Established in 1915, the Paramount Theatre has been home to iconic films and performances, including the likes of Harry Houdini, Katharine Hepburn and Miles Davis. Explore this historic venue’s first 100 years.

In February of 1915, the construction of a new theatre, conceived as the Gaiety, at 713 Congress was announced. Owned by Austin native Ernest Nalle and designed by John Eberson, the theatre, part of the Interstate vaudeville circuit, was meant to bring top talent to Austin and elevate the city's cultural footprint.

Only 8 months after construction was announced, the theatre, now named the Majestic, was completed. The $150,000 structure encompassed over 500,000 cubic feet and seated 1,316. The theatre was a "hemp house" with a system of ropes and sandbags for stage effects and had a hand-painted stage curtain. Both the hemp-house system and the curtain are still in use.
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At the time of the Majestic's construction, vaudeville was the top entertainment option in the country. Shows generally included a series of unrelated acts, including comedians, musicians, dancers and magicians, on one bill. The completion of the Majestic gave Austin a venue capable of drawing vaudeville's top talent.

The opening night audience first listened to a brief speech by theatre manager F. Gale Wallace before he introduced "the cultured mayor of the most cultured city in the Southwest," Austin Mayor A.P. Wooldridge.
Notable Performers

Referred to at the time as "the most famous actress the world has ever known," Bernhardt was an internationally lauded French stage and film actress whose influence is still felt in theatres around the world.

One of the most revered family acts of all time, The Marx Brothers - including Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo and Chico - enjoyed huge success on the vaudeville circuit, Broadway and film, regularly performing a mix of music and comedy.

A famous Russian prima ballerina for the world-renowned Ballet Russes who formed her own ballet company in 1911.

Celebrated fan dancer Rand often wore a body stocking to make herself appear nude. When playing the Majestic, a lighting mistake threatened to destroy this illusion, leading to a heated confrontation mid-show between Rand and the lighting technician.

Houdini, the most famous escape artist of all time, played the Majestic in 1916, providing one of the most illustrious bookings for the young theatre.

Sousa was the composer of 136 marches, 15 operettas and 70 songs. At the time his band played at the Majestic, they were widely regarded as the most famous musical act in the world.
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As the Great Depression took hold, the 15-year-old Majestic bet its survival on the movie business, undergoing an extensive remodel and interior refresh in order to capitalize on the massive popularity of "talkies." When the venue reopened, it was renamed the Paramount Theatre.

The Majestic's renovation included the addition of upholstered seats, a state-of-the-art sound system and air conditioning and the removal of the opera boxes. When the theatre reopened as the Paramount, named for owner Paramount-Publix, its art deco remodel had cost almost as much as the original building.

One prominent feature of the remodeled theatre was the addition of the Paramount Blade, a large sign topped with a brilliant sunburst. The blade was removed for renovation in 1964 and never seen again, but in September 2015, a replica blade was mounted on the theatre's facade, returning its dramatic brilliance to Congress Avenue.

Vaudeville’s star had faded, and in its wake, film became a national obsession. These early years of sound were shaped by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, leading to the production of a large number of escapist fantasies. The decade provided many legendary films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.
Notable Films
MOROCCO — 1930

Marlene Dietrich made her American film debut starring opposite Gary Cooper in this Josef von Sternberg picture. While the movie led to a string of successes for Dietrich, it also provided her only Best Actress nomination. The film is best remembered for the scandalous scene of a tuxedo-clad Dietrich performing a song and kissing a woman.
DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE — 1932

This adaptation of the classic horror tale received glowing praise from the critics and earned $1.25 million at the box office, more than double its high production cost of $535,000. Star Fredric March won the Best Actor Oscar for the film.
I'M NO ANGEL —1933

The oft-quoted Mae West received sole story and screenplay credit for her third film, the biggest hit of 1933. Starring opposite Cary Grant, West stayed true to her trademark bawdy satire. Often credited with saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, she was the country's biggest box office attraction.
M —1933

Fritz Lang’s German thriller was the director’s first sound film and the first to use the operatic leitmotif technique to associate Peter Lorre’s character with the tune In the Hall of the Mountain King. Released in the U.S. two years after its German release, the film was Lang’s personal favorite and continues to receive critical acclaim 85 years later.

