Paramount Theater exhibit paints a moving picture

The current exhibition at the McDonough should be one of the most popular the museum has ever had.

Entitled The Paramount Project, it unfolds the past and future of the once-glorious Paramount Theater in downtown Youngstown.

The long-empty theater is in an advance state of deterioration now, and plans call for razing it to make way for a public park and performance space.

But the McDonough exhibition — which occupies the entire museum — brings back its heyday. It will spur memories for older Valley residents while giving younger visitors a new appreciation for its role in this city’s history.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 3. An opening reception will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Creating the Paramount Project exhibition was a moving experience for the museum staff. Leslie Brothers, director of the McDonough, said staffers were moved to tears while taping the memories of Valley residents. The oral histories of about a dozen people have been captured on a series of short videos that continuously play in one gallery.

Three couples — Jack and Rita Russell, Tom and Janice Weems and Joseph and Joanne Scarvell — formed romances at the theater that turned into long marriages.

Jack and Rita met there in the 1940s as teenaged co-workers (she on the candy counter, he as a projectionist).

The video shoot even brought about a joyous reunion for the Russells and the Weemses. All four had worked at the theater at the same time but had long since fallen out of touch with each other.

The exhibition stemmed from the work of the Paramount Project committee, which is spearheaded by Anita Lin. The committee aims to raise about $5.5 million to convert the site into an outdoor gathering space that will leave the theater’s terra-cotta facade standing. It has already raised about $1 million and hopes to have the project complete by 2016.

Lin said the space will be “a cultural commons” with uses ranging from concerts to farmers markets.

The McDonough Museum of Modern Art is making an effort to connect with the people of the area, and the Paramount exhibition is an example of its new direction.

Brothers and museum staffers Robyn Maas and Angela DeLucia tossed around ideas for the exhibition after learning about the Paramount Project committee’s plan. Their goal is to get the public interested in the work of the committee.

In addition to the oral- history videos, the exhibition also includes a very informative 35-foot-long timeline that puts the theater into context both locally and nationally throughout its history. There is also a wall of movie posters from shows that played at the theater.

Another gallery has starkly beautiful photographs by Lindsay Blair Brown of New York of the theater’s decrepit interior as it looks today.

Pieces of the interior — terra cotta sconces, and the side of a seat — are part of the exhibit, and show how ornate the theater was.

Another gallery shows what the theater property will look like once it is transformed into a public space.

SMARTS has set up shop in another gallery and is offering hands-on projects for children with a movie theme. A mural of downtown Youngstown by artist Chris Yambar adorns the wall.

The Paramount Theater opened in 1918 as the Liberty Theater. It had an aquarium and a fountain in its lobby and an 1,800-seat auditorium with a mezzanine-level seating. Built for silent movies, it had a pipe organ and orchestra pit.

In 1930, the name was changed to the Paramount. The theater closed in 1976.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.