“Austin Askew”–Chapter XX– Burt, the Barrymores, and Batman: The Paramount Theatre at Ninety

My paternal grandfather, D. L. Bankston, aka “Jack,” aka “Pappy,” was a builder, architect, and contractor in Conroe, Texas. When my parents and I moved to Conroe in 1973, to a place out in the country, my father and Pappy built several barns and storage buildings to house the thousands of stock items left over from the closure of Pappy’s builder’s supply store a decade before. Hammers, wrenches, table saws, stacks of lumber, old doors, jars of nails, nuts, bolts, and screws, paint brushes, shovels, planes, dowels–you name it, we had it. It was like growing up with a 1950s version of Home Depot in your back yard. (To this day I still open my mail with the miniature samurai sword letter openers Pappy gave away to promote his business.)

One day Pappy showed up at our place in his usual construction site clothes: red flannel shirt, tan work boots, pith helmet, and jodhpurs (the last a souvenir from his days as a cadet at San Marcos Baptist Academy). He was braying orders to a crew of construction workers, who were unloading the contents of a large truck onto a back portion of our property.

The years before, during, and after the American Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 inspired a lot of civic renewal projects all over the country, and in Conroe this included the renovation of the old motion picture “palace,” the Crighton Theatre. Pappy was the contractor on that job. Before the theatre could be restored, though, a lot of things inside it had to be thrown out.

History does not record my mother’s reaction to having several hundred ripped, mildewed, and rat-infested old theatre seats unloaded in her back yard and covered with an ancient tarp, but I do remember Pappy was beaming, with a look not unlike a cat that has just dropped a dead mouse onto his owner’s doorstep. I have no idea what Pappy thought he’d ever do with those old seats or how long they stayed on our land before being taken to a landfill. But I do recall that their presence helped me to develop a great interest in the Crighton renovation project in specific and old movie theatres in general.

Several years passed before I ever saw the inside of the Crighton. I went there exactly twice– once to attend a concert, once to play in one. I was, however, sad to see the Crighton was being used only as a performing arts venue. All the movie theatres I’d been to up to that time were concrete bunkers with sticky floors and I had wanted to see what movie-going was like in the golden age. That dream was finally fulfilled when I moved to Austin and got to see “Casablanca” at the Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue.

The earliest movies were shown in cheap arcades and “nickelodeons,” but as soon as movies became a big business, studio executives decided they could maximize their profits it they exhibited in comfortable, even lavish theatres. For the just a few pennies customers could feel like royalty for hours. Many theatres were outfitted with primitive forms of air conditioning. A typical program would include several movies, preceded by a cartoon, a newsreel, and other short features. It’s no wonder that even in the worst days of the Depression American movie theatres did a booming business.

The site now occupied by the Paramount was originally that of the War Office of the Republic of Texas, but the property eventually passed into the hands of the Nalle family in 1855. In 1915 Ernest Nalle hired Denton contractor J. F. Johnson, who had worked on several local schools, to construct a theatre on the site for about $50,000. (The final cost was in excess of $150,000.) On paper the new theatre was named the “Gaiety,” but it was called the “Majestic” when it opened.

George Endress of the firm of Endress & Watkins was the supervising architect, though the theatre was designed by John Eberson, the foremost theatre architect in the country. “Opera House John” Eberson (1875-1964) was born in Romania, studied in Vienna, did prison time after a disagreement with his superior officer while in the military, escaped said prison, and made his way to St. Louis, Missouri, where he went into the practice of architecture. His first theatre, Hamilton, Ohio’s “Jewel,” was designed in 1909. When he moved to Chicago in 1910, commissions for theatre work began to flood in, and his designs for the Austin Majestic (1915) and Dallas Majestic (1917) earned him national attention.

Eberson later developed what he called his “atmospheric” style of design. An atmospheric theatre was not merely a lavish place to go see a movie or vaudeville show, but rather the conjuring of an exotic locale. The auditorium  seemed to be outdoors, with clouds, rainbows, sunrises, sunsets, and stars moving across the blue ceiling. The interior walls were decorated to resemble those of a Spanish patio, an Italian terrace, a Chinese, Mayan, or Egyptian temple courtyard. Eberson’s slogan was “Prepare Practical Plans for Pretty Playhouses–Please Patrons–Pay Profits.”

But sometimes all that atmosphere could backfire. One theatre-owner opened a palatial Spanish-style theatre in a major American city. Everything was perfect–rosy clouds drifted through the azure sky, artificial palm leaves flickered in the conditioned air, bunches of plaster grapes spilled over pergolas, low-wattage electric lights glittered off thousands of imported tiles. Yet for some reason at least half of the audience would get up several times during a program and leave the auditorium for awhile.

The theatre owner was frantic. Were the patrons bored with his choice of movies?  Were they uncomfortable? Had he wasted thousands of dollars on a white elephant of a theatre that was doomed to failure? The owner commissioned a study, and it was not long before he learned that the problem was a fountain that had been built into an alcove on the left side of the auditorium. The fountain produced such noisy gurgling and tinkling sounds that it made everyone on that side of the theatre want to go to the bathroom. The fountain was immediately turned off and the problem rectified.

