In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Paramount's rebirth
By Rob Schmitz
Minnesota Public Radio
July 17, 2002


This week, the League of Historic American Theatres is holding its annual convention in Minneapolis. A delegation from the organization is touring some historic theatres in rural Minnesota. On the itinerary was Austin's Paramount theatre. The 73 year-old Paramount Theatre is one of the few remaining historic buildings in Austin. The amount of money needed to restore the building is not much when compared with some of the theater projects proposed for the Twin Cities. But to the handful of people struggling to restore the theatre, the project is every bit as important.

Paramount Theater Manager Scott Anderson stands in front of the newly restored marquee. An Austin resident gave 55-thousand dollars for the restoration.
(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)

Turrets, spires, and Moorish arches spread across the interior walls to Austin's Paramount Theatre, representing a village courtyard in southern Spain. Built in 1929, the Paramount is on the national list of historic sites. It's one of Minnesota's few remaining atmospheric theatres; an architectural style that makes visitors feel like they're outside.

High above the Paramount's auditorium is the faint light of tiny holes punched in the ceiling, creating the illusion of thousands of stars, stretching out for miles into the night. But for Paramount Theatre manager Scott Anderson, the feeling of infinite space ends there.

"You can see from the proscenium arch and the curtain to the back wall, it's only about 15 feet," he says. "If you look at most theatres, that's pretty shallow."

The interior of the Paramount is painted to look like a Spanish courtyard. Manager Scott Anderson says there are many people who have lived in Austin their entire lives who have never set foot inside the Paramount. He believes anyone who does visit will become a supporter.
(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)

Standing on the edge of the theatre's stage, Anderson is talking about the Paramount's backstage area. At 15 feet deep, it pales in comparison to a venue like the proposed new Guthrie, which is planned for a backstage 52 feet deep.

He says the tight quarters make doing live theater very difficult, if not impossible. Further complicating things are the lack of dressing rooms and bathrooms. Performers from a recent touring ballet show from Minneapolis were forced to use a port-a-potty on stage, behind the curtain. Embarrassing, says Anderson, but these are the realities of theatre in rural Minnesota.

Under the Paramount's stage, a contractor mixes mud to finish a new wall. For Anderson, this is the sound of progress. He's using recently acquired city and county grant money to install the theatre's first air conditioning system and a new bathroom. He is also planning to knock out the back wall and extend the backstage area. Before he can do this, he needs to raise more money.

In 1992, Anderson's group, the Austin Area Commission for the Arts, bought the theatre for 47 thousand dollars. At that time the theatre had already been through a few incarnations. In the early 80's, it was the town's disco. After that, it became a non-alcoholic teen bar, and then a comedy club before finally closing for what many thought would be forever. But Anderson re-opened it with the intention of restoring the Paramount to its original purpose: theatre.

So far, Anderson and friends have raised more than $600,000. They've just embarked on a new fundraising campaign to raise an additional $1.1 million.

Anderson hopes some of the renovation that has already been done on the Paramount, including an elaborate, multi-colored marquee, will attract more people, and more money.

"There are some people who have never been to the Paramount. Never. They've lived in Austin and just never have been here, and when people walk in the doors of the Paramount, its like 'wow, this is a great place,'" says Anderson.

"Just the physical building itself is so unique that they basically fall in love. And once they enjoy it once, they'll come back. It's a matter of getting them in the doors once or twice."

"As municipalities try to figure out what they want to do to enliven their downtowns, retain their citizenry, and all the kinds of things that keep them and make them competitive, the arts really figure big into that for a lot of communities. "

- Neil Cuthbert, McKnight Foundation Program Officer

Anderson says bigger audiences for recent events at the Paramount are proof of a rural population thirsty for the arts. McKnight Foundation Program Officer Neil Cuthbert agrees. Cuthbert says that in recent years, he's noticed more support for the art from city councils in communities across the state.

"You've got incredible projects like in Fergus Falls, and the Paramount in St. Cloud and the Rochester Arts Center," says Cuthbert. "As municipalities try to figure out what they want to do to enliven their downtowns, retain their citizenry, and all the kinds of things that keep them and make them competitive, the arts really figure big into that for a lot of communities."

As for the Paramount, the theatre's fundraising seems to be right on target. Theatre manager Scott Anderson says so far this summer they've raised $250,000, just $80,000 short of their summer goal.