History & Mission

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.


Historic Murals

Pantomimist Mick Sgroi of Louisville, Kentucky, was the Paramount Arts Center’s Artist in Education in October and November of 1981. As a student of the fine arts and of Marcel Marceau’s mime school in Paris, France, Sgroi was well-versed in the history of the arts. Particularly interested in the origins of pantomime, he was therefore delighted by the murals on the interior walls of the Paramount Theatre. The following is his account of why Panolone', Columbine, Harlequin, Pierrot and Pieroette were chosen to appear in the murals.

The tradition of Italian Commedia del'arte, which means “comedy of the professionals” or “comedy of the artisans,” was based on story lines written out by scholars who traveled across the hills of Bergamo, Italy. Their journeys to and from school took them through peasant lands, and the scholars' boredom on their long travels caused them to seek out entertainment with the peasants. The scholars chose to write out short stories and read them to peasants they encountered. There were no methods of mass printing in these days so the “word of mouth” method was used to pass on these stories throughout the little communities. The peasants repeated the stories over and over again, each adding a little something of his own, until eventually the stories were well-defined.

The characters created by the scholars were mostly two-dimensional with fixed personalities. Because of this, they were solid enough to withstand various plot lines and relationships among each other. One of these firm figures was called Pantolone', who later became the prototype for Charles Dickens' Scrooge. Pantolone' was a miserly person, very narrow-minded and able to see means of furthering his own wealth. He had a beautiful daughter named Columbine, who was like the Doris Day of her time.

Columbine usually, in various story lines, fell madly in love with Leandro, a man of some wealth but not nearly as rich as Pantolone' expected for any future son-in-law. Leandro had one servant, Harloquin (or Arlechino in Italian). Columbine had a hand maiden Smeraldina, and these two servants went out of their way to get Leandro and Columbine together in romantic spots. Soon Pantolone' discovered that his daughter was having an affair with Leandro, so he made her stay in her room as punishment. That only made Leandro more determined to see her and devise methods of getting to her.

The plot was further complicated by a character named Il Capitano, a braggart and liar who had never even been in the service. He told everyone how wealthy he was and how much land he owned after ransacking other people’s properties while in the service. Pantolone' was highly impressed by these lies and decided that he could increase his own riches if he married his daughter off to Il Capitano.

At the end of these stories, Il Capitano would usually be exposed for the liar he was, and Pantolone' would either end up blessing the marriage between Columbine and Leandro or he would chase off Leandro. When this happened, Leandro would only turn up in a sequel, ready once again to woo the lovely Columbine.

Since these characters were so well-defined, it was easy in later years for actors to portray them onstage. Eventually, touring troupes were formed to present these plays in various towns. With each production, these plays became more and more refined until finally they were regarded as an art form unto themselves. There was a great emphasis on movement in these plays, and the actors began using mime and acrobatics. The character of Harlequin, especially, used mime, and he became noted throughout Europe for his unusual manner of walking. Comedians throughout the ages have copied that walk, and Jackie Gleason used it in “The Honeymooners” TV show as he hiked his leg up and yelled, “And away we go!”

The comedic walk of Harlequin is not the only carry-over of these Italian characters still used today. Another is two boards slapped together to create a comical sound, which were used as props in the early plays. These “slapsticks” have been used for years by clowns in circuses, and the term “slapstick” is also used to denote a type of physical comedy known today as “slapstick humor.” Harlequin's name as a symbol remains with us today. The word “harlequin” is defined as a comic character in pantomime who wears a mask and gay, spangled tights of many colors, and who sometimes carries a wooden sword. The character of Harlequin wore an eye mask, and that is how he is depicted on the mural in the Paramount.

Harlequin is not the only character who has given us words for our present-day vocabulary. Panolone' was always shown wearing knickers pants with voluminous material between the waist and knee, which gave his legs a balloon-type appearance. The modern fashion adopting that look is called, in Panolone's honor, pantaloons. In fact, the word “pants” is also derived from Panolone'.

A character named Pierrot is on the left-hand wall of the Paramount, standing next to Pierroette. Pierrot is a silent character who often fell in love, but to no avail, with Columbine. He let his love be known to Columbine only through the use of mime. His character frequently committed suicide in various plots because of his unrequited love for Columbine, but eventually the character Pierroette was created so that he would have someone to return his love. Both Pierrot and Pierroette were created by Jean Gaspard DeBaurault, an eighteenth century pantomimist who performed in Paris to rowdy crowds. His personal life was not exempt from rowdiness, either, and he was even known to have killed a man once for flirting with his wife. DeBaurault is most noted for having written the “Love’s me, love’s me not” routine that’s often associated with plucking petals off a daisy.

DeBaurault also invented the clown collar which is still used by clowns. The reason for the collar was that it cast a shadow around the clown’s face when the clown stood under stage lights, an effect which DeBaurault liked. To achieve a similar look, he was the first to use a mime white face by patting the face with flour. Then he created an all white clown uniform based on the famous character of I. Pagiacci of Italian operas. I. Pagiacci is known as the “crying clown” because he caught his wife in the act of adultery. His wife, by the way, was based on the character of Columbine.

Thus, it is obvious that the characters depicted in mural form on the walls of the Paramount Arts Center have had a profound, historic significance on the development of the arts. Variations of their original characters are still with us today, as are their words and fashions. These characters belong in a theater, and their presence reminds us of our artistic roots.

