- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
When Jim Ritts ascends the Paramount Theatre stage on Saturday for the populist palace’s annual gala, he will have much to extol.
During 2015, the director of the Paramount and State theaters toasted the older venue’s 100th birthday with a string of parties, a careful revamp of its façade, and the crowning addition of a vertical sign absent from Congress Avenue for more than 50 years.
Ritts can look back, too, on the first five years of his tenure, which saw steady audience growth for movies, comedy, music and special events, including the scene-altering Moontower Comedy & Oddity Fest.
And perhaps most importantly, plans for a key project that he has quietly promoted for years — a proposed 30-story tower to replace a derelict building at the corner of East Eighth Street and Congress Avenue — were made public recently. The tall “car-free” project will not only give the theater block a whole new look and feel, but also provide a floor of free offices for Ritts’ staff, along with extra cash to renovate the interiors of both theaters.
After years of back-and-forth, Ritts’ nonprofit recently purchased the property and, on the same day, turned it over to the development group headed by architect Brad Nelsen.
Ritts, a former sports journalist and captain of the LPGA, now stands alongside other Paramount archangels such as John Bernardoni, Roberta Crenshaw and pals, who saved the theater from destruction in the 1970s; Paul Beutel, who helmed it as an arts venue (the “Tuna” series, Austin Musical Theatre) through the lean years; and Ken Stein, who finally righted the place’s financial sails before Ritts’ arrival in 2011.
“I have such reverence for the Paramount Theatre,” Ritts says. “We have to protect and insure it as a building, but also as a thriving, vital entity.”
A man of many talents
Born in Dallas, Ritts, 62, played sports at Hillcrest High School before shredding a knee. While studying journalism at the University of Texas and, later, as a graduate student at Northwestern University, he spent Saturdays and Mondays running stats for ABC Sports.
Out of school, he moved to New York to work in the TV and advertising fields, including leadership of a startup, Channel One, which planted TVs with daily news programs in 375,000 classrooms.
After serving as commissioner of the LPGA from 1995 to 1999, he ran a company that provided original entertainment content for the Internet, competing against the biggest media outfits.
“All of us failed, but we failed spectacularly,” Ritts says. “We lost $49 million.”
In 2001, he met Lisa Jasper, who moved from Austin to New York to be with Ritts. Later, they moved together to Europe, but returned home to Austin in 2007.
Thus concludes an extremely condensed version of his life’s adventures.
A new tack for the Paramount and State
The Paramount was born as a variety theater in the style of European opera houses, the State as an art deco movie theater.
Yet the former instantly doubled as a premier movie palace and landing spot for touring legitimate plays, and the State was revived later in life as an imperfect live performance venue. Neither was designed for long runs of theater, which several subsequent managers valiantly tried to produce.
Which is why Ritts’ fervent embrace of populism — always a part of their personalities — resonates.
“I have always loved live performance,” Ritts says. “When you come to see a show at the Paramount, the theater is a character in that show. I don’t think you can say that about any other place in town.”
Five years ago, the Moontower Fest was an ideal match for this populist project.
“There’s a festival in Austin every weekend, and that’s all great and wonderful, but we wanted to scale Moontower from the beginning in order for it to be noticed,” Ritts says. “We said: Let’s take really good care of the comedians and really good care of the patrons. Everything else will take care of itself.”
What about that new-old Paramount sign?
Before coming on as CEO, Ritts was a backer of the Paramount and State. He saw many looks of surprise in the house when it was announced at a gala that he would take over as the new leader.
“Monday morning, I walked in,” he recalls. “I ran into a custodial staff member and said: ‘I think my office is in the State.’ It had been closed as a theater for five years.”
Like most people, he generally headed toward the theaters on foot from the south. Every day, he looked up at the State’s bedraggled “blade” sign.
“All the letters didn’t work,” he says. “We were kinda invisible. Drove me crazy.”
So Ritts and his development team embarked on a project to redo the State sign, which led to questions about the Paramount’s missing blade.
“We had three years to plan for a 100th anniversary event,” he says. “So it became a quest.”
The original, rumored to be rusting away in some junkyard — among other false leads — was never found, so Ritts and his development team planned a grand replacement, painstakingly researched to match its predecessor.
“I cannot tell you the galvanic impact it has had on our organization, city, patrons and friends,” Ritts says. “People taking photos, stopping and talking to us. … It says: ‘Come in, come in, come in.’”
As for the 30-story tower proposed as a mixed-use building, the property once belonged to architect Sinclair Black.
“It was empty, desolate, trashed out,” Ritts says. “You had people say, ‘I’d do anything to save the Paramount, but the State Theater is in a bad neighborhood.’ So this project started with solving a problem, then grew into a much broader vision for the neighborhood.”
It took Ritts and allies four years and nine months to acquire the building, ultimately from Black’s ex-wife. Here is a crucial aspect of the deal: The State Theater at 719 Congress Ave. must be part of any new project on the corner at 721 Congress.
“You see, 719 and 721 came out of the ground as one building,” Ritts explains. “They share a basement, and the State Theater controls 75 percent of that basement. That makes it hard to develop 721 without the State.”
Ritts’ group plans to keep one of the theaters open while the other is closed and being completely redone inside.
“We get rid of a blighted building, and we gain space for an expanded staff to spread out,” Ritts says. “And we have that one floor at no cost forever. Well, 99 years, but that’s forever.”
Goodbye to Danny
We mourn the passing of our friend and community historian Danny Camacho. His death from a heart attack was reported in these pages recently. Camacho, who grew up on Canterbury Street in the Holly district, worked for most of his adult life in food service. He read widely and retained an awe of the world around him. A regular at the Austin History Center, he was a mostly happy warrior for Mexican-American history — and all history — in our city. He will be missed.