The enormously popular Betty Boop series of animated shorts brought Popeye the Sailor from the comics section to the screen in this 1933 installment. Popeye’s success was so overwhelming that he appeared in 231 solo animated theatrical shorts.

One of Paramount’s biggest hits of 1934, this Cecil B. DeMille epic stars Claudette Colbert, who would become the highest paid actress in Hollywood in 1936. The historical adaptation featured suggestive costumes and innuendo. The film received a Best Picture nomination and won for Best Cinematography.
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As the Paramount Theatre entered the 1940s, it continued to successfully showcase top-rated films and quality stage productions, but the continued success of movies soon led to a dramatic decrease in live performances. During a period marked by a world war and a dramatic upheaval in how movie studios did business, the Paramount still maintained its reputation as the theatrical gem of downtown Austin.

As the country entered World War II, the Paramount joined in the nation’s swell of patriotism. Adopting the slogan “dedicated to community service,” the theatre showed recruitment films in addition to their regular offerings. The Paramount also promoted the sale of war bonds, selling $8.4 million worth from 1942 to 1945. The United States Treasury War Finance Committee recognized it with numerous awards, and theatre manager Louis Novy received the War Finance Silver Medal.
In 1948, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the legality of the movie studios’ vertical integration systems, in which they owned everything from film creation to exhibition. The court ruled against the studios, requiring them to dismantle substantial parts of their businesses. Paramount Pictures voluntarily complied, splitting into two new corporations to separately handle distribution and exhibition and selling a number of theatre assets.

The motion picture business continued to dominate downtown areas throughout the country. In 1957 and 1958, the Paramount’s façade was redesigned, a marquee was installed over the canopy, the seats were replaced and the concession stand expanded. Yet even as the theatre devoted itself almost completely to film, the audiences left. Families began to move to the suburbs and TV changed viewing habits, leaving the entertainment palaces of the city to fail and disappear, starting a downward slide that would almost bring the Paramount to ruin.
Notable Films

Considered by many the greatest film ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane lost money on its initial release thanks in part to smear campaigns and threats to theatre managers made by associates of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the main model for lead character Charles Foster Kane. The movie was essentially forgotten until it began to receive praise from French critics and had a 1956 revival.

Michael Curtiz’ drama starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman was set for release in the spring of 1943, but was rushed into release to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. A solid success upon release, the film’s reputation has since skyrocketed thanks to positive reviews. Nominated for 8 Oscars, it went on to win 3, including Best Picture.

The Frank Capra Christmas classic started out as a financial disappointment. Although nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie recorded a loss of over $500,000. It wasn’t until the film became a seasonal TV staple in the 1970s that audiences fell in love with its inspirational message. In the years since, it’s become a perennial holiday favorite.

The first full animated feature from Walt Disney Productions since 1942’s Bambi, Cinderella had a lot riding on it upon release. With Disney already on the verge of bankruptcy, insiders speculated that the studio would close if the expensive film was a flop. Luckily, the film turned out to be one of the studio’s greatest critical and commercial successes, allowing Disney to finance his production slate, establish a distribution company, begin television production and start construction of Disneyland.

James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo starred in this iconic teenage drama. Originally considered a B-movie by Warner Bros., filming started in black and white, but when James Dean’s star began to rise, the studio switched to color. Released after Dean’s death, the film received good reviews and three Academy Award nominations. It was, however, banned in New Zealand over fears that it would incite “teenage delinquency” and had scenes cut for its release in Britain, where it received an X rating.

This Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Jimmy Stewart was the first film to use the dolly zoom, a camera technique that distorts perspective to create disorientation. Although now considered one of Hitchcock’s defining works, the film received mixed reviews and had a disappointing box office run in its original release. For his part, Hitchcock blamed the film’s failure on the age difference between love interests Stewart (50) and Kim Novak (25).
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The Paramount entered the 1960s in rocky condition. Suburbia had arrived, and urban areas that relied on nighttime patronage saw steep declines in business. Suffering the same ills as other movie palaces around the country, the Paramount made some changes.

