“You might want to talk to her,” he suggested. “She runs the box office.” And so I made the acquaintance of a lovely young woman, Clarissa, who agreed, despite an ongoing rehearsal of the day’s show, to let me have my peek inside. Clarissa does more than hold down the box office; she also changes the marquee, black plastic letters on a traditional three-line track--but more on that later.
The 1,100-seat Paramount is a Rapp & Rapp Greek Revival gem. The facade and octagonal (stadium style) auditorium is said to honor Thomas Jefferson, whose former home, Monticello, is nearby. To my eye, the auditorium evokes a French Salon of the eighteenth century: intimate and, in its blue velvet and gold trim, opulent as well. It’s in pristine condition, cared for by loving former patrons, even after its 1974 closing.
This preservation-in-the-midst-of-decline makes Charlottesville’s Paramount a particular rarity. So many theaters in the seventies (I’m thinking of Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn) did stints as homeless shelters, warehouses or settings for gang warfare. At home in Staten Island today, I drove past our own local Paramount Theatre, closed since 1977, I can’t help but compare it to its namesake in Virginia. Ours has served as a warehouse for sporting goods and a nightclub, and is, these days, closed entirely. Though I haven’t been inside, its silver/gold Deco is apparently intact, waiting for an owner or group of local enthusiasts.
One such group bought Charlottesville’s Paramount in 1992 and set to work immediately on (what else?) its rusting marquee. “After the marquee’s structure and finishes were examined, microanalysis of the paint determined original colors. At midnight on that New Year’s Eve, the marquee’s lights shone brightly on Main Street for the first time in a decade.” Now there’s how to begin a restoration! Without the marquee, including its most recently–restored feature, the “blade” sign, I never would have spotted it on the mall. 16.2 million dollars later, almost exactly thirty years after it stopped doing business as a movie palace, the Paramount reopened. With its refurbished fly loft, backstage areas, and orchestra pit, and a new three-story annex, the theater was ready to become a full-blown performing arts center.
Popcorn, yes! — I inhaled it going past. But the gleaming white and gold concession stand with its homemade goodies, almost a restaurant in its own right, caused a deep intake of breath on my part, which Clarissa noticed. I remarked on the elegance of the setting, cafe tables, wine stems. “We host the opera here...” she said, proudly.
That’s not only the Met in HD, I learned from their website, but also the Charlottesville Opera itself. If I come back, I’m looking forward to one or two of these: a homegrown “game show” involving local word geeks in competitive play, a puppetry workshop, Casablanca, and, in August, the outstanding Blues guitarist, Buddy Guy (I’m a Blues freak — I’d drive better than five hundred miles to hear him).
Okay, as a lifetime resident of a rough–edged NYC borough, I tend to rhapsodize about small-town life, forgive me!
As we walked out under the marquee, I remarked on the fact that it’s old-school, with three “tracks” to hang letters on, painstakingly, one at a time. Well do I remember how hard that was, how easy to fall from the ladder, how painful when something went wrong and a letter dropped and (if it was cast-aluminum, as most of ours were) broke when it hit the sidewalk. Clarissa was quick to point out that she sets the letters on the Paramount’s marquee. I guess folks ask her how the letters stay on the tracks; “I tell them no way are they magnetic!” she added.
Dean reminded me this morning that plastic letters, should they fall, blow away (at the St. George, they blew straight down hill to the harbor). The aluminum ones, if they fell after the usher had folded his ladder and gone inside, either broke or lay on the pavement until they were stolen. So it was, that we ended up with very few M’s (you could substitute W) and hardly an S to our names. But that was forty years ago, and we were a rag-tag gang, tilting on a rickety ladder, braced on a slanted sidewalk, ‘neath a marquee that had an up– and downhill side. I’m glad Clarissa doesn’t have to contend with these particular perils! And I’m so grateful, both to her and to the friendly fellow (name forgotten, sorry!) who was so kind to introduce her to me. They’ve got a first-class joint.