The highs and lows of the Paramount Theatre’s past 40 years

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 Austin360

Much of the buzz about the Paramount Theatre’s 100th anniversary — which culminates with public and private parties to toast the lighting of a big vertical sign over Congress Avenue on Sept. 23 — has to do with its early years.

Big dreams, big acts, big impact on Austin’s cultural scene.

Yet, leaders from the theater’s most recent 40 years — before Jim Ritts’ auspicious and ongoing tenure helming the populist palace — look back on the Paramount’s several near-death experiences along with soaring successes.

From 1971 to 1974, for instance, John Bernardoni searched for a way to turn the old vaudeville house and decaying movie theater into a performing arts center. He made speeches, met with politicians, listened to the arts community.

It was slow going at first. Downtown was emptying out. While other historic theaters around the country were saved during this era, many more, including Austin’s 19th-century Hancock Opera House, were demolished.

In 1974, Bernardoni partnered with Chuck Eckerman and Steve Scott to brainstorm, then to write a prospectus and to book the first three test shows: Dave Brubeck, Herbie Mann and Texas Opera Theatre’s “Turn of the Screw.”

They took over the lease April 15, 1975. Bernardoni says Brubeck’s show was “electrifying on every level.”

“There had not been a live performance in the Paramount in probably 20 years,” he says. “Most people had stopped going to the Paramount due to urban decay and B movies, which reached a low point of Bruce Lee films with a dozen in attendance in a rundown theatre. For Brubeck, the audience became one — outpouring pure energy and bounding spirit.”

For Bernardoni, the lowest point came during the mid-1980s with a national tour that the Paramount produced of Edward Gorey’s production of “Dracula,” starring Martin Landau.

“Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Bernardoni says. “Martin was a trouper, enduring more than was ever asked of an actor. Sadly, virtually no funds were raised for the tour, which was a crippling blow.”

The losses were enormous.

“The man who saved the Paramount virtually killed the Paramount,” Bernardoni admits. “Never mind that more than 50 professionals were part and parcel of this odyssey and equally responsible.”

For Bernardoni’s one-time partner, Steve Scott, who left the theater in 1978, his No. 1 highlight was meeting his future wife, Judy Stephens.

“We joke that while I was trying to save the Paramount, she was on stage playing a prostitute — she and Ken Johnson were doing a production of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ — and it was love at first sight.”

The Scotts were married Jan. 3, 1976. Scott also credits preservation and downtown business groups for backing the Paramount salvation project.

“Plus the Dave Brubeck concert,” Scott says, “proving that developing the venue was a viable idea.”

The low point for Scott came in the late 1970s, when the managing partners realized they were technically bankrupt and knew they couldn’t make it on box office sales alone.

“We had to use fundraisers, not only for the restoration of the building but also for day-to-day operations’” Scott says. “We will always be grateful for the many donations, big and small, that kept the Paramount dream going, and continue to do so today.”

The third founding partner, Eckerman, left in 1979, when the theater closed for a year to finish the restoration. He fondly recalls the point when they finally got the Paramount on solid footing.

“I enjoyed doing it and got to work with Steve and John and met a lot of interesting people,” he says. “There were a lot of fun times.”

His low points had to do with earlier financial debacles, including the opera, “Taming of the Shrew,” only months after opening.

“We lost several thousand dollars which we did not have,” Eckerman says. “Maury Coates with the Texas Arts Commission had wanted us to book it, so we did. We didn’t know what to do, so we went to Maury. He said that, since he wanted us to book the show, he would cover the loss. If he hadn’t done that, we would have been finished.”

Paul Beutel took the helm soon after the “Dracula” debacle in the mid-1980s. He continued as director until 2004 and programmed films through 2009, by which time he had moved over to the Long Center. He is perhaps best known for shepherding the stupendously successful series of “Greater Tuna” comedies to the stage, as well as the “all-too-brief but dazzling life” of Austin Musical Theatre, a group that produced traditional musicals to the highest standards..

He also recalls the 75th anniversary gala in 1990, directed by Rod Caspers from the University of Texas.

“We saluted the various forms of entertainment presented at the Paramount over the years — vaudeville, movies, theater, concerts, comedy, etc.,” Beutel says. “We featured such diverse performers as Esther’s Follies, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, UT-ex Steve Barton — then on Broadway in “Phantom of the Opera” — and TV/film/stage actress Ruta Lee. It was a glorious evening!”

His lowest point came in 1988.

“The Paramount has had its ups and downs, and this was near-Death Valley,” Beutel says. “We were out of money. All but three staff were let go. The cry of ‘Save the Paramount’ went out over the media. But save it we did, and by the early ’90s we were flying high.”

A runner-up low point — “and arguably No. 1,” he says — the death of beloved projectionist Walter Norris from an apparent heart attack while showing “Casablanca.”

“But he died doing what he loved,” Beutel says, “and how many of us will be able to say that?”

Ken Stein came on as development director in 2002 and took over from Dan Fallon as executive director in 2004. He left in 2011 and now is president and CEO for the League of Historic American Theatres.

Stein worked to cut losses associated with the Paramount’s merger with the State Theatre. He also raised money like gangbusters during rollicking benefits and popularized one-on-one stage interviews with celebrities.

“I still cherish the many, many friendships I made,” Stein says, “but if I had to pick one highlight, it would be either my lasting friendship with Shirley MacLaine or Lily Tomlin.”

His lowest point came when the adjacent State Theatre flooded and had to be closed for years.

“I knew I had just exhausted any good will I had created in the arts community when I did that,” he says. “I still wish I had worked harder to find a different solution.”

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