If the end of the ‘50s began the Paramount’s descent into neglect, the 1960s came at the theatre like a wrecking ball. Under new ownership, the Paramount was already in transition as the shift to suburbia left downtown Austin devoid of life after work hours. Not helping matters, 90% of American households had a TV and suburban movie houses began to pop up, giving people more convenient entertainment options. The theatre continued to show major films, but as audiences dwindled, it eventually turned to low-budget movies to pay the bills, even as the facility itself fell into disrepair.

The low-budget art of B-movies has been derided since the term was coined during cinema’s golden age. Seen as uninspired entertainment, these films were usually representative of a particular subgenre and assumed to be formulaic and unsophisticated. In the 1960s, however, the weakening of the Motion Picture Production Code, the industry’s moral guidelines, opened up new opportunities for maverick filmmakers. While films with little artistic merit were still ubiquitous, B-movies suddenly became a place where real experimentation could happen, and the wild world of these films turned into a proving ground for future B-movie legends, like John Waters, Russ Meyer and Roger Corman, and A-list talent, including Francis Ford Coppolla, Jack Nicholson, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese.
Notable Films

Human dismemberment and cooking are spotlighted in this Herschell Gordon Lewis classic that started the gore subgenre. Publicity for the film included distributing vomit bags to patrons and arranging for an injunction against the film in Florida. Blood Feast was part of a new film movement that sprung up as the industry’s moral guidelines declined in which traditional exploitation and nudie elements were mixed into other genres, particularly horror. Made for $24,000, the film remains a landmark for fans of gore.

B-movie hero Russ Meyer’s film features three go-go dancers on a kidnapping and murder spree. The prolific director’s films were famed for featuring well-endowed women in powerful roles, including this film’s star Tura Satana. Filmed in black and white for $45,000, the movie is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential B-movies of all time.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead easily fits into the gore subgenre, but it also functions as an allegory for racial and military issues of the time. The film not only redefined zombies, it also helped prove that low-cost independent filmmaking could be profitable. Filmed in Pittsburgh for $114,000, the film overcame controversy and went on to earn around $12 million in America over the next decade and $30 million internationally. It was even the top grossing film in Europe for 1969.

This film is considered the beginning of the blaxploitation phenomenon, a subgenre featuring black casts, urban settings and jazz and funk soundtracks. Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, edited, co-produced, starred in and composed the music for the film. The budget was so small that Van Peebles performed his own stunts, including appearing in unsimulated sex scenes (and receiving workers’ compensation for an STD he acquired). Screened in only two theatres upon release and featuring the tagline “Rated X by an all-white jury,” the movie went on to gross $15 million and became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party.

Fist of Fury marked Bruce Lee’s U.S. breakout, although it was originally released as The Chinese Connection because of the accidental switching of titles with another Bruce Lee movie, The Big Boss. While Lee had appeared in American entertainment before, it was here that the country took notice of his uncanny athleticism and incredible charisma. The success of Lee’s work led to a slew of martial arts films that continues today.

This John Waters’ classic introduced audiences to an unexpected world. Produced for $10,000 in the suburbs of Baltimore, the film features mainstays of the director’s Dreamland Studios, including Divine, Mink Stole and Edith Massey. The story of “the filthiest person alive” and the couple trying to steal her title became famous for its controversial content and an attitude both anarchistic and humorous.
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By the mid-70s, downtown’s near-weekly murders had turned the area into a ghost town after 5:30. Making matters worse, the Paramount’s owners, ABC Interstate Theatres, had given up on repairs, instead waiting out the days until the theatre closed. Already slated to become a Holiday Inn, the Paramount’s fate was all but sealed.

In early 1974, John Bernardoni, Charles Eckerman and Stephen Scott set out to save the Paramount and restore it to its original glory. The only obstacles in their way: no money, no connections and no support. The inexperienced trio, undeterred, rolled up their sleeves for the major work ahead. To keep the business afloat, they began to screen classic films, which cost little to rent but brought in just enough to maintain the theatre.

