BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) — Since the day it opened 92 years ago, The Paramount Theater has meant more to Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia than just an evening of entertainment.
“This is what we call the heart of downtown Bristol,” said Mary Beth Rainero, a member of the Paramount Board of Directors and one of the early volunteers who helped save the building from destruction.
“So much of the story of Bristol can be traced back to the Paramount,” she said.
That’s not an exaggeration.
Bristol’s “heart” started beating on February 20, 1931. Depression-weary Bristolians needed an escape. So when Paramount Pictures opened an art deco “movie palace” on State Street, the line on opening night stretched all the way down the street.
“Not only was it special to see a movie in such a beautiful setting but, on a hot summer’s day, you could come in and watch a movie in air conditioning,” said Jennifer Hayes, Paramount Bristol’s executive director. “What a treat that must have been.”‘
But in the following years, the luster of newness began to fade. Silent movies and vaudeville shows were replaced by films with sound. But Bristol, like cities across the country, looked away from downtown for economic growth. Malls and shopping centers caused downtown to deteriorate. In 1979, the final movie played on Paramount’s big screen. Soon, the theater went dark and descended into disrepair.
By the mid-80s, the heart of Bristol was on life support.
“The ceiling had fallen to the ground,” Mary Beth Rainero remembers. “The seats were dirty and moldy, and the ceiling in the lobby had collapsed.”
“There was talk of demolishing the place and turning it into a parking lot,” she said. “Bristol needed a lot of things, but another parking lot was not one of them.”
In 1981, the owner donated the building to the Bristol community. Rainero and a determined group of volunteers began to answer what they considered to be a critical issue facing Bristol.
“We thought – we have this big 747. How are we going to pay for the fuel to make it fly?” she said.
The answer was a decade-long fundraising and restoration campaign that restarted Bristol’s heart.
Since its reopening in 1991, Paramount Bristol has hosted regional, national and international performers.
Looking back, Rainero thinks The Paramount’s rebirth triggered a revival in appreciation for Bristol’s position as the birthplace of country music. And she thinks restoration triggered a downtown revitalization that spread around the region.
“I really think rehabilitation of the downtown buildings – it started then,” she said. “It was the catalyst of the movement.”
More than 90 years after The Paramount’s first opening night, Bristol’s heart continues to beat. The theater’s executive director says it’s a rhythm that’s leading a regional celebration of the arts.
“Paramount Bristol is so special not only to downtown Bristol but to the Tri-Cities as a whole,” Hayes said.