Paramount Arts Center – The Building
Take a walk with us back in time to September 5, 1931. We are standing in line for opening night of the new movie house, the Paramount Theatre. After three years of planning and construction, the Paramount has the entire Ohio Valley alive with excitement! The theatre was originally designed to show silent films, made exclusively by Paramount Studios. However, during the early stages of planning, “talkies” arrived. A quick glance to either side of the stage will reveal the organ grills that were installed but never used. Ironically, the first film ever shown in the theatre was entitled “Silent”, yet it was a talking film.
The Paramount was one of the first transitional theatres built for “talking pictures” and was to be a model theatre for others around the country to showcase films produced by Paramount Studios. The Depression, however, soon changed the course of events for this wonderful lady. Paramount wanted to scrap the project altogether. The plans were picked up by an Ashland-based company with Paramount craftsmen providing the interior furnishings – and the building was then leased to Paramount Publix Corporation. Because of the change in plans, the original design was scaled back by one third. Had the depression not caused a redesign, the Paramount would actually be three times as large! In 2001, Mike Myers of Ashland reported that the original general contractor was Wade Gates of Ashland. Gates’ secretary, Marie Duncan, provided this information.
The resulting product was a prime example of the Art Deco style then in vogue. Artistic design of the theatre was the choice of master/consummate Theater Designers, Rapp and Rapp, who also designed the great Chicago Theater. This particular design was featured at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1932. The Ashland Paramount provided seating for 1309 people and served the Ohio Valley area for several years as its one and only talking movie theatre.
Paramount Publix Corporation had original plans to build one “perfect movie house” in every state of the union. Fortunately, our theatre, as well as a few others were completed by Paramount before the Depression altered this plan. In addition to Ashland, Kentucky, there are Paramount theaters in Denver, Colorado; Aurora, Illinois; Oakland, California; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Abilene, Texas; Bristol, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; Charlottesville, Virginia; Anderson, Indiana; Austin, Texas; and Springfield, Massachusetts. The Paramount in Hollywood was fully restored in 1991 and renamed El Capitan. As of early 2002, we know there is also a Paramount Theatre which still stands but is not in operation in Boston, MA.
The Paramount Theatre has been preserved and restored with many of its original fixtures and furnishings, so that as you walk through the brass entrance doors today, it would be as much the same as if you were there that September night in 1931.
You first enter a foyer lighted by two large copper and glass chandeliers. Then you move through gilded doors to the lobby and on into the theatre itself, where the geometric and opulent style of the Art Deco period is everywhere in evidence. During restoration of our lobby, under many coats of beige paint, variegated gold leaf was found on the columns, and aluminum leaf and bronzing on the bas-relief border of the lobby. The box office interior was repainted to compliment the lobby colors and restored to usefulness. It had not been used for many years because of its deteriorated condition. The exterior of the ticket booth had at one point in time been covered with metal panels in an attempt to modernize its appearance. These were removed to expose lovely wood panels which have been stripped and refinished to their original look.
The exterior lobby contains two 4′ brass chandeliers which were refurbished and rewired. The inner lobby contains three brass ceiling fixtures with triple bent Flemish glass petals. With broken and missing glass, it was next to impossible to restore these fixtures to use. Without doubt, the most difficult phase of this restoration was to locate someone who could reproduce the bent glass. After much searching, the Paramount Woman’s Association located a firm that contacted an artisan who would reproduce the glass to its glittering opulence. It is with particular pride that we have replaced modernistic substitutes with original fixtures.
In addition to the refurbishing of the brass chandeliers, all the door bars, plates, kick plates, and stops were refurbished. Just to the right of the main lobby, let your eyes look up to view the Marquee Room doors which were made by Louis Vonderheide & Claude Wright of Ashland, Kentucky. These doors are 9’6″ high and 1 3/4″ thick. The inset brass pulls were purchased from Irish Acres for their antiquity.
Step into our inner lobby and view the rich beauty of the Art Deco styling and original fixtures which have been restored. And, don’t miss our recessed water fountain which is often the topic of conversation for first time visitors. A glance to the left and you will see the ladies lounge which leads to the ladies restroom. Note the solid pewter mirrors and benches. They are exquisite!
Now, step back in time as you glide up the steps and into our theatre.
Notice the elaborate proscenium arch high above the stage covered with variegated gold leaf and aluminum leaf. You will also see bronze in certain areas. The Egyptian designs are depicted over the stage and lead to the stunning “Lady in an Urn” centered above the stage. The Egyptian theme in design became very popular with the opening of Tutankhamen’s Tomb in the ’20s.
The ceiling is an acoustical plaster which is very stippled. It is basically a soft surface designed to improve the acoustical absorption. Patrons often mistake the texture for that of carpeting. The ceiling features paintings of leaping gazelles and a stylized sunburst. Aztec and Indian designs, such as the lightning rods and thunderbolts, as well as the sunburst, call to mind speed-in-motion of the industrial age. The solid brass lighting fixtures complete the Art Deco mold.
The walls feature large murals of 16th century theatrical characters. They are crowned by gilded, carved floral garlands – a theme maintained throughout the smaller finish work in the building. These murals were painted by Vincent Mondo, an Italian artist employed by Paramount Publix Corporation. Click here for more information about the murals.
When remodeling of the theatre began in 1972, most of the murals were barely distinguishable while standing in the middle of the theatre. Originally, the murals were painted onto wet plaster with oil-based paints and sealed with a varnish for protection. Plaster ridges separating the murals from surrounding smaller panels have been pressed with silver leaf; wood panels separating the murals have been decorated with gold. Prominent colors have been carried throughout the murals and the theatre: iron oxide red, vivid greens, bright yellows as well as the compliment of the gold and silver leafing.
Over the decades the murals had been coated with dust and especially with residue from the old coal furnace which was used to heat the theatre. This resulted in an oily coating almost totally covering the murals. Through many hours of diligent work, these murals now stand fully restored as a piece of history to share with our community.
The wine colored seats are nearly original as well. The seats had to be replaced after the 1937 flood and these reupholstered versions were designed to reflect sound from the new sound system, originally consisting of only one speaker. The carpeting, made of a specially-ordered material from London, England, is not an exact replica but is very close in design to the original.
All renovations and upgrades are implemented with the idea of maintaining the integrity of the original design. The Paramount stands as a reminder of the heritage left to us, and our obligation to future generations to preserve this beautiful building and promote quality entertainment for the citizens of our Tri-State area.