How Roberta Reed Crenshaw became the Paramount’s patron saint

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015 Austin360

During the 1970s, when the Paramount Theatre was being restored, Roberta “Bobbie” Reed Crenshaw dropped by to check on a particularly difficult painting job. The beautifully dressed philanthropist — who made the theater’s salvation possible by deeding 50 percent ownership of the building to a new nonprofit — didn’t like what she saw.

“She scrambled up the scaffolding in the inner lobby, high heels and all, and proceeded to show the painter how it was done,” recalls John Bernardoni, one of three partners who led the restoration effort. “That was Bobbie Crenshaw in spades. She was both regal and down-to-earth, ready to roll up her sleeves and do whatever it took.”

Thrice married, Crenshaw was among the most formidable leaders in Austin’s history. She guided visionary efforts that helped create the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, Shoal Creek Trail and other greenbelts. Crenshaw was around when Ballet Austin and the Parks and Recreation Department were formed. She provided the civic muscle behind the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, and she gave the city Reed Park in Tarrytown.

And, of course, she was the patron saint of the Paramount Theatre, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

“She was responsible for starting more good things in this city than almost anyone else,” environmentalist Shudde Fath said when Crenshaw died in 2005. “She was my hero. She never gave up.”

Whence came such power?

In April 1914, Roberta Purvis was born in Little Rock, Ark. She came to Austin in 1932 to earn a degree in liberal arts. She was bright but also strikingly beautiful, as can be seen in a painting of her recently installed at the Paramount in her memory.

She married cotton exporter and oilman Malcolm Hiram Reed, who had not long before moved into the 1928 Reed Estate in tony Pemberton Heights. He was also the father of one of Roberta’s best friends from college, according to several accounts. With Reed, she had two daughters, raised at Reed Hall, another handsome residence, this one built in 1936 in Tarrytown.

Reed Estate remains a showplace. Reed Hall, despite a valiant effort to save it, was demolished.

After her husband died, Roberta married attorney Fagan Dickson. That didn’t work out. “It ended in a multimillion-dollar settlement for Mrs. Dickson,” reported the Austin American-Statesman on Oct. 6, 1975. Fagan Dickson died in 1977.

The third marriage was a real charmer. Widower Charles Edward Crenshaw IV, an attorney who had worked as an assistant to Price Daniel when he was Texas attorney general, is best remembered these days as the father of golfing great Ben Crenshaw.

“It was a perfect union,” says Bernardoni. “Charlie was the most affable, kind, warm and decent man you could imagine. I was lucky enough to spend time with them at their home on El Greco Cove.”

Although some of Roberta Crenshaw’s influence came from her financial freedom, she led some crusades by hardworking example. What became the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake started along a path on the west side of South First Street cleared by Crenshaw and her ranch hands.

“This literally hands-on work exemplifies the level of personal commitment, time and energy this lady has lavished on Austin in a tireless effort to bring into reality her vision of the potential of Austin’s creeks and lakes,” Austin Mayor Lee Cooke said at a tribute brunch in 1989. These had “the potential to bless the lives of Austin citizens with beauty and the opportunity for relaxation and recreation.”

Crenshaw had begun this type of work right out of college.

“When I started out in the early ’30s, Shoal Creek was a drainage ditch,” she once said. “The lakes and creeks were thought of in terms of producing hydroelectric power and controlling floods.”

Named to the parks board, she refused to play the part of a polite lady of means.

“You weren’t supposed to do anything but go and behave,” she told the American-Statesman in 1985. “But the city was such a great challenge, it was impossible to be passive about it.”

Even as she poured energy into recreation and the environment, Crenshaw, who had studied ballet, led the way in the arts. Ballet Austin, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and the Contemporary Austin — formerly known as Laguna Gloria, among other names — were among her pet projects.

“She loved being a patron of the arts,” says Holly Allen, who served as her personal assistant during the early 1980s. “Bobbie was a social whirlwind. Everyone wanted her to attend their parties. It was kind of exhausting for her.”

Currently, environmentalist Fath, parks advocate Mary Arnold and historian Phoebe Allen are among those campaigning to name Shoal Beach on Lady Bird Lake the “Roberta Reed Crenshaw Overlook.”

After all, as her daughter Lucy Hibberd said on Crenshaw’s death: “Her signature is all over Austin.”

The Paramount connection

So how did Roberta Crenshaw come into possession of the old theater on Congress Avenue, originally named the Majestic? Author Terri Schexnayder, who is writing a book about the Paramount, tracked down the sequence of ownership. From 1915 to 1928, it remained in the hands of its builder, Ernest Nalle, and his family. Two realty companies controlled it until 1941, when it was acquired by the Margaret Reed Estate. Schexnayder determined that the M.H. Reed Trust still controlled at least 50 percent of it in 1977. Recall that “M.H. Reed” was Crenshaw’s first husband.

In 1975, Bernardoni, Charles Eckerman and Stephen Scott founded a nonprofit group, Paramount Theatre for the Performing Arts, to restore the beloved building, which was in danger of falling apart. Active philanthropists, such as Crenshaw, Sue McBee and Mary Margaret Farabee, came on board in 1976, the year that the restoration began. In 1977, the group applied for a federal grant that required the nonprofit to own the building, at the time controlled by two trusts.

“We asked Bobbie if she would consider donating her 50 percent interest, also owned by her daughters,” says Bernardoni, who stayed with the theater until 1985. “The other trust gave us a 99-year lease. The combination of Bobbie’s generous gift and this new, long-term lease gave us what would be ‘tantamount to ownership.’”

The federal government eventually gave $1.85 million in economic development money for the project, which helped stabilize a disintegrating downtown. Crenshaw also campaigned to replace six theatrical boxes in the house.

The theater’s challenges were not over. During the next 30 years, the Paramount struggled through roller-coaster cycles in entertainment trends, along with the need for constant upkeep. More recently, under managers Ken Stein and Jim Ritts, the Paramount and its sister house, the State Theatre, have gained financial stability and re-established their reputations as populist palaces.

Earlier this year, Bernardoni led the effort to install a portrait painting of Crenshaw at the Paramount. At the unveiling, Fath and Arnold were joined by Luci Baines Johnson, Jane Sibley, Sinclair Black, Ben Crenshaw and other civic pioneers.

“People gasped when the portrait was revealed at the end of the presentation,” Bernardoni reports. “Only her family and a very few friends had ever seen this life-size portrait by Wayman Adams hanging in Reed Hall and, later, at her home on El Greco Cove. A more gracious, loving classy and generous woman would be hard to find. She did so much for Austin — about which most people are unaware.”