The Paramount Theatre is a movie house built in 1930-31 by the Paramount-Publix Corporation, formed with the merger of several movie companies including Paramount, Lasky and Famous Players. The larger Paramount Theaters in major cities were designed by the architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp design whose trademark is the “starburst” seen in the lobby ceiling.
Once the building construction was completed, Paramount-Publix brought in their interior designer to decorate with the combination “art deco” and Italian Renaissance. Art deco, newly emerged from the 1925 Paris Exposition, was heavily influenced and encouraged by Frank Lloyd Wright. Art deco is design for design’s sake… that is geometrics and colors creating the simplistic clean lines.
The property for the future theater was leased from the Daniel’s family. The theater was built by local contractors, one of whom was Rainero Tile Company. The theater, as you see it now, is essentially how it looked originally. The marquee is a replica of the original. The first marquee, remodeled in the 1950s with much of the fan work removed, was deteriorated beyond repair. The marquee racing lights consist of two thousand 15-watt bulbs. The box office also had to be scrapped due to deterioration. The chandeliers in the lobby are the original fixtures, with the exception of the bottom plate. These originally were either Tiffany or Lalique glass. The concession stand which was located in the lower lobby was not installed until the late 1930s, and then only candy was sold. Prior to the installation, patrons purchased candy and drinks for the movies at the Paramount Sweet Shop on the KP Duty site. It was not until 1947 that popcorn and soft drinks were introduced by Mr. Gillenwater. The show cases mirror, and metal posts are original.
There were sets of doors in the upper lobby which were closed during performances. These doors have been salvaged and may be installed at some future point in the outside foyer.
All the ceiling patterns in the lobby and auditorium, the lobby walls, and the murals in the auditorium are copies of the original. Prior to beginning the restoration/reconstruction work, craftsmen from Conrad Schmitt studios, historic restoration specialists, came to work, craftsmen from Conrad Schmitt Studios, historic restoration specialists, came to make patterns and copies of all the interior designs. Then approximately 3-months before completion of the restoration, three craftsmen arrived to re-decorate the interior. Repetitive patterns were done with stencils; the star-bursts in the lobby ceiling were outlined with charcoal patterns then hand-painted. The shiny material is not gold-leaf, but rather metallic-leaf. The theater was designed to seat 1200. During a 1950s remodeling, approximately 100 seats were lost in bringing the screen forward to accommodate for Cinemascope and stereo sound. Also, the orchestra pit was removed and the theatre organ dismantled with the pipes going to an amusement park in Alabama, the keyboard to King College, and parts to the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville. The 1989-1991 restoration reinstalled an organ which originally was used in the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia. The organ can be raised or lowered from the orchestra pit by a hydraulic lift at the left of the stage. Seating capacity today is 756. There was never a balcony.
At completion of construction, the cost of the theatre was $210.000. Opening night was February 21, 1931, with a Carol Lombard movie. Prices were 50 cents night, 35 cents matinee and 10 cents children. During the 30s and 40s there were live performances of vaudeville shows, the Big Band sounds of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Spivak, Harry James, Grand Ole Opry stars Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard, Gabby Hayes, Johnny Mack Brown, Ernest Tubb, and Cowboy Copus. The last movie was shown in 1979. The theatre essentially sat empty for the next ten years. The theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Plans to renovate began to form. Bristol and its surrounding community donated 1.3 million dollars to the project, which was matched with one million dollars from the State of Tennessee by a special act of the legislature. The restoration/renovation was started in December 1989 and completed seventeen months later for re-opening April 1991.