A! Magazine for the Arts

Mary Beth Rainero (Photo by Bill Bryant)

Mary Beth Rainero (Photo by Bill Bryant)

Passionate for the Arts: Mary Beth Rainero

June 28, 2011

Longtime volunteer and community activist, Mary Beth Rainero has been called "the mother of the Paramount" (Center for the Arts) and was once the "resident witch" of Theatre Bristol. All along, she's been "a cheerleader" when it comes to the arts and the community.

Thanks to Rainero, and others like her, Bristol offers many of the cultural opportunities of a much larger city. Her vision, energy and determination have made her one of the driving forces behind several arts-related endeavors and projects in the area. Rainero is quick to say, "I'm just the cheerleader. For every project I've worked on, there are many volunteers and a board of directors. I'm just part of the team."

Regarding the title of "mother," Rainero says, "I know where that came from - Harry Scanlan (former executive director of the Paramount Center). You get so involved with a project that you treat it like a child, but like a mother bird, you also have to let it fly on its own. You're not always going to be there, and your ideas are not always the right ones. You have to know when to let go."

As for "resident witch" of Theatre Bristol, Rainero admits she played every witch imaginable - from the Wicked Witch of the West in Wizard of Oz to the witch in Hansel and Gretel to the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty. An actress and a singer, Rainero says she enjoyed playing character roles "because that character's not really you - well, in my case, maybe it was," she laughs. Her favorite dramatic roles were the portrayals of Annie Sullivan in Helen Keller and Mama Rose in Gypsy.

And what about "cheerleader"? Rainero's mottos include "never say die" and she encourages other volunteers to "accept defeat only after doing as much investigation as you possibly can and exhausting every possible avenue or resource."

Rainero began studying at the Jordan Conservatory of Music in Indianapolis, Ind., at the tender age of 4, "so I've been on stage nearly all my life," she says. "I've always been a dreamer with a wild imagination, and I would love to act all the time, but I never wanted to be a movie star. I always wanted to be a legitimate stage actress - that's a real art form."

She grew up in Evanston, Ill., where she was inspired by Winifred Ward, the person credited with developing the fields of children's theatre and creative dramatics. Ward assigned her School of Speech students to study theatre for youth by performing plays for Evanston elementary school audiences. From 1925-1950, Ward directed the Children's Theatre of Evanston and founded the National Children's Theatre Conference in 1944.

Rainero's parents gave her many opportunities to study and participate in the arts. "Everyone has a niche, and we were encouraged to find ours." She played flute and took dancing lessons. In high school, she was active in theatre and was a member of the chorus, band and orchestra. She graduated in 1962 from Sullins College in Bristol, Va., where she was active in chorus and theatre, as well as the recipient of the Margaret Sullivan Award for Outstanding Performance.

After getting married and staying in Bristol, she met Cathy DeCaterina, founder of Bristol Children's Theatre (now Theatre Bristol). Soon Rainero was back stage and on stage - as director of development and an actress. Rainero has been an advocate, board member, and supporter of Theatre Bristol for many years. "Everything evolves, and one thing leads to another," Rainero says. Working on behalf of Theatre Bristol led to her involvement with the Paramount.

The Paramount Center is celebrating two anniversaries this year: it's been 80 years since the theatre originally opened as the Paramount Movie Palace (in 1931) and 20 years since it reopened as the Paramount Center for the Arts (in 1991).

Merle Dickert
, executive director of the Paramount, says, "Mary Beth was the project manager for the restoration of the theatre, helping to raise $1 million from the State of Tennessee and fund-raising to match the state dollars. But she did countless other jobs in getting this project completed. She helped select specialty contractors for interior restoration and secured the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. She planned publicity releases and grand opening activities."

Rainero also was involved in the restoration of the former Union Depot. In 2008 the Bristol Train Station Foundation completed a 10-year, $5 million renovation of the 1902 structure, preserving one of the most beautiful depots on the Norfolk & Southern rail line and a centerpiece of historic downtown Bristol.


Rainero has been honored with several prestigious awards for her contributions to the arts, education, culture and heritage: a Virginia Governor's Award for the Arts in 1985, a YWCA Tribute to Women honor in 1992, a Citizens Hall of Fame Award from the Wellmont Hospital Foundation in 2001, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bristol Area Chamber of Commerce in 2009.

The following appeared in the Tribute to Women program: "An articulate spokesperson for the arts, Mary Beth Rainero has shown outstanding leadership in the arts community. Her vision, energy and unwavering determination played a major role in the restoration of the Paramount Theatre. She served as project coordinator, helping to secure a $1 million grant from the State of Tennessee. She oversaw the massive fund-raising effort to match those state monies - an amazing task in days of national recession. Her gifts to the community go ever further, to her teaching and volunteer efforts to spread the arts to children and adults alike. She has been onstage and backstage at Theatre Bristol for years, serving as Creative Dramatics teacher in local schools, director of children's shows and director of development. She was organizing chairman of Bristol's Mid-Atlantic Chamber Orchestra, and also was chair of the Junior League Follies and Junior League Art Show. She has served on the board of directors for Bristol Ballet, the Virginia Highlands Festival, and the Bristol Chapter of the Virginia Museum, as well as the Sullins College Board of Trustees and Bristol Memorial Hospital's Board of Governors. She has served on the regional panel of the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is a charter member of the Bristol Concert Choir." Since 1992, the nonprofit arts-related organizations she has served include Arts Alliance Mountain Empire and Symphony of the Mountains. Rainero also served as president of the Bristol Historical Association (BHA) and, as a member of the nonprofit for many years, has been instrumental in saving and restoring several landmarks.

People who nominated Rainero for the Tribute to Women award wrote: "Without Mary Beth's vision, energy, hard work, and determination, the Paramount Center would not exist. For almost 10 years Mary Beth believed in the creation of a multi-purpose center for the arts that could serve the region and be a home for the performances of local arts groups. When almost everyone else doubted the Paramount could be renovated into such a space, Mary Beth never lost faith in the dream. With her enthusiasm and hard work, she convinced others to invest in the dream. With her determination, she convinced others to help make the dream a certainty....Mary Beth continues her service to the Paramount by serving as a board member and remaining active in the fund-raising and programming of the Center.

"Mary Beth's commitment to and love for the arts precedes her involvement in Bristol. She has been a performer since her pre-school days, and she has encouraged others to participate and enjoy the arts all of her life. She has served as a volunteer on virtually every arts organization board in Bristol...As a volunteer for many organizations, an articulate spokesperson for the arts, and a community leader who truly gives much more than she receives, Mary Beth is unsurpassed....She has repeatedly given her energy, expertise, love, and determination to make Bristol a better place for this community."

In one of the BHA newsletters, Rainero recalled, "As I was sitting in the audience at the Paramount Center, enjoying A Christmas Carol with my grandchild...looking around at what could very easily have been gone, I thought how wonderful it is that the Bristol community has been able to hold on to so much of our history. I was remembering how excited I was to take my own children to the theatre and dreaming that maybe, just maybe, I would take a great-grandchild to a performance at the Paramount some day....How fortunate we are! But there are still many more important sites that need to be preserved for our posterity. I know that they will still be there because Bristolians love this wonderful town, and they want future generations to love and treasure it as much as they."

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