Eberson designed between 500 and 1,200 theatres in his career, depending on which source you consult. About 62 still exist today, some restored, some merely boarded-up. At least three of Eberson’s theatres bore the name “Paramount.” If you’re of a certain age you may remember the concept album “Paradise Theatre” by the pomp rock group Styx–the Paradise was another Eberson design, but he bears none of the blame for inflicting Dennis De Young on the world.

The neoclassical revival, red brick Majestic opened on October 12, 1915. Guests at the opening gala included Eberson (who had photos of the interior made for inclusion in a book), Mayor A.P. Wooldridge, and members of the City Council and Nalle family. The bill included two one-act plays and a half-dozen other acts. Evening tickets ranged from 25 to 75 cents, while Tuesday matinees ran from 25 to 50 cents.

The Majestic originally housed “legitimate theatre,” that is, plays and more dignified musical performances, such as operas and ballets, but as writer Camille Neuvar discovered, after changing hands several times the Majestic became a popular venue for vaudeville and minstrel shows. In the South, the vaudeville season ran from August to May, so nothing much happened at the Majestic during the summer months.

The Majestic attracted many great performers, including the Barrymore family, Orson Welles, Katherine Cornell, Mae West, Lillian Gish, “March King” John Philip Sousa, Will Rogers, the Ziegfeld Follies, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the Marx Brothers, Claire Booth, Anna Pavlova, Helen Hayes, the Metropolitan Opera company, Basil Rathbone, magician Harry Blackstone, Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt, and Yankee Doodle Dandy George M. Cohan. Famed tenor Enrico Caruso autographed the sound board of an upright piano that was still owned by the theatre as late as 1976.

In 1936, Alla Nazimova, former silent star, owner of the “Garden of Allah” hotel, and godmother of Nancy Reagan, got eight curtain calls when she performed Ibsen’s “Ghosts” here, though the papers were quick to point out that was nowhere close to the twenty-eight curtain calls she got on Broadway for the role. They mysterious and melodramatic Nazimova was known to follow a very strict travel routine when on tour, going from train to hotel to theatre to train, but in Austin she took a break to catch a movie at the State Theatre.

Local historian Katherine Hart saw Houdini perform his magic act at the Majestic. He swallowed some needles and thread, then when he pulled it out the needles were tied at neat intervals in the thread. One of Hart’s friends, however, concluded that Houdini had swallowed edible imitation needles and thread, and had hidden the real thing behind his lip.

Hipster Cotton Club band lander Cab Calloway, the man who introduced us to “Minnie the Moocher,” performed in his trademark white tails, but was also spotted in the alley behind the theatre shooting craps with stage hands and musicians. Katherine Hepburn played “Tracy Lord” in Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” at the theatre. The film version of that role won Hepburn her third Oscar nomination.

By the 1930s, however, films were bringing in larger crowds than vaudeville and legitimate theatre, so the Majestic was renamed the “Paramount” and got a major renovation. New seats, air conditoning, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a better sound-system were added, and the old pipe organ and box seats were torn out. Some elements of Eberson’s neo-classical decor were replaced by gilded Baroque ornaments and moldings.  A huge vertical neon sign was added above the marquee.

The Paramount was a popular site for war bond drives in World War II. In fact, $8.4 million was raised there between 1942 and 1945.

For little kids, the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the mid-1950s was Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier,” which aired on TV in three parts, but was then released as a motion picture. It made lanky, handsome UT alumnus Fess Parker into an overnight star, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” into a #1 hit song, and coonskin caps a de rigueur fashion item for the pre-Clearasil set.

In Austin, two second-graders, Terry Peavy and Johnny Payne, found a wallet containing $16. Though they desperately wanted to use the money to buy coonskin caps, they instead returned it to its rightful owner. When this story was made public the management of the Paramount not only bought the boys coonskin caps, it invited them as special guests at the Paramount premiere of the Davy Crockett movie, where they got to meet and chat with Fess Parker. The “American-Statesman” presented the boys with “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter” badges, which were apparently being given out for free by its Circulation department.

Now I like to think of myself as a movie fan, but I confess I am unfamiliar with the movie “Lucy Gallant,” which had its world premiere at the Paramount in 1955. IMDB.com describes the plot: “Debutante stranded in a rough Texas oil boomtown uses her classy wardrobe to start an upscale dress shop for the wives and daughters of the newly rich oilmen.” The cast included Jane Wyman (the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan), Charlton Heston, Claire Trevor, Thelma Ritter, and William Demarest (“Uncle Charley” on “My Three Sons”). Iconic Hollywood costume designer Edith Head played herself, and Texas Governor Allan Shivers played…Texas Governor Allan Shivers. Heston even took a two-day leave of absence from filming Cecil B. de Mille’s “The Ten Commandments” to promote this film, making stage appearances between the first two showing of the film on Monday, October 10th, and three more, at 3:15, 7:30, and 9:40pm on the following day.

What “Davy Crockett” was to the ’50s, “Batman” was to the ’60s. This campy live-action version of the of the popular comic book character’s adventures was so hot it aired twice a week on ABC. The 1966 movie version of “Batman” had its world premiere on Saturday, July 30th at the Paramount. But why Austin? Austin hadn’t even become famous for its bats yet.

