By Lexi Curnin
Though it’s midday and the marquee is dark, the grandeur of the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater is striking.
Inside, the vast space of the amphitheater is encircled by intricate moldings and deep hues of red and gold. A vestige of the golden age of cinema, the former movie palace boasts an impressive 1,100 seats.
The architecture firm of George and Charles Rapp built the Paramount, along with 40 identical theaters, in the 1930s. Only eight remain in operation today, including the Paramount and its sister theater across the Hudson River in Middletown.
From 2012-13, the theater, then the Paramount Center for the Arts Inc., was shuttered. Because the city of Peekskill had acquired the building — and thus the burden of maintaining it — in a 1977 tax lien, it was eager to put the space to use. The Peekskill Common Council quickly issued an RFP to organizations interested in reopening the doors.
The proposal submitted by Red House Entertainment, formed by respected sound engineer Kurt Heitmann of Garrison for the exclusive purpose of revitalizing the theater, was chosen for the strength and experience of its team, as well as its commitment to establishing a community theater.
In May 2013, Red House signed a 17-year lease with the city with rent set at 5 percent of gross revenue.
Rebuilding has been a multiyear, multifaceted process. In addition to the necessary changes to the infrastructure of the theater, including installing a front-of-house platform and running fiber optic cables below the stage, relationships with booking agents, sponsors and the general public necessitated repair.
After the closing of the Paramount Center for the Arts, Heitmann said some “bad blood” lingered within the community. In order to win back the public’s trust, the theater honored unused tickets left over from the previous operation for the first year after opening.
In order to truly serve the public, however, Red House recognized the need for a nonprofit arm to the for-profit commercial music side of the organization. With newly granted 501(c)(3) status, the theater is now able to accept donations that will facilitate programming attractive to the local community.
Heitmann said, “the reason we called it Paramount Hudson Valley is because it’s not just about Peekskill, it’s about the Hudson Valley … and it’s about all the different communities in it. …It’s not just an old folks’ theater or a young kids’ theater, it’s everybody’s theater.”
The theater is already working to support local artists by featuring their work in a gallery upstairs, hosting regular open-mic nights and booking unestablished bands as openers for larger visiting acts.
Children’s programs have also been a significant part of community outreach. In early December, several local schools rented out the theater to host the ENCORE!! series put on by a theater group from Boston. The actors performed adapted versions of stories written by Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving, including Hudson Valley favorite, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
In another recent outreach effort, Paramount hosted a breakfast with Latino leaders from throughout the Hudson Valley to gain valuable insight into what kind of events would be of interest to the Latino community.
The popularity of the performance of “Call Mr. Robeson: A Life, with Songs,” suggests efforts like the breakfast have not been without result. The production, an exploration of the life and civil rights activism of Paul Robeson, highlights his involvement in the Peekskill riots. The presence in the audience of several witnesses to the 1949 riots made the performance a “very powerful moment in theater,” according to Red House public relations manager Abigail Adams.
Though the theatrical performances have been extremely well received, it is the commercial concerts that are the main source of ticket sale revenue. Thanks to the tireless work of Heitmann and Red House booking agent Kim Yaffa, Paramount Hudson Valley has been host to celebrated acts such as Chris Botti, Kansas, the Charlie Daniels Band and Daisy Jopling.
Despite hosting big-name performers, the theater lost money during the first two years of opening. This, however, was fully expected by Heitmann, who said, “We knew that we would be putting more money into the business than we would be able to get out of ticket sales, again, trying to rebuild. And we’re now in our third year, and we’re at the breakeven point, so business has been very good.”
The success of Paramount Hudson Valley is not occurring in a vacuum. After the Paramount Center for the Arts closed in 2012, Heitmann recalls, “There was a dark mood over this town.” Local business suffered, causing several restaurants to close. But now, with the reopening of the theater, Peekskill has seen the inception of several new art galleries and restaurants.
Because downtown Peekskill is not easily accessible from the nearest train station, an establishment like Paramount Hudson Valley helps to attract needed visitors. Adams said, “We know that this is an economic engine for Peekskill. When we have a big show, it’s trickledown. Everybody benefits.”