Paramount regains its grandeur

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / March 3, 2010

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The Paramount Theatre reopens its doors to the public Saturday, marking the latest step in the rebirth of Washington Street’s theater row.

The once-grand Art Deco theater, which had become a dilapidated porno movie house by the time it closed in 1976, has been restored to its former glory as part of Emerson College’s ambitious new $92 million Paramount Center.

The theater’s 7,000-bulb marquee now lights up Washington Street, and a new LED wall next door is being programmed as a video art installation. Inside, the 596-seat theater has been restored to look like the movie palace that opened in 1932, complete with mustard-colored seats, gold figurines, and murals. A new orchestra pit accommodates 41 musicians.

Just down the street, the renovated Opera House, which reopened in 2004, is now home to Boston Ballet, and Suffolk University is renovating the Modern Theatre, mainly as a residence hall.

It may be hard, seeing the Paramount Theatre today, to understand just how dramatic a transformation has taken place.

Ross Cameron remembers. Five years ago, the project architect walked through the damp, dirty space to see what had to be done. He found bird skeletons and mold. He could see through a back wall into the alley behind the theater. And he could hear rats splashing around in the orchestra pit. At one point, Cameron entered the projection room. With no electricity, he had to follow the beam of his flashlight.

“I caught this broken mirror, and next to it on the door, somebody had painted, in red, a skull and the word ‘REDRUM,’ ’’ said Cameron. “Ever seen ‘The Shining?’ I had to leave for the day.’’

Now the 180,000-square-foot Paramount Center features not only the renovated main theater, but also a smaller black-box theater, a state-of-the-art film screening room, rehearsal studios, dorm rooms, and offices. The Center incorporates the former Arcade building next to the Paramount Theatre. The structure adds to Emerson College’s already impressive performance presence, with the Cutler Majestic Theater, which it owns, a few blocks away on Tremont Street.

Programming at the Paramount Center and Cutler Majestic is being overseen by Robert Orchard, longtime executive director at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre. Orchard, 63, recently became Emerson’s first executive director of the arts.

During a recent tour of the Center, Orchard showed off many of its features. He pointed out the on-site scene shop, a rare asset, and praised the black-box theater, a smaller, more flexible performance space, with a wall of windows and an exposed brick wall that he said would “save thousands of dollars in scenery.’’

“You’ve got to see this,’’ he said, entering the black-box space and pushing a button. Nothing happened, so he pushed the button three more times. Finally, a staff member walked over and turned a knob to power up the theater. Now the button worked, bringing to life an industrial metal door that slid along a wall to reveal a dark chamber. “I guarantee you, the first production that’s done, that door will open and something cool will emerge,’’ Orchard said.

Orchard plans to partner with US and international companies to present theater, dance, and music performances. His first programmed season will start in September. But first, Celebrity Series of Boston is trying out the Paramount Theatre with a performance Saturday by Germany’s Max Raabe & the Palast Orchester. Later this month, Celebrity Series will present New Zealand’s Black Grace Dance Company and singer Dee Dee Bridgewater’s tribute to Billie Holiday there.

“For us, it means a great deal,’’ said Martha H. Jones, executive director of Celebrity Series. “It’s a great space, a theater that allows us to present almost any type of programming discipline. It’s also not run by a for-profit company that’s interested in making money.’’

The Center’s facilities will also be available for Emerson students. “This means the possibility of really pinnacle productions for the students and for them to be involved in one of the best theaters in the country,’’ said Melia Bensussen, chair of the performing arts at Emerson College. “We have never had the rehearsal spaces or the studio spaces that we’ve needed in the past. These are akin to all the laboratory spaces that scientists need.’’

The city of Boston had long been interested in finding somebody to renovate this stretch of Washington Street. At one point, the American Repertory Theatre had considered turning the Paramount Theatre into a second stage before settling on the space that is now Oberon in Cambridge. In 2005, Emerson announced its plans for the Paramount Center and entered into a long term lease, with an option to buy, the land on which the Center now stands. The college owns the Center itself.

It’s a plot of land rich with history. Earlier performance spaces there date back to 1836, with names such as the Melodeon, Gaiety, and Bijou. Emerson has honored that history with murals and decorative displays that commemorate many of the legends who performed there, from Charlie Chaplin to Ginger Rogers. Some original architectural elements have also been exposed or left on display. The renovation reduced the number of seats from about 1,500 to 596 to make room for a new stage and orchestra pit. And with the interior in such bad shape, Emerson had to re-create its look.

Orchard, who served 21 years as managing director at the American Repertory Theatre and then nine as executive director, was wooed away from his sailboat and plans to retire. Ted Cutler, a trustee and major supporter of Emerson College, was having breakfast with a friend at the Four Seasons last year when he heard about Orchard’s retirement. He excused himself from the table to call Orchard.

“It’s not just bringing in someone to present,’’ he said. “We’re a school that can also produce. We needed someone who understood. We interviewed some really good people, but there was always something. When we interviewed Rob, everybody said, ‘If you let this guy go, I’m going to kill you.’ ’’

Orchard imagines three streams of programming. He aims to forge relationships with larger companies such as the Moscow Art Theater and Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company and Abbey Theatre to present work in the Paramount Theatre and the Cutler Majestic. Younger ensembles such as the Texas-based Rude Mechanicals and the Civilians, a New York troupe, will perform in the smaller venues. And he envisions a lineup of family programming, too.

One project he’s really hoping to pull off could be onstage in April 2011, a production by 84-year-old British theater legend Peter Brook called “Eleven/Twelve.’’

“This is a thinker and maker who has probably been the most influential playwright in the last 50 years,’’ said Orchard.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at