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Friday, August 25, 2023

August 25, 2023: Cville Places: The Paramount Theater

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ll focus on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to a tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

On three telling details about the city’s most historic movie theater.

1)      The Golden Age: Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater opened on the day before Thanksgiving in November 1931. It was designed by the Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp, who were the architects behind the entire Paramount chain of theaters (including the most famous one in Times Square), and so it was located squarely in the traditions of that iconic period in cinematic and Hollywood history. But to honor Thomas Jefferson and Monticello, C.W. and George Rapp gave this Paramount Theater a level of opulence far beyond their norm, including brass chandeliers, painted tapestries, an octagonal auditorium, and the justly famous Greek façade. Such luxuries might seem ironic in a building that opened two years into the Great Depression, and they certainly reflect image rather than reality (as the next paragraph will illustrate even more clearly). But a beautiful building is a beautiful building, and the Paramount was and remains one of Cville’s most beautiful buildings.

2)      A Segregated Space: If such details made the Paramount stand apart from the rest of Charlottesville’s landscape, however, in one crucial way it was precisely the same as everywhere else in 1930s (and 40s, and 50s) Cville: it was racially segregated. African American audience members had to enter the theater by a separate door (on an entirely different street from the front entrance) and sit in the balcony. The theater’s official website notes that Rapp & Rapp gave this segregated entrance “a level of decoration and elegance sized for the smaller scale,” making “the design of the Third Street Entrance complementary to—not divorced from—that of the building as a whole.” Maybe that’s true—these 21st century pictures seem to capture some sense of that, at least—and I suppose is a space is going to be segregated (as virtually all of them were in 1930s Charlottesville and Virginia), at least each part of it can still be attractive. But at the same time, who the fuck cares what the “Colored” entrance of a theater looked like, y’know?

3)      Preservation and Performance: So in both the best and the worst ways, the Paramount Theater was an iconic slice of Charlottesville history throughout the mid-20th century. Although the growth in alternative theaters and entertainment options forced the theater to close in 1974, the city’s and late 20th century’s interests in historic preservation led to immediate and sustained efforts to save the building from demolition and restore it to some level of operation. Thirty years after that closure the preservationists finally and fully succeeded, with the Paramount reopening as a working theater in 2004; it took another decade for the famous sign to be restored, but it was illuminated again in 2015. Yet while the theater has hosted numerous performances since that reopening, it is itself enacting a different kind of performance, as there is (to my knowledge) no recognition on site of the segregated entrance and seating, of that fraught layer to the Paramount’s and community’s histories. As with so much Cville collective memory, then, there’s more work to be done.

Tribute post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

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