With barely enough cash to keep the Paramount running, the trio began tireless efforts to garner support. Thanks to the help of the local community, including Roberta Crenshaw, Sue McBee, Charlie Root and the City of Austin, the restoration began in earnest, even as big-name acts and touring shows kept the theatre afloat thanks to bookings by Southwest Concerts’ Art and Barbara Squires. But it wasn’t until Congressman J.J. Pickle and Governor Dolph Briscoe aided the theatre in getting $1.85 million in federal money that completion seemed a real possibility. This federal money accounted for 95% of the restoration costs from 1978-1980.

The Paramount still had a long way to go to prove that it could sustain profitability. One important part of the theatre’s restoration was the return of live theatre to a stage that hadn’t been used in years. During these early times, the Paramount brought daring, professional theatre back to downtown, even fighting obscenity laws in order to present Equus. The rest of the decade saw a number of touring shows, including West Side Story, King Lear, The Zoo Story and Antigone.

After working 100 hours a week for little money, Bernardoni, Eckerman and Scott finally saw their dream take shape by the end of the decade. With a lot of help and determination, live entertainment had been brought back to downtown in a space worthy of the onstage talent. After years of downtimes, the Paramount was set to soar to new heights.
Notable Performers

Perhaps the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time, Gillespie dazzled the Paramount audience with his deliciously complex jazz and trademark charisma. A major force in the development of bebop and modern jazz, he had already influenced and/or trained other greats, including Miles Davis, Arturo Sandoval and Chuck Mangione.

Singer-songwriter/composer Joel was early in his career when he played the Paramount on October 16, 1977, having released his first hit, “Piano Man,” only four years earlier. His streak continued for decades, with 33 Top 40 hits and 150 million records sold worldwide.

Country legend Parton made her first appearance at the Paramount during the theatre’s restoration. Her amazing talent and affecting personal story were the perfect fit for a stage that had seen its share of ups and downs.

Texas icon Nelson helped renew the theatre’s energy with his outlaw country. This first stop at the Paramount wouldn’t be his last, and his shows continue to bring in crowds to match Houdini’s.

Lily Tomlin had already found fame as a standup and as a television performer in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In when she brought her act to the Paramount. The daring comedian even drank a six-pack on stage, just to say that she could.

Cheech & Chong Cheech & Chong’s stoner comedy routine came to the Paramount just as the duo was reaching the pinnacle of their success. Their 1978 film, Up in Smoke, was a cult hit, and their albums had spawned dozens of catchphrases, including the famous “Dave’s not here.”
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The hard work of the previous six years had paid off, and the Paramount once again took its place as the standard-bearer for the Austin arts scene. From big-name talent and film premieres to in-house productions and amazing visiting acts, the theatre saw a variety of acts play its stage, providing solid ground from which to build a new reputation.

Not long after the theatre’s renovation was completed, the Paramount took a leap in a new direction with the in-house production of its own traveling shows, including the first national tour ever produced by a regional theatre. Starting with the November 1982 production of Deathtrap starring Leslie Nielsen, the theatre developed a series of well-received shows they’d cast with esteemed actors, including E. G. Marshall in Mass Appeal and Martin Landau in Dracula.

The Paramount’s greatest success on stage came with Greater Tuna, the humorous look at multiple characters (all played by Jaston Williams and Joe Sears) from small-town Texas – including a UFOlogist, a used weapons dealer and DJs from radio station OKKK. The play debuted in Austin and premiered at the Paramount shortly after completing its off-Broadway run. Outselling all non-sporting entertainment in town, Tuna’s success led to sequels and a devoted local following.

The Paramount was handling multiple entertainment formats simultaneously for the first time in years. But while the theatre was no longer simply a movie palace, film still played a vital role in its success. The Paramount’s annual summer film series grew in popularity, and the theatre began to attract more top-shelf events, including benefit screenings of EDtv with Paramount supporter Matthew McConaughey and Legal Eagles with Robert Redford.
Notable Performers

One of the most visible figures in blues, Vaughan, playing with the T Birds, brought his signature sound to the Paramount in the mid-80s, soon after his debut album hit. Vaughan’s undeniable talent was lost in a 1990 helicopter crash, leading the city of Austin to erect a statue in his honor.