Restoration of Murals

David Musselman, of Louisville, KY was the mural restoration artist. A student of art and architecture at the University of Cincinnati, Musselman left college to pursue a career in art. After 10 years in New York, he was asked to return to his hometown to restore the murals in the Seelbach Hotel. It was this work that brought him to the attention of the Paramount Woman’s Association, which directed him in restoring the murals, foyer and lobby of the Paramount Arts Center.

Working with an associate, he spent weeks cleaning more than 50 years of accumulated dirt and grime from the murals located on each side of the theatre. After the murals were cleaned, dark patches from earlier amateur retouching were evident.

The retouching work had been matched to the grime-darkened surface. Musselman repainted these areas to their original brilliance, matching both color and design. He also cleaned away a 4-inch deep layer of dirt from the proscenium arch which frames the stage, exposing the variegated gold and aluminum leaf original paint and the bronzed floral borders.

The PWA received a matching grant from the Kentucky Heritage Commission, which enabled the all-volunteer group to once again engage Musselman's services to complete the foyer and lobby restoration. He scraped away layers of paint to expose the original art deco colors of subdued greens, golds, sand, muted reds and burgundies.

He repainted these areas in colors matching the originals, while the association had the original lighting fixtures cleaned, refurbished and installed in their original places. Musselman then applied a protective coat of acrylic varnish to the rapidly deteriorating ceiling design.


Paramount Joe – Resident Ghost

It is said that during work on the Paramount Theatre, in its early stages, a death occured there and the man's ghost has forever since haunted the Paramount. A group of construction workers who were working inside the auditorium had gone to lunch except one man, a guy named Joe. When the others returned they found Joe hanging from the stage rafters, dead. It is not known whether his death was an accident or suicide. But since then, sounds have been heard, things have gone missing, cold drafts have been felt, and some folks even claim to have seen the image of a man appear on occasion.

However, it is by all means a “good ghost” – one who seems to look out for the benefit of the theatre and its occupants. When Billy Ray Cyrus was here filming his video for “Achy Breaky Heart”, he was told about the legend of Paramount Joe. Between breaks, Billy Ray would talk to Joe, laughing and joking with him, sometimes even asking for his help.

It is customary to get 8 x 10 photographs signed by each performer that appears at the Paramount and then hang the photo on our ‘Wall of Fame’ in the box office. Well Billy Ray personally autographed large color posters to each of the female employees working here at the time – and one to Paramount Joe, whom he now had a fondness for. Each lady put her poster near her desk and Joe’s was hung in the box office, near all the other performers.

As time passed and the walls in the box office became too full of 8×10’s signed by other performers here, the executive director felt that some of the pictures and posters needed to come down. Since there were so many of Billy Ray, she asked the women to remove their posters since they were all so similar. Nobody wanted to take their personally autographed picture of Billy Ray down so they took down the one he had signed to Paramount Joe.

The next day, when the ladies came to work, every single 8×10 and poster that had been hanging neatly on the walls the night before was now lined up against the wall on the floor, their glass frames still intact! It was as if someone had carefully removed each one. To this day, Paramount Joe's poster still hangs in the Paramount, in a very special part of The Marquee Room.

There is another story about the time two new employees wanted to investigate the basement in the Paramount and some old items that had been stored there. To reach the basement, you must go through a door that is located just inside the lounge outside the ladies restroom. This brings you to the top of the stairs. At the top of the stairs is a light switch which will light the first section of the stairwell for you. As you progress, there is a switch that will light each area in front of you. And, there is no partner switch. In other words, you must turn the light off at the same place you turned it on.

The marketing director had offered to take the two new female employees into the basement and turned on the lights at the top of the stairs. The ladies hurried down the steps. At that moment the marketing director was called to the phone by someone inside the office. He told the other two employees to hold on, he would be right back. In their excitement however, they did not hear him and they continued on. Recounting the story later, it was at this point they called up to him to turn on the next light for them.

As it turned out, he was on the phone longer than expected and met the ladies as they were coming back up the steps. “Thanks for turning on the light for us,” one of them said, “but we can't get it to turn off.” Puzzled, he explained that he had not turned on the light for them. The expression on their faces revealed that they were not kidding with him.

They lead him back into the basement, only to met by darkness. 'Someone' had turned the light off again as well. “Well, thanks Joe,” called out one of the ladies, as she shivered.


Paramount Arts Center Mission

Our mission is to inspire, educate and entertain with outstanding performing arts and diverse cultural experiences while preserving a unique historic landmark.

The Paramount Theatre, originally designed and built to show motion pictures, has provided an intimate venue for a variety of performances since it first opened in 1931. The artistic vision of the Arts Center is to create a cultural environment that reaffirms the area's Appalachian traditions while broadening the region's aesthetic parameters. We accomplish this vision by presenting several interdisciplinary series of arts programming – both in the historic venue and in identified outreach areas. The vast majority – 89 percent – of Paramount sponsored events focus on educational opportunities for the youth in our tri-state area.

Operating as a non-profit organization since 1972, the Paramount Arts Center, as we are now called, offers the best of the performing arts to our patrons. The theatre has seating for 1400 people and an average of 120 performances per year. Approximately 120,000 individuals attend these events with an economic impact to the community that exceeds $4 million annually!