Your Paramount Theater

by

Last night I watched Clarence earn his wings and restore George Bailey’s greatest gift. Usually the movie plays on television sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I rarely miss it. My boys drift by the room and roll their eyes when they see me crying.

“It’s just a movie, Mom.”

Last night, Ryan pacified me by being my escort to the seven o’clock showing of It’s A Wonderful Life on the big screen at the Paramount, downtown.

The theater is one of those old Bijou-type movie houses from the thirties with its marquee surrounded and lit by rows of individual bulbs. The Paramount used to front Main Street in Charlottesville before the thoroughfare was turned into a pedestrian mall. Now, people park at one end or the other and make the trek four blocks to the box office. A brisk wind from the West pushed us toward the theater last night. I was wrapped in wool, and topped with a hat. Ryan wore shorts and his North Face Fleece. The forty foot evergreen in front of the theater was lit with white twinkle lights. Red, Silver, Blue and Gold Ornaments the size of grapefruit decorated the branches. It looked and felt like Christmas.

The original Paramount closed in 1974 when newer, smaller, multi-plex buildings opened further North on Rt. 29. Miller and Rhoads, Leggett, Downtown Athletic, and Keller and George Jewelers all abandoned Main Street for the suburbs, where stores were enclosed in a mall and parking was in one big lot without timed meters. The old theater sat for a long time with its doors boarded shut and its red velvet interior sagging into disrepair.

When I was in elementary school, the Paramount had summer movie specials. My mother bought a pass at the beginning of summer vacation and each week I rode the bus downtown. The theater back then was a rich, dark red, with soda-sticky floors and air that smelled of hot buttered popcorn. It seemed like every child in Charlottesville pushed and shoved down the aisle to get the best up-front seat to see Swiss Family Robinson, Sounder, The Love Bug, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

As families moved from the center of the city, downtown took a down turn. Workmen boarded up the storefronts and crime seeped in through the side streets toward Main. The City of Charlottesville planned revitalization and laid brick on Main Street in 1976, making it a pedestrian mall. The old Hardware Store with its ceiling-high wooden ladders, original adding machines and wooden tool bins became a restaurant by the same name, serving gourmet dishes with a “Nuts and Bolts” Ice Cream Sundae for ten. Large Department stores were carved into small specialty shops selling eclectic goods from foreign lands, high thread count sheets from France, Turkish rugs, Belgium Chocolates and English Teas.

In 1996 rumor wound through Charlottesville that the Paramount was on a demolition list. The children who enjoyed summer movies in the sixties were grown now, had jobs, and because they remembered, they had other ideas about their Paramount. A movement to renovate took root and the Paramount was given a reprieve. The Paramount became a not-for-profit, and donations saved it.

Eighteen million dollars later, gold and green replaced red, and movies disappeared in favor of live operas, Shakespearian plays, classical pianists, and lectures by famous people who drew sold-out audiences. My Aunt Carol bought me tickets to see Swan Lake. The two of us dressed up fine and were dazzled by the building’s new digs. Even though the Director took center stage before the production and proclaimed, “Welcome to Your Paramount Theater,” it didn’t feel like my Paramount. It felt too grown up, dressed in diamonds and furs, serving wine, and pausing for intermission.

If it weren’t for It’s A Wonderful Life, I’d have passed up the Paramount last night, but I wanted Ryan to slide down Main Street Bedford Falls in George Bailey’s shoes, feel the bite of snow as well as Mr. Potter’s wrath, and the warmth of human kindness in as big a way as one can. I wanted the tinkle of that bell when Clarence receives his wings to ring as clear and true in Ryan’s ears as it did in George’s.

This was a date for us, a son indulging his mother in one of her favorite treats. We stepped to the box office, bought our tickets for six dollars apiece and entered the doors of the theater.

I smelled popcorn. The Paramount was popping popcorn and scooping it into long paper bags just like when I was a little girl. Ryan and I bought two bags of popcorn and two Pepsi’s. We joined the multi-generation crowd making its way down the aisle to those new gold seats. Ryan found us two together five rows back from front in the center section.

The lights dimmed, the Director took center stage and said, “Welcome to Your Paramount Theater.” And, for the first time since the early seventies, it really did feel like my Paramount Theater.

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