Almost from my first days in Austin — when I unsuccessfully applied for a job slinging popcorn at the Paramount Theatre — I wondered what had happened to the big, vertical sign that once adorned the vaudeville and movie house.
(I did do the popcorn-and-pop thing at the Varsity Theatre, however, for six years during graduate school. Later, when I served as arts reporter for the American-Statesman in the 1990s, Paramount director Paul Beutel presented me with a crisp copy of my original application.)
The ornate sign with a peacock crown once dominated Congress Avenue, lighting up Austin’s main stem at night and rivaling the State Capitol for attention. It was taken down the early 1960s by Interstate Amusements, ostensively for repair, but then it disappeared.
Periodically, I’d hear a story from an old-timer about its whereabouts. Virtually the first question I asked current Paramount director Jim Ritts was: “Where’s the old sign?”
Since then, he has compiled a Top 4 list of rumors:
1. It is hanging on the Paramount Theatre in Abilene.
2. It is hanging on the Paramount Theatre in Seattle (looks a lot like it).
3. It was lying for decades in a field outside of San Antonio.
4. It was in a junkyard in Fort Worth.
Well, nobody found it, or if they did, they didn’t report it, leading us to suspect it was simply scrapped.
Then one day, I was researching in the Austin History Center when a young man asked the staff there about the old Paramount sign. Hmm, I should help this guy out. So while we were both checking out, I told him that I knew preservationists, architects and others, including Ritts, who might be able to help him do his research. As I often do, I shared email contacts.
Ritts sent me a quick, almost whispered reply to the effect that the young man was working for the Paramount because, in fact, they wanted to reproduce the sign for theater’s 100th anniversary. All very hush hush.
So Monday, the new-old sign went up and it was magnificent. On Wednesday, the crown was added. My first thought: Thank goodness the original colors were not garish. That would have been a visual nightmare. Anyway, the Paramount folks will fire it up for the first time on Sept. 23 with public and private parties.
Ritts reports: “My favorite question — and this was asked by at least five different people — during Monday’s installation of the Paramount Blade, ‘Why are you taking the sign down?'”