03/13/05 — Bartlett says rebuild Paramount downtown

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Bartlett says rebuild Paramount downtown

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on March 13, 2005 2:13 AM

PINE KNOLL SHORES -- Goldsboro can rebuild the Paramount Theater better than new, Recreation Director Neil Bartlett told the City Council Friday.

On behalf of the Recreation and Parks Commission, Bartlett urged the city to reconstruct the historic theater downtown, but he also asked that it fix flaws that hampered some productions.

The recreation commission is asking the new Paramount have an expanded lobby, additional rest rooms and dressing rooms, a deeper stage and more room backstage.

It does not, however, want more seating than the theater had.

"To expand would take aware from the intimacy and experience that you had in that theater," Bartlett said.

Should the council follow the recommendations, the city will need to acquire more land around the theater. City officials mentioned the possibility of acquiring Phoenix Construction's building next door, which was also damaged by the Feb. 19 fire.

The City Council is ready to start exploring those options. At its March 21 meeting, the council plans to appoint a theater reconstruction committee.

"People are anxious to see something going on," Councilman Jimmy Bryan said.

The conversation about the Paramount was held during the final day of the council's annual retreat, held last Wednesday-Friday at the Royal Pavilion hotel.

Bartlett started by recounting some of the recent history of the Paramount. Opened in 1882, the theater was still showing movies into the early 1980s.

Bartlett remembers that, following the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's national championship in 1982, free admission was offered to anyone wearing a UNC T-shirt.

The Paramount was closed for several years when it was only used for the Jaycees' annual haunted house, he said.

But the Weil family led a successful campaign to restore the theater in the early 1990s. The city spent around $200,000, matched by around $100,000 in public contributions, to reopen the Paramount on April 1, 1993.

Since then, the Paramount has typically been booked 75-80 percent of the dates that it was available, Bartlett said. Performances in the past year have included everything from beauty pageants to gospel concerts to Apollo talent shows.

The theater seated 536 people and often drew 400-500, he said.

The recreation commission unanimously voted last week to ask for reconstruction, Bartlett said. "Obviously, there's a lot of emotion surrounding this issue."

The City Council has a chance to correct some deficiencies in the original building, he said.

For example, the dressing room was located in the basement and included small stalls with only curtains to protect privacy. It was inaccessible to many people with disabilities.

There was no room backstage to prepare for productions or build sets. That work had to be done in the adjacent Stage Struck warehouse.

The lobby was too small and included no concession area, nor was there a good place to sell artists' tapes, CDs and other materials, he said. The theater barely had enough rest rooms.

The stage was undersized. Some attempts were made, he said, to reconfigure curtains to increase the stage, but it was difficult to do and still keep off-stage areas shielded from the audience.

The curtains and sets operated on a "fly system," which means they were counter-balanced by sandbags and weights. The system required people to be on catwalks and could be dangerous, he said.

Also, the orchestra pit was small and only a few feet below the audience, so musicians were sometimes in people's sightlines.

"We'd like to see you acquire the additional property so that we can have the amenities and other things needed in a first-class facility," Bartlett said.

Council members asked if the front facade of the Paramount can be saved.

Structural engineers have determined it's not stable now, but workers were bracing the wall Friday. It's too soon to determine if it can be saved, Bartlett said.