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The Return of the Paramount Theatre
By Brent Wolfe
December 24, 1998
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Residents of Austin, Minnesota celebrated Christmas this week in their downtown Paramount Theatre. The old movie house is in the midst of a $2 million renovation and city leaders hope just as it will provide a venue for performing arts, it will also provide an economic boost for downtown.

THE PARAMOUNT THEATRE WAS FILLED with beaming parents, grandparents, and other assorted Austin residents as a group of children took to the stage during a hometown holiday concert. The Paramount was built in 1929 to show first-run films. It's an atmospheric theatre, meaning the audience is supposed to feel transported to another place. In the case of the Paramount, it's a courtyard of an ancient Spanish village with turrets and spires along the walls. Light from thousands of tiny holes punched in the ceiling created the illusion of a starry sky. Today the ceiling is dark and the cold cement floor is bare, but there's enough of the old theatre left to jog fond memories.
Audience Member: This is where we used to come when we were dating 45 years ago. We used to come here to the movies.

Audience Member: I know we saw Sound of Music, for one.

Audience Member: And from Here To Eternity, and the one that has Unchained Melody in it, whatever that one was.

Audience Member: When I was really young, my aunt would bring me to a movie once in a while and I couldn't decide if there was a roof on this place or not. It looked like stars up there.
The Paramount is one of four atmospheric theatres left in Minnesota. Project Coordinator Jeanne Spenske says it couldn't compete with newer movie theatres at shopping malls.

Spenske: In 1975 it closed and became kind of a disco - a bar, kind of - and nothing really made it. It went as a teen bar [a non-alcohol teen bar], a comedy club, and then closed. It was closed for quite a bit of time, which is what a lot of the wear and tear is on the building. Closed without any heat which is why, when I came in here to interview for the job, there was a stream going down the wall and in the orchestra pit there was ice.
It was the Austin Area Commission for the Arts that organized to save the Paramount. It's one of the few historic buildings still standing in downtown Austin; gone are the old courthouse and post office. The commission bought the theater and has raised $400,000 of the estimated $2 million needed for complete renovation. Commission President Janet Anderson envisions an arts center for theater groups and film festivals. She's planning an addition behind the existing stage, because she says the three dressing rooms underneath the stage aren't much bigger than horse stalls. Anderson says the money gets raised little by little through donations, grants, charitable gambling, and benefits such as this week's holiday concert.
Anderson: But what we're hoping even more so is that when people come in, they'll want to sponsor a seat for $500, or buy a star for $200, and those kinds of thing. Or on a corporate level, perhaps, give more money. Any kind of interest you can develop, you never know what's going to come your way. For example, the grand piano that's sitting on stage was donated. A woman called up and said "I've got something I think you might be interested in."
Arts lovers spearheaded the Paramount restoration, but Austin Chamber of Commerce executive director Monica McInerney says downtown merchants are beginning to ask what they can do to help. She hopes travelers on I-90 will decide to spend the night in Austin because there will be something to do in the evening.
McInerney: We're providing something great for our community and it can certainly be turned into something economically advantageous. If you pull that one traveler off the road, whether they see the film or the show and buy a candy bar and a soda on their way out of town, that's economic development.
Austin isn't the first Minnesota town to restore its old theater. St. Cloud, Fergus Falls, Bemidji, and Red Wing all boast restored theaters. Steven Schmidt, the former general manager of the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing, says communities need to be careful not to rely on tourism dollars to keep a theater going.
Schmidt: Your local audience really needs to support you first. It needs to be of, by, and for the people - your local community. Because when times get tough, all you can really turn to is your local audience. They're the ones who need to sustain the activity in the theater. It's never a wise move to restore a place and hope that somebody else is going to pay for it.
Austin Arts Commission leaders say that's what their hometown holiday concert was all about. Eight hundred people came to the Paramount in two sold-out performances. And they can expect to hear from the commission when it kicks off its next round of fundraising in January.