VIDEO: The Paramount bounces back after 2008′s devastation
Jim Hoffman is hoping he can “take a massive deep breath” on Nov. 4.
The driving force behind the Paramount Theatre’s $35 million renovation is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm as he sits on the edge of a new and wider deep-red seat that features a historically accurate scrollwork pattern on the backs and cushions designed to “wear like iron.”
Audience amenities topped the list of priorities in bringing the historic hall back from near-death in June 2008, when 34 feet of floodwaters filled the building, rising through the subbasement and basement, sending 8 to 10 feet of fetid waters coursing through the main floor auditorium and Hall of Mirrors, smashing the Mighty Wurlitzer’s console onto the stage.
That is history.
“Now I’m holding my breath and tying up the loose ends,” said Hoffman, a retired Alliant Energy executive who led the theater’s $7.8 million renovation in 2002-03, “only to watch it all wash down the river” five years later.
This time, he is chairman of the five-member stakeholder committee, a volunteer citizen group appointed by the City Council to seek advice and make decisions on behalf of the city, which owns the building.
The front doors opened Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but the countdown continues for next Saturday’s sold-out gala, featuring two really big stage stars: musician/actor Harry Connick Jr. and the city’s cultural crown jewel building, restored to its 1928 splendor.
THEN AND NOW: The Paramount marquee
The “wows” started rolling in even before the paint was dry. Hoffman expects them to keep rolling in as more and more people enter 123 Third Ave. SE, in the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids.
The lily has been gilded with sparkling gold leaf throughout the Hall of Mirrors and historically accurate touches, from the upper balcony’s dome to the lower level lounges.
“Everything from 16 feet on the main floor, all the way down, was completely torn out, and ultimately recreated,” said Jason Anderson, the Paramount’s general manager. “It’s a very, very cool process.” One that required a legion of designers, consultants, construction workers, technicians and artisans skilled in painstaking historic renovation techniques.
“In the remediation, every single inch of the building was touched. That certainly didn’t occur in the ‘76 renovation or in the 2004 renovation,” added Tammy Koolbeck, vice president of VenuWorks for Cedar Rapids, the group that manages the Paramount for the city.
THEN AND NOW: Hall of Mirrors
That’s music to the ears of superstar Connick, a champion of flood recovery in his hometown of New Orleans. He can’t wait to see the Paramount renovations, mark the building’s rebirth and help restore the arts to such a historic venue.
“Now, more than ever, those places are becoming the only types of home that celebrates live performance,” Connick said by phone last week. “Hopefully, there will always be a place in the hearts of people to go and see and hear live performers of all genres of art.
“Those old halls, that’s Americana,” he said. “They were built that way for a reason. Those old halls have a great sound and a great energy when you go in there. It’s important to keep them going.”)
As the waters receded, the future of the building lay in question. Was the structure sound enough to save? Was it time to ditch the old building — designed as a movie palace — for a state-of-the-art concert hall, miles away from any river?
“Everybody in the city knew that’s not the route that they should go,” Anderson said. “There was a lot of that talk with a lot of the downtown buildings that got flooded out — maybe it would be cheaper and easier to demo it all and rebuild … I don’t think anybody really got past the ‘No, we have to bring this back.’”
THEN AND NOW: Main auditorium
Money was a major player.
“Once everybody finally figured out that the FEMA money — which is a huge portion of what’s restoring this theater — only went with the building because it’s a National Historic Register property, everybody sort of just said, ‘Oh,’ “ Hoffman said with a laugh. “Because if we had lost 22 and a half-million dollars in FEMA funding, I don’t know where the money would have come from, if we did want to relocate it.
“From my perspective, I never supported that in the first place,” Hoffman said. “I really felt that this thing should come back. What I’m so excited about now is to show it to the community, because we absolutely made the right decision. There’s no question in my mind. And you notice that the second you walk into the Hall of Mirrors.”
A “wow factor” can be purchased anew — but not the memories even an epic surge can’t wash away.
“So many people have said to me, ‘My first time in the Paramount, I was 6 years old,’ or ‘I had my first date’ or ‘I had my first kiss in the balcony.’
