- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
In 1936, A.C. Franklin, along with his brother E.M. and two friends, put together the Paramount Singers, a gospel group.
“We were sitting around those shotgun houses on Comal Street, and my brother said: ‘Hey, we ought to start a singing group,’” Franklin told this reporter almost 60 years later in 1995.
All they needed was a name that fit their big-time ambitions.
“We debated that for quite some time,” Franklin said. “We needed the name of something outstanding, large. And then the Rev. H. Sneed said: ‘The Paramount Theatre down around Congress Avenue — that’s a big theater.’”
The Paramount Singers, whose membership changed often, sang gospel and made recordings for decades. But for whatever reason, they never got to perform at their namesake spot.
A populist palace from the beginning, the Paramount was the biggest of the big-time venues in Austin, at least from 1915 until late in the 20th century, when larger, more-modern spots competed for top-shelf talent.
As the theater turns 100 this year, it is crucial to recall that the grande dame of Congress Avenue — frequented by all social and economic classes, although in segregated seating for its first 50 years — hosted some of the top showbiz names, from Orson Welles to Katharine Hepburn, from Cab Calloway to Miles Davis.
In 1916, for instance, mystifying illusionist Harry Houdini escaped theatrical danger there.
“His most remarkable feat is to liberate himself after being bound and locked in what he calls ‘A Chinese Water Torture Cell,’” reported the Austin Statesman and Tribune, “while standing upon his head with his ankles securely clasped and bolted in the center of a massive wooden cover.”
Why Austin? Why the Paramount?
Originally called the Majestic Theatre and built in a traditional European opera-house style, the theater replaced the Hancock Opera House, formerly located on West Sixth Street just off Congress Avenue, as the premiere playhouse in town. The hull of the Hancock was demolished in the early 1980s.
For much of its history — before and after it was renamed the Paramount in 1930 — booking was controlled by the Dallas-based Interstate chain, headed by impresario Karl Hoblitzelle.
The economics of show business and the cost of travel had always required that touring performers stop at every reasonably sized town. In fact, ever since the railroads arrived in the 1870s, Austin had hosted the biggest theatrical names of the day. As recorded in Joe Edgar Manry’s meticulous account, “Curtain Call: The History of Theater in Austin, Texas 1839-1905,” 19th-century superstars such as Edwin Booth, Lawrence Barrett and Anna Held appeared at a series of venues here.
By 1900, legitimate stage plays were still stopping in Austin, but the dominant form of entertainment was vaudeville — a populist, family-friendly version of variety theater that eventually included movies. Because the Majestic was designed specifically as a vaudeville house, focused on quickly changing acts rather than scenery, it has virtually no side or backstage spaces, an arrangement that challenges shows requiring big, three-dimensional sets.
Because of that same vaudeville heritage, however, the spatial and visceral relationships between performers and audiences can’t be beat. It opened Oct. 11, 1915, to much fanfare.
“One Price, Courtesy, a Square Deal for the New Majestic,” ran the headlines.
Not long after that, a major movie — screened first by the Majestic’s sister theater, the Hancock — left behind a dubious legacy. D.W. Griffith’s incendiary epic “Birth of a Nation” pioneered countless cinematic techniques. At the same time, its explicitly racist narrative cheered the tactics of the Klu Klux Klan and helped inflame racial tensions across the country well into the 1920s.
When it returned to the Majestic in 1918 and 1919 at “popular prices,” the Austin Statesman failed to illuminate those failings.
“The greatest motion picture ever produced opened at the Majestic Theatre yesterday to capacity houses at all performances,” the paper reported. “This wonderful picture has lost none of its charm and magnetism since playing in Austin at a price of $2 per seat.”
Big acts through the ages
Although movies and variety acts dominated the theater in the early years — just as music, film and comedy are big draws these days — legitimate stage plays with full sets and costumes were considered marquee events.
In 1934, Katharine Cornell played poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning opposite Basil Rathbone, best known for his Sherlock Holmes portrayals, in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” That year, Norma Shearer and Fredric March took the same roles in the movie version.
