How Austin’s iconic Paramount Theatre survived the COVID-19 pandemic

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — No customers coming through the doors. A promising reopening plan scrapped. “Emotional” staffing decisions that helped to keep the finances stable.

The last six months have been anything but easy for Austin’s famous Paramount Theatre as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the entertainment industry crashing to a halt.

So you can’t blame workers at the local institution for breathing a sigh of relief when it reopened on Friday with a viewing of “Casablanca” after half a year of silence.

“Until this past Friday evening, we had not had ticket-buying patrons into the Paramount Theatre since March 11,” CEO Jim Ritts said.

“When you haven’t had a show for six months the bar isn’t very high,” he said. “But without a doubt, we are thrilled.”

Those six months have been far from straightforward for the 105-year-old performing arts venue.

Most crushingly, the week that the theatre was supposed to reopen instead ended with many workers being furloughed, Ritts revealed.

The Paramount spent June preparing to reopen and set a target reopening date of July 3. Unfortunately, their timetable coincided with cases of COVID-19 spiking in Central Texas, and in late June the decision to reopen was reversed.

Instead of celebrating the reopening, almost 40% of the staff were furloughed around July 4. The rest took salary cuts that are likely to remain in place until 2021.

“It was very hard,” Ritts said. “It was hard emotionally on everybody, because at that point we had gone three months without anything, but we had hope.”

As tough as the decision was, Ritts said that delaying the opening allowed them to sharpen protocols so that when the time came, they would be ready.

It also made last week’s eventual opening even sweeter.

“It’s allowed us to bring a few people back off furlough because they are specifically needed for what we’re doing here,” Ritts added.

When the theatre’s music, comedy and spoken word live shows return, more employees will return from furlough, he said.

Customers returning to the Paramount should expect a very different experience. Capacity is capped at 25%, tickets are contactless, masks are mandatory unless customers are eating or drinking and temperatures are taken on entry.

A non-profit organization, the theater relies on the community for support, leading to unique challenges during a global pandemic.

Ritts said the Paramount has needed to be “more nimble” with fundraising – which means hosting online auctions and virtual happy hours with donors.

The Paramount’s non-profit status means it qualifies for federal and state grants, and Ritts said they are “incredibly grateful” to individual donors that continue to support them.

“When your fundamental relationship mechanism, meaning coming to our theatre, spending time with us, see a show, is no longer available to us, we simply have to be more inventive,” he explained.

“It’s absolutely a true statement that our patrons and our benefactors have been more than willing to step up to keep us going, and we’ll forever be grateful for what they have done during this period of time.”

Ritts also urged Texans – and the state’s senators – to support measures such as the Save Our Stages Act to help revitalize the entertainment industry in cities.

“It’s generally thought if they don’t get something done in the next two weeks they’re not going to get anything done before the election, and that would be tragic,” he said.

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