Well, Austin was the home of a company called Glastron, that manufactured fiberglass boats. (I believe their showroom was located in what is now University Cyclery on North Lamar.) Glastron made a custom “Batboat” for the movie, and the movie’s producers premiered the film in Austin to promote the company. I have read reports that the scenes in the movie with the Batboat were filmed on Lake Travis, but I’ve not been able to prove this.

The press ran pictures of cast members (Adam “Batman” West, Cesar “The Joker” Romero, Lee “Catwoman” Merriwether, and Burgess “The Penguin” Meredith) arriving at the airport and cavorting in costume and street clothes. The men all sported ascot ties. Apparently the cast members were all named as honorary Texans. There is a photo of Lee Merriwether in her black rubber Catwoman catsuit, with western spurs added to her high heels…mercy, I will not soon recover from that.

In a recent interview with Bruce Westbrook, Adam West, best known to younger generations now as the voice of “Mayor Adam West” on the animated series “Family Guy,” still remembered “dancing with the Governor’s wife” on the night of the premiere. I would give anything to learn whether or not Nellie Connally danced the “Batusi” that night.

But within a few years, the Paramount fell into neglect. The quality of the films it showed went downhill. In 1973, John Bernardoni, Charles Eckerman, and Stephen Scott decided to rescue the Paramount, though they were unable to acquire the lease until 1975. Their plan was to restore the theatre to its former appearance, and make it a home for the performing arts as well as classic films.

The three men knocked themselves out trying to raise money for the restoration. Movies were shown, plays and concerts were performed, appeals were made to corporate and private donors, to the state and federal governments, to foundations. On Sunday, September 12, 1976, part of Congress Avenue was roped off for a costume gala. People came as Charlie Chaplin, Scarlett O’Hara, Ziegfeld girls. One man dressed up like the Fonz, while his date, a young woman in a strapless evening dress, high heels, an ape mask, and wig, wore a name tag identifying her as “Charlton Heston.” A policeman watching over the festivities commented, “I thought they were thugs.”

The restoration was finally completed in 1980, though tinkering continues to this day.

The new Paramount gained worldwide attention in 1982, when it hosted the world premiere of the movie version of the hit musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” starring Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Dom DeLuise, Jim Nabors, and Charles Durning.

“Whorehouse” was based on a real-life incident, when Houston-based TV reporter/crusader Marvin Zindler, who was known for his fondness for toupees, plastic surgery, and flashy clothes, discovered that a brothel was operating on a farm outside of La Grange, Texas. The place was known as the “Chicken Ranch,” because during the Depression patrons often paid for their visits with poultry. Zindler appealed to the Governor to have the Chicken Ranch closed, and after the word was handed down Zindler made the mistake of going to La Grange to do a follow-up story. Fayette County Sheriff T.J. Flournoy was none too happy to see Zindler, and hadn’t appreciated Zindler’s claims that the Chicken Ranch was run by organized crime, so he attacked Zindler, broke one of Zindler’s ribs, exposed his camera film (forgetting to destroy the audio track), and tossed Zindler’s wig into the street.

How could they not make a movie about that?

The premiere was a lavish, glittering event. Governor Bill Clements showed up and announced that he was not the model for the crooked governor in the movie, who talks out of both sides of his mouth without ever saying anything definitive. (I hope Clements didn’t wear his ghastly trademark short-sleeved shirt and necktie. Though he was and is a multi-millionaire, that outfit made him look like the manager of a fast-food restaurant.)

Unfortunately Larry L. King (not the ill-mannered, serial-marrying CNN interviewer, but someone else entirely), who had written the musical along with Peter Masterson and Carol Hall, was very unhappy with how his work had been changed for the movies. No doubt he was annoyed that Parton ended the movie by singing one of her own songs, the 1974 hit “I Will Always Love You,” which she had recorded in honor of her former mentor and partner Porter Waggoner. (This was long before Whitney Houston released her cover of the song, filled with histrionic caterwauling and Tarzan yells.)

Even worse, at the premiere King was seated right behind Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, and spent much of the movie cursing and complaining about what he saw on the screen. But legend has it that when King started hissing vulgar insults at Dolly, Reynolds turned around and punched him. Maybe it happened that way and maybe it didn’t, but that’s the version I prefer to believe.

1982 also saw the debut, at the Paramount, of the Joe Sears and Jaston Williams comedy “Greater Tuna,” which became a national hit and spawned a sequel, “A Tuna Christmas.” Sears and Williams now have stars dedicated to them right in front of the Paramount entrance. In 2004 the Paramount was used as a location for the Billy Bob Thornton version of “The Alamo.” (Texans always identify Alamo movies not by title, director, or date of release, but by who played Davy Crockett in it.)

The Paramount turned ninety in October 2005, and will continue celebrating the anniversary for much of this year. It continues to host plays, concerts, and other performing arts events. It shows classic movies the way they were meant to been seen, and continues to be a focal point of South By Southwest and other film festivals.

And the seats don’t even smell like mildew.

—February 9, 2006


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