to the project, which was matched with $1 million from the State of Tennessee by a special act of the legislature. The restoration/renovation was started in December 1989 and completed 17 months later for re-opening April 26, 1991. Bristol's Tennessee Ernie Ford was the entertainment for its grand re-opening.

Mary Beth Rainero was the project manager for the restoration of the theatre, helping to raise $1 million from the State of Tennessee and fund-raising to match the state dollars. But she did countless other jobs in getting this project completed. She helped select specialty contractors for interior restoration and secured the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. She planned publicity releases and grand opening activities.

The renovated theater kept its original look. The marquee is a replica of the original. The first marquee, remodeled in the 1950s, was deteriorated beyond repair. 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. The showcases, mirror and metal posts are original. 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 where Whiskey Rebellion is currently. It was not until 1947 that popcorn and soft drinks were introduced.

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, made patterns and copies of all the interior designs. Then approximately three-months before completion of the restoration, three craftsmen arrived to re-decorate the interior. Repetitive patterns were done with stencils; the starbursts in the lobby ceiling were outlined with charcoal patterns then hand painted.

Harry Scanlon served as executive director from 1994-2007. Upon his retirement Merle Dickert was executive director until her death in 2012. Diane Dempsey served in the position from 2012 through 2014. After an extensive search Miles Marek took the position in 2015.

The source for material for this history was the Bristol Historical Society's website.

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Great attention was paid to every detail in The Paramount, including the powder room.