Brilliant future director Orson Welles acted in a supporting role. Cornell, billed by the Austin Statesman as “World’s First Lady of Stage,” insisted she wanted to taste a tortilla, which she had first sampled in Dallas.
“She had only a fleeting visit to Barton Springs,” recorded Austin Statesman staff writer Lorraine Barnes. She “had dispatched Elizabeth to Florence in the arms of her Robert Browning and had seen a record Paramount Theatre audience give her a record, thrilling ovation.”
The reporter makes no mention of Welles.
In 1935, Helen Hayes was crowned as Mary of Scotland in Austin after a kerfuffle in Houston about snubbing interviewers.
“The tiny actress, who is every inch a queen from curtain rise to curtain fall, night after night, made (the potential controversy) clear before she left Friday morning for Waco,” Lorraine Barnes wrote, “and it was her only answer to a reportorial inference that a queen can do no wrong when it comes to giving — or not giving — interviews.”
Hayes returned to more Austin acclaim as Queen Victoria in “Victoria Regina” in 1938. The Ziegfeld Follies somehow squeezed its spectacle into the theater with headliners Fanny Brice and Helen Morgan in February 1935.
On Jan. 7, 1941, after being named “box office poison,” screen star Katharine Hepburn boosted her comeback by starring in a touring stage version of “The Philadelphia Story” at the Paramount, just before the classic film was released. The movie, completed in 1940, was held from theaters until the tour ended.
“Though Hepburn’s personality and velvet performances are the intriguing center of interest,” ran a gushing, unsigned review in the Austin American after the sold-out show, “all the highly individual characters help to round out a gay evening in the theater.”
Jazz was represented by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Miles Davis; dance by Vaslav Nijinsky, but not Anna Pavlova, who played the Hancock; undisguised sex appeal by Sally Rand and Mae West.
“I’m a legitimate artist, remember,” West told the Austin Statesman’s amusements editor, John Bustin, in 1951. “I have my own technique which some perhaps consider vulgar. But I prefer to think of it as sophisticated entertainment.”
Stage and screen luminaries Ethel Barrymore, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson and Maurice Evans made their mark here. Latter-day Broadway stars included Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin and Carol Channing. Among the countless pop, rock and country artists who have given concerts here, Lyle Lovett has played so many times that one critic dubbed the Paramount “the house that Lyle built.”
Crusading prohibitionist Carrie Nation made speeches at the theater. She wouldn’t be pleased that a good chunk of the Paramount’s current income derives from alcohol sales.
Two contrasting stars
One celebrity in particular, Sarah Bernhardt, did not play the Paramount, despite persistent rumors to the contrary.
At the time the most famous woman in the world, the French stage actress performed in Austin in 1906, before the Majestic was built. On this, the first of several farewell tours of America, she tangled with the national syndicate of tour promoters who controlled the Hancock Opera House. That was why she traveled with a giant performance tent.
Torrential rains turned the ground under that tent into a quagmire. In defiance of the syndicate, the Hancock opened its doors to her French-language performances, and Gov. S.W.T. Lanham and members of the Texas Legislature paid tribute to her. Later, during Bernhardt’s 1915 “Final Farewell Tour,” she skipped Austin altogether.
While Bernhardt was known worldwide for playing tragic title roles in “Hamlet” and “Camille,” Sally Rand, who according to oral tradition did appear at the Paramount, skyrocketed to fame by removing her clothes — or most of them.
Charles Root, later city manager for the Interstate chain, was an usher when “fan dancer” Rand performed here in the 1940s.
“Now there was some real fireworks!” says John Bernardoni, who heard Root’s anecdotes about Rand in the 1970s, the decade when Bernardoni and his partners revived the ailing theater. “Sally had a standing order that follow-spot operators only hit her with a blue light. This was to ‘fan’ the illusion that she was naked. She wore a flesh-colored body suit. Between the lighting, her costuming and the fans, she really did look nude.”
One night, the follow-spot operator made a mistake and hit her with a full-on white spot.
“She stopped the show, walked from the stage, up the aisle, up the stairs to the balcony and to the projection booth, cursing like a sailor with every step,” Bernardoni says. “And then, she retraced her steps, quietly, and resumed the show with her customary blue spot.”