There is often an instant sense of joy when you walk into a historic building, especially one that has been as lovingly renovated as Middletown’s Historic Paramount Theatre.
This year the Paramount turns 85 with a facelift that brings it back to its former glory.
The 1930s were a time when movies had just been born as an artistic genre. They were a source of entertainment for people from all walks of life. It was also a decade during which more than 3 million people became unemployed as a result of the 1929 stock market crash that began the Great Depression.
But despite the bleak economic outlook, somehow, 1930 was the year when Middletown got its own grand theater.
Joy During Bleak Times
Even more surprising is the fact that The Neilson Construction Company that was commissioned to build it started construction in October 1929—the very month of the stock market crash. They not only completed it but also employed Middletown’s own firms as subcontractors.
The finished venue opened its doors to the public on Thursday, June 12, 1930, with much fanfare, both before and after. According to the theater’s website, on Wednesday, June 11, Middletown Mayor Clarence Van Fleet threw the switch that illuminated the huge marquee.
The following day, festivities began with a noon parade and later on at 6 p.m., the Historic Paramount Theatre’s doors finally opened for two shows—on film—that included an on-screen welcome by Buddy Rogers (star of the 1927 Best Picture “Wings”), a music selection by the Paramount Symphony Orchestra, Paramount News, a short feature on Middletown and its best-known citizens, and then the feature film “The Big Pond,” starring Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert.
At the time it seated 1,500 people and had a state of the art cooling system that consisted of air being passed over large cakes of ice, which was to keep the theater at 72 degrees.
As the years went by, it continued as a movie theater until the late 1970s.
When the Shopping Mall Came to Town
Maria Bruni, director of The Office of Economic and Community Development for the city of Middletown, told the Epoch Times that in the 1970s the first mall was built outside the city limits and took a lot of the merchants out of the downtown, thus leaving the area without the necessary economic base to keep it prosperous. This happened across America.
In the early 1990s work started to be done so as to revitalize the downtown area.
The Paramount’s first round of renovations happened in the early 1980s under the auspices of the Arts Council of Orange County (ACOC). The organization also extended the stage, adding an apron on the front and a pavilion to provide dressing rooms and wing space. At the same time the New York Theatre Organ Society installed the current Wurlitzer organ, which came from the Clairidge Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey.
By 1996, the ACOC was unable to continue to operate the theater, so at the initiative of Joseph DeStefano, the mayor then and now, the city of Middletown again acquired the theater through the action of the Industrial Development Agency.
The Paramount Lives Again
“[Mayor DeStefano] saw it as an important anchor for our downtown, for the revitalization efforts. And it’s an icon for our city,” said Bruni.
Currently, the OECD for the city of Middletown oversees the running of the theater. In the last two years the Paramount has been repainted and a new curtain and new carpets have been installed. There has been infrastructure work on the marquee, and its exterior has also been refurbished.
The theater received a grant of $150,000 from the Orange County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) that allowed for a state of the art digital projector and a 40-foot movie screen to be installed.
Bruni said that, when renovations first commenced, “the key was try to keep the old look,” with the ultimate goal of getting people back to into the theater. “So we officially brought movies back to the theater and we’ve been working on our movie program for the past two years.”
Currently there are movies screenings seven nights a week and the Hoboken International Film Festival starts on Friday, May 29.
Even the Wurlitzer comes alive and is often played at the beginning and the end of classic movies or in concerts under the care of the New York Theater Organ Society, which maintains as well as plays it.
But beyond the Paramount’s ability to revitalize downtown, it is a sight to behold. Its plain brick exterior leaves the first-time visitor totally unprepared for the sumptuous interior. As you step in, the dim lights, soft earthy colors, and lush red velvet seats transport you to a time when going to the movies was an event for which you dressed up.
Judging by its annual program of movies, concerts, and other community events, the Paramount is a piece of Middletown history that is likely to endure and continue to be a source of local pride.
After all, as Bruni said, “How many cities can say that they have a 1930s theater?”