Leo Gallagher, Jr. is best known for smashing watermelons. One of the most recognizable prop comics of all time, his routines made him a household name in the 1980s. As with all of his appearances, his show at the Paramount included splashguards for front-row audience members.

Davis brought a lifetime of experience and experimentation to the Paramount in February 1983 when the influential Jazz musician took the stage. An artist who saw great merit in pushing the boundaries of music, he refused to play his early hits in his later life, considering them products of eras done and gone.

Austin enjoyed another legend when Ray Charles brought his deep talent and rich voice to the Paramount stage. A pioneer of soul music, Charles found success in spite of his blindness, creating some of the most diverse and mesmerizing recordings in history. His talent was so pure Frank Sinatra called him “the only true genius in show business.”

Acerbic comedian George Carlin became a legend for his “Seven Dirty Words” routine. A hugely important stand-up, his scathing and insightful social critiques made him a counterculture idol. Among the items on his resume before appearing at the Paramount was hosting the very first episode of Saturday Night Live.

Vaughan’s 1985 appearance at the Paramount was only five years before her death, and the jazz singer brought all her years of experience to the stage. One of the country’s most honored and admired jazz musicians, her career started at amateur night at the Apollo, where she won $10 and the chance to open for Ella Fitzgerald. From there, her beautiful voice and impressive range led to a diverse career that fully utilized her boundless talent.
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The Paramount charged into the new millennium riding decades of positive growth. Always ready for the next challenge though, the theatre began new programs, expanded ones already in place and even merged with a longtime neighbor.

In the late ‘90s, the Paramount began merger talks with the State Theatre, its next-door neighbor for 65 years. In 2000, the talks became reality, and the two theatres formed the Austin Theatre Alliance under joint management. The new arrangement created a productive performing arts organization that presents and produces a variety of programs.

In the wake of the Austin Theatre Alliance’s formation, the Paramount’s slate has once again become as diverse as in its vaudeville days. The Summer Classic Film Series continues to grow in popularity, and themed film nights include classic and contemporary movies with specially paired food. Multiple youth and student programs offer a chance for young artists to get involved. And as one of the major venues for the SXSW Film Conference and Festival, the Paramount has been the site of film premieres, screenings and special events. Adding in the humorists, musicians, memoirists, dancers and even a cat circus, the theatre has become home to entertainment of virtually every type.

Throughout the Paramount’s 100-year history, the one constant has been change, whether from vaudeville to cinema or from owner to owner. Since the resurgence of the theatre in the 1970s, these changes have led to the growth of the Paramount’s entertainment offerings and public programs. The theatre’s busy schedule currently boasts over 100 film screenings and more than 200 events each year, indicating a bright future for one of Austin’s most loved landmarks.

The country singer-songwriter, who began playing at the Paramount during his early success, is a mainstay at the theatre. Lovett’s enduring talent and boundless charm have made him a Paramount favorite, and his intimate connection with the theatre was recently made concrete with a star dedicated to him on the sidewalk outside.

Controversial standup Cho has brought her comedy to the Paramount numerous times. Her sharp wit gravitates toward the personal, the social and the political, often culminating in scathing humor.

Louis C.K.’s popular Paramount appearances have proven him a force to be reckoned with in Austin. The comedian’s authentic voice and pitch-perfect audience interaction—coupled with humor pulled from his personal life—have made him one of the country’s top talents.

One of the funniest and most original voices in comedy, Rivers was a master of self-deprecation as well as biting commentary. Her tragic death in 2014 occurred only four months after her last Paramount appearance. In Rivers’ honor, the theatre’s marquee following her death read, “Comedy Legend and Our Friend: Joan Rivers 1933-2014.”

Humorist David Sedarzis has been a Paramount favorite for years. Presenting stories based on personal experiences that are both hilarious and touching, his words provide a reflection of life’s often difficult realities. Some common topics for Sedaris include his family, homosexuality, obsessive behaviors and experiences living abroad.

Offerman’s offbeat comedy found a lot of fans at the Paramount. The actor, humorist and carpenter’s stoic mannerisms and perfect expressions have made the Parks and Recreation star a household name. Offerman’s diverse output includes an instructional DVD about building canoes.
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