Boston's historic theater district has been undergoing a much-needed dramatic renaissance, with the help of Emerson College. On Wednesday the school unveiled an ambitious programming line-up for its new complex. Years in the making, its heart is located in the restored and updated Paramount Theatre, which has been dark since the 70s.
I met Robert Orchard in front of the box office in the new Paramount Center for a tour. Orchard is executive director of ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, an organization created by the college to bring live performance back to the theater district in a big way.
Orchard is adamant about starting the tour on the third floor, so we head up in the elevator.
"There are actually three public spaces in this building. A screening room, which seats just under 200, that we're also going to use for poetry readings and community discussions and any number of spontaneous events. And the Black Box Theatre, which is essentially a big room, and then the larger 600 seat Paramount space."
Walking down the hall is kind of like walking through a mini-museum. A mural is dedicated to Washington Street's golden era of Vaudevillian shows and cinema. It was, at one time, the center of the entertainment district in Boston.
"And this particular wall here is kind of like the Vietnam memorial wall," he says, "it's this huge serpentine wall with thousands of names on them, all honoring the names of the acts and the names of the artists who appeared along this street during it's heyday."
Fats Waller, Milton Berhle, Bob Hope, Ginger Rogers.
Next we head downstairs, but on the way we stop briefly in the upper lobby outside the Black Box Theatre. The gilded, velvety period decor transports you back to a time when Art Deco was new. An enormous, cushy couch sits in the middle of the room, bathed in soft light. Orchard says it will be a nice place to lounge during intermissions.
"I should also tell you something for half the population of the world, it's a little anecdote about the Paramount. It has more ladies restrooms per capita seat than any theater in Boston.
But then we pass through doors to view the real selling point: the Paramount's main theater.
"You know it's Deco, right, but this is Deco squared," Orchard says.
High Deco. The ceiling and walls are gilded to the gills.
"It was originally a 1,200-seat movie theater, not for stage productions. So essentially we reduced the capacity by half to 600 seats and created space in order to build a stage house, an orchestra pit, traps, a complete fly tower and just a wonderful, intimate space in which to do anything you'd like on stage."
And there's more. Three new rehearsal theaters, a Hollywood sound stage, a scene shop, practice rooms — all for Emerson's arts and communication students. It's obviously a huge investment. But Orchard says it's also payback for a deal the school struck with the city.
"It's a long and glorious journey that they've taken, which began in the 1990s, when they partnered with the city and made a decision to systematically move from the Back Bay, where they started in 1880. to this corner of the universe, which was at the time, at the edge of the Combat Zone.
"And the city knew that Emerson making that choice would transform the neighborhood. ... So the message to the city from a public point of view is that the college has provided a gift, if you will," Orchard says.
"It was a great partnership, I mean it's one of these cliched win-wins."
Come September, Robert Orchard and Emerson College hope to win over the public, when they launch the Paramount Center's inaugural season. It kicks off with a re-imagined production of "The Sound of Music" featuring the Von Trapp children as hoodie-wearing hip-hop dancers and cross-dressing nuns.
This program aired on June 2, 2010.