A! Magazine for the Arts

Paramount's marquee lights up State Street. (Photo illustration Bristol Herald Courier)

Paramount's marquee lights up State Street. (Photo illustration Bristol Herald Courier)

A Timeless Stage: Memories of the Paramount Center

February 17, 2009

*** This story was published Feb. 15, 2009 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Drive or walk along State Street and by the Paramount Center for the Arts. There's no missing the sparkling lights that encircle its marquee and race upward and around the Paramount sign. Fitting for Bristol's performance showplace.

"It's a jewel," said Merle Dickert, executive director of the Paramount.

Bristol's jewel marks its 78th year next week. To celebrate the occasion and to raise funds for the non-profit organization now known as the Paramount Center for the Arts, a bevy of local talents will perform there in "Timeless: A Tribute to the Paramount Center for the Arts" on Feb. 22.

Deana Cole-Roberts, artistic director of Highlands Ballet, tackled the task of organizing the event to benefit the grand old gal. "I literally grew up downtown," Cole-Roberts said. "The Paramount Theater to me was the most exciting place in the world."


A "jewel."

Folks lined the sidewalk to attend the Paramount's opening night on Feb. 21, 1931. On the screen that night was "It Pays to Advertise," starring Carole Lombard.

Marjorie Clay was there. Now 91, the longtime resident of Bristol, Va., still recalls the excitement that buzzed through the crowd on that night 78 years ago. "[I remember] the people, the crowd and standing in line. The line went back so far, to the H.P. King building," Clay said. "It felt like we were in a big city. It was a miracle for Bristol. People came from all over Southwest Virginia to see movies and shows at the Paramount."

"If you had a date, that's where you took a girl," said Bill Taft.

"The size. You can imagine as a kid just how big that building was. And those murals were just magnificent," said Hal Boyd.


Movies dominated the fare featured at the Paramount until it closed in 1979. Through the decades, such classics as "Gone With the Wind," "The Sound of Music" and "Old Yeller" played at Bristol's Paramount.

Bristol, Tenn., resident Lena Mullins watched many a movie at the Paramount. "I remember seeing 'Gone With the Wind' at the Paramount," Mullins said. "It was about four hours long. I didn't know the movie was so long, and I was scared to death they'd lock the door."

Before, during and immediately after World War II, a definite pattern existed in how movies were shown. Bill Taft of Bristol, Tenn., attended scores of them.

"When you went to the show, you had coming attractions for several minutes," Taft said. "Then, you'd have a newsreel, and then, you'd see the movie."

Ticket prices made it difficult for many a child to see movies, particularly during the Great Depression. Roy Webb, 87, of Bristol, Tenn., was one of them.

"We'd roam the alleys for copper to sell so we could buy us a ticket," Webb said.

Deana Cole-Roberts grew up in Bristol in the 1940s and '50s. Like generations of kids, she attended dozens of movies at the Paramount. "I saw 'Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein' there," Roberts said. "I sat at the aisle, that way if I got too scared I could make a quick escape."

"I remember going to the Paramount for 9 cents and buying popcorn for a nickel," said Mack Blevins, a WOPI radio personality.

"The Paramount was lively in those days before television. People went in droves," said Bill Taft.

"My favorite memory was seeing 'Old Yeller,' " said Hal Boyd.

"It was so pretty," said Deana Cole-Roberts.


Bristol historian and author V.N. "Bud" Phillips moved to Bristol in 1953. He lived, worked and, like most folks hereabouts, shopped downtown. "On Saturdays, it was just a mob downtown," Phillips said.

Much of that mob filtered in and out of the Paramount. However, odds are that most had no idea of that which stood on the site beforehand. "The Paramount sits on the spot where once stood Bristol's first hospital," Phillips said. "It had been a hotel." That was roughly 60 years before the Paramount was built.

"When the hotel was there, a man was shot and killed there. He was A. K. Moore, the man that Moore Street was named after," Phillips said. "Later on, they would rent that room, and they'd be out of there by midnight or so. Evidently they heard things. One fellow said the cold hands [of the ghost] tried to rub his forehead."
Fast forward to today. According to Merle Dickert, someone from years gone by lurks in the building.

"We do have a ghost," Dickert said. "We hear him come down the steps when nobody's there. We'll hear doors shut when nobody's there."


That's shocking, a ghost in the Paramount, yet not nearly so shocking as when the Paramount closed its doors in 1979.

"When the malls came, the Paramount closed," said Hugh Testerman, who owns men's clothier Blakely-Mitchell just across the street.

Those were sad times for those who loved downtown Bristol, Phillips said. "It was just part of the almost fatal blow to Bristol," he said.

Time passed, and the Paramount deteriorated. Carpets rotted, and murals painted on plaster cracked and faded while general neglect took root. In critical condition, residents of Bristol raised about $1.3 million during the mid-to-late 1980s to restore and reopen the Paramount. The state of Tennessee tossed in an additional $1 million.

"There were kids who actually brought socks full of pennies," Dickert said.

"The Paramount Theater to me was the most exciting place in the world," said Deana Cole-Roberts.

"It's a grand building," said V.N. "Bud" Phillips.

"The Paramount enables the performing and visual arts to exhibit their craft and, in so doing, feeds the heart and soul in all of us," said Sandre Wooley, community arts advocate, Bristol, Tenn.


After more than a year of thorough restorations, the Paramount Center for the Arts reopened on April 24, 1991 with a black-tie gala. Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford entertained.

Hal Boyd of Bristol, Tenn., was there. "[Ford's] voice boomed," he said. "It was really something to have the Paramount up and running again."

Since then, such legendary entertainers as Chet Atkins and Marcel Marceau have graced the Paramount's stage. Movies are no longer shown. Instead, entertainment from ballet to bluegrass, stand-up comedy to hard-core country, plays to pianists and rockers too, fill the stage. "To sing there when that place is full," Boyd said, "it's the cap on the ice."

Polished in places and not in others, time's mark on the old girl has been both kind and cruel. What the public sees ? plush burgundy seats, lavish murals on walls, stirring mosaics ? emphasizes the kind.

You just can't beat seeing a show at the Paramount, said Dickert. "It's a gem and the heart of our twin city and the showplace of the Mountain Empire," Dickert said.

Opening night: Feb. 21, 1931
Opening night film: "It Pays to Advertise," starring Carole Lombard
Cost to build: $210,000
Seating capacity: 756
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places: 1985
Reopened: April 24, 1991

John Amos
Chet Atkins
Dierks Bentley
Gary Burghoff
Carlene Carter
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
The Fairfield Four
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Hal Holbrook
Hootie & The Blowfish
Linda Lavin
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver
Loretta Lynn
Marcel Marceau
Marshall Tucker Band
Bill Monroe
Debbie Reynolds
Ricky Skaggs
Kay Starr
Sally Struthers
Doc Watson