“That’s the other reason why it was so important to bring this back, because it’s such an icon for the members of this community, that I’m particularly proud that it’s coming back the way it is,” Hoffman said.
“They’re gonna come in here and I guarantee their first word is gonna be ‘Wow,’ because it really is ‘Wow.’”
THEN AND NOW: Ceiling details
Even though many of the interior pieces are original, including the welcoming chandeliers, everything looks newer and brighter and more resplendent cosmetically.
The “old” surrounds a plethora of 21st century technical upgrades, especially targeting the sound system and acoustics, as well as a deeper stage, a larger orchestra pit and a backstage that extends into the alley.
All of these improvements will not only benefit Orchestra Iowa, the venue’s primary tenant, but other local groups using the auditorium — and national touring performers.
No more scenery left in semis in the alley. No more Anna from “The King and I” having to change her hoop skirts in the alley in November, because her costumes would only fit through the back loading dock door. No more dead spots of muddied sound for the audiences. No more cramming elbows and knees into main floor and loge seats designed for smaller bodies nearly a century ago.
Robert Massey, CEO for Orchestra Iowa, which is returning to its home base after four years on the road, calls the restoration’s physical aspects “monumental in scope.”
“You are going to enjoy going to the Paramount Theatre more than you did in the past,” Massey said. “Being an audience development guy, that is just so critical to the vitality of the theater — not just the orchestra, but the arts and culture in Cedar Rapids altogether.”
From the orchestra’s standpoint, he says they’re all happy to see some of the big wish-list items put in place, from “drastic improvements” to the acoustics in the hall to an orchestra pit that will accommodate 52 players.
“We’re now able to have a really viable, vibrant venue for ballet and opera, that we never had before,” he said.
SLIDESHOW: A tour of the Paramount
A new partnership between VenuWorks and Orchestra Iowa allows them seek and bring in high-profile acts, instead of waiting for promoters to seek out — or bypass — Cedar Rapids.
An aggressive, diverse lineup is already filling up the building’s calendar, with everything from Orchestra Iowa, the Oak Ridge Boys, Bill Cosby and Jim Brickman’s Christmas show to Broadway touring shows, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s production of “La Boheme” in January, Kaplan University’s graduation and “The Nutcracker” and “Cinderella” ballets with Ballet Quad Cities.
Because of that wide range of performing styles and ticket prices, Massey isn’t worried about flooding the local entertainment market.
“I think it’s great that we offer a lot of choices and a lot of diversity,” Massey said.
“The Paramount Theatre is an entertainment destination in Eastern Iowa. It is that cultural patriarch of performing arts venues. It has a rich history and significance. You walk in the doors and you’re immediately transformed into the arts experience. You don’t get that at other theaters.
“When they were saying, ‘Oh we could build a $50 million performing arts center over on the west side for you,’ it won’t be the same. We don’t need another Gallagher-Bluedorn. We don’t need another Hancher (beyond the one planned). Those are very fine 21st century performing arts venues. You can’t replace the Paramount. They don’t build those anymore. I say that, but they just kind of did,” he says with a laugh.
“The craftsmanship — when you look at the floors, you look at the terrazzo, the hand-plastered molding on the walls, you’re experiencing the core of humanity. …
“The Paramount is a great center for our community,” he said, “because it will be where people will gather, it will be where people come together.”
Massey, who came to Cedar Rapids just days before the flood, has never attended a concert in the venerable venue, but he’s been involved in the recovery process every step of the way.
“My mantra the last four years — we have a great respect for the historic integrity and the stories of the past, but I think our opportunity really lies in the future. I’ve never seen the Paramount as what it was. I’ve only seen the Paramount for what it can be. And even though the restoration is coming to a close and we’re about to play our first notes in there, I still have that same philosophy. What can it be? What can we do?
“Now the burden is on us as a community, on us as arts presenters, as musicians. We’re going to bring the art to the stage. What art will we bring? How will we transform audiences?
“And the bigger challenge to the community is, OK, we’ve built this. You have to come. The community wanted this back,” he said.
“My daughter is in second grade. She’s going to be going to Youth Concerts there, she’ll be singing and dancing on the stage. What will her Paramount be?”
TIMELINE: A history of The Paramount