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After 30 years of sleep, Emerson revives Paramount Theater

The lights are back on at the historic Paramount Theater. Emerson College completed renovations and officially reopened the Boston landmark on March 6 after it had been closed and in a state of disrepair for about 30 years.

At the crux of Boston’s Downtown Crossing and Theater District, the Paramount was first opened in 1932 only to close in 1976 as a shabby porn house. Emerson purchased the theater in 2005 with the aim of restoring it to its original grandeur.

The Paramount officially reopened with a performance by Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester. Robert Orchard, who is the executive director of the arts at Emerson, said the premiere was booked in part to celebrate the theater’s historic past.

“[The Raabe Orchestra] draws its inspiration from the music that was produced at the time that the theater was built,” he said.

Orchard said this spring Emerson will be “testing the theater for different art forms” and the full theater series will not open until September.

But there are still some who actually remember the Paramount from its glory days. John Gouzoules, who grew up in Brookline, said he remembers going to the Paramount as a teenager in the early 1950s.

“I remember it being a gargantuan theater,” Gouzoules said of the Paramount which once had the capacity to seat 1,500 moviegoers. “The art-deco look was very impressive, especially to a young guy. Unlike the . . . mall-type theaters that you have today, it was really ornate and impressive to see.”

Today, the theater has been transformed from a movie house to a live-stage theater, complete with orchestra pit, that seats 596.

Emerson spokeswoman Allison Teixeira said while much of the inside of the theater had become dilapidated over the years, measures were taken to restore the original look.

“It’s basically an exact replica of the old theater,” Teixeira said.

Emerson also renovated the neighboring Arcade building to create a performance development center, which includes a smaller black-box theater and a film screening room.

The three venues on Washington Street connect to a fourth venue, the Cutler Majestic Theater on Tremont Street. The name of the four-theater unit has yet to be finalized.

Orchard said the new theaters will showcase a wide variety of acts.
“All of this is work that for the most part, were it not for the existence of these four new spaces, would not be seen in Boston, so we are adding to the cultural choices for the community,” he said.

The new cultural choices and activity that the Paramount Theater will provide will be “absolutely huge” for the city, said Boston Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker.

The city, she said, began its efforts to redevelop the Theater District in 1995 when the Boston Opera House, Modern Theater and the Paramount Theater were put on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Theaters list.

“They were three out of 11 of the most cherished theaters that were not active any more,” said Shumaker. “We worked for years to try to get development for all three of those theaters and to get them to come back online.”

The Boston Opera House was reopened in 2004. Suffolk University has purchased the Modern Theater, which Shumaker says will also reopen in the coming months.

Gouzeles said he believes the renovations will improve the area, which has been deemed unsafe by some.

Orchard also said discounted tickets will be available to all students, not just those attending Emerson.

Boston University College of Fine Arts junior Colin Jones said the addition of another theater in Boston will enrich the city on a cultural level.

“I think it’s something that we, especially in a major city, are losing. It’s always great when something new can come into a city,” he said. “It will be a really great thing to see some international shows and how other people think of theater and how they approach things.”

“It will make a contribution in terms of getting people to go there again, because I think over the last 20, 25 years, Washington Street has not been the place to go,” Gouzoules said. “It’s a real blessing to the area, no question about it.”

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