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Investing in paradise

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Photo by Tamie Meck. A crowd gathers last July at the Paradise Theatre in downtown Paonia. The non-profit Friends of the Paradise Theatre controls the theatre.

Since the early part of the 20th century, seeing movies on the big screen has been an American tradition. The big screen came to Paonia in October 1928, when an enterprising citizen named Tom Poulos opened the Paonia Theatre on Grand Avenue. On opening day adults paid 50 cents and children 25 cents to see the silent film, "What Price Glory."

The local theater was in jeopardy of disappearing in 2013, but thanks to a generous community and a dedicated group of patrons, future generations can still experience the big screen at the theater that Tom Poulos built.

According to a historical narrative by Tom Stevens, the original Paonia Theatre replaced the Gayety Theater, which was destroyed years earlier by fire, in 1928.

The building still bears the Poulos name, but has since changed ownership a few times, survived the advent of the VCR and DVD, and went dark a time or two. But in 2013, the Paradise Theatre was among more than 1,000 small-town theaters facing closure. The operators weren't renewing their lease, the owner considered selling, and conversion to digital technology was forcing small theaters across the country to choose between expensive upgrades and closure, recalled Elaine Brett, current board president of the non-profit Friends of the Paradise Theatre. "Everything was pointing to closure."

That wasn't an option, said Brett. "We want kids to have that shared experience of seeing a movie on the big screen," including classics like "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Wizard of Oz," and "Fantasia," which was shown admission-free last weekend, "It's different and it's special, and we're losing that."

The Paonia Chamber of Commerce took on a sponsorship role, and a "Digital or Dark" Kickstarter campaign raised $100,000 to fund digital conversion, concession stand renovation, removal of the steep stairway leading to the projection room, and a fresh coat of paint.

A small group of local investors helped purchase the building, and in June 2014 the doors reopened. That September, the Friends of the Paradise Theatre (FOPT) was given non-profit status. FOPT applied to the Board of County Commissioners for historical designation, and last May the Paradise was declared a Historic Landmark. That designation opened doors to grants and other opportunities. FOPT now has a five-year plan to make those opportunities a reality.

"There's a lot more we'd like to do with the place," said Brett. "There's stuff behind the walls that I don't even know if I want to know about."

The new Belgium-made Barco projector has greatly simplified the movie projection process, said Brett. All the steps that used to require manpower and coordination, down to operation of house lights, is preprogrammed. "This pretty much assures that it's going to be a nice clean run."

The Barco is also compatible with an array of electronic gadgets, allowing for greater flexibility in live performances and community events, said Brett. FOPT's wish list for the future includes upgrades of the audio and lighting systems and other technical improvements, and construction of a back stage so that performers, currently staged at the KVNF studios, don't have to enter through the alleyway.

FOPT is also exploring collaborations with more than a dozen local organizations and businesses. "How can we provide the best venue for the community" and give people who don't attend movies a reason to come to the theater? asked Brett. "I think it's really important for us to honor everybody who lives here and to try and provide something for almost everyone."

Poulos likely saw his theater in much the same way. A community-minded man, he made it a hub of the community, including during the Great Depression, where meetings and gatherings were held and children saw Santa Claus. In its early days it doubled as a dance hall until sometime in the 1930s when the floor was slanted for better movie viewing and permanent seating was installed, according to Stevens' narrative.

Paonia native Lynne Bear and her late husband, Charlie, were the theater's second owners. Lynne still has the abstract, which shows ownership of the theater and two adjoining Grand Avenue properties changing hands beginning in 1925, with Poulos purchasing the property for $2,200 in 1935.

"I was not happy with Charlie when he bought it," said Lynne, who at the time was preparing to sell her restaurant and stay at home. "I'm grateful now that we did."

The Bears took over operations in 1968, and in 1970, purchased the three buildings for $35,000 from Poulos' daughter, Stephanie Poulos. They changed the name to the Bear Theatre, reconstructed the marquee, and added balcony seating. The theater was mostly open weekends and offered special kids' movies. "We always had lots of kids," said Lynne. The now-grown moviegoers still tell her today how much they enjoy those memories.

While Charlie worked at the mine she ran a hair salon, and later a dress shop by day, and ran movies at night. Getting first-run films was expensive, but they managed to get many of them, said Lynne. Movies arrived at the post office in huge canisters. Films were then spliced onto a big reel -- an art form few mastered. An interruption in the film usually meant trouble in the projection room.

Years after they sold the theater Lynne said she had a good laugh while watching a movie and the projectionist had some trouble. "I remember those times and the challenges," said Lynne.

She was very happy to know the theater would remain open and attended a FOPT board meeting to express her gratitude. Along with the schools, museum and Paonia Senior Center, where she now volunteers, "I just think it's the center of town."

Unfortunately, converting to digital hasn't made first-run film more affordable, although the Paradise has shown several since the digital conversion. Small theaters aren't high on the list for getting first runs, but like the Bears, "We try," said Brett. "The whole industry is not very fair to little independent houses like this, but we're stuck with it."

A true theater experience includes a trip to the concession stand, and the Paradise has a robust concession where traditional theater fare is sold alongside local items like Big B's juices. "If somebody made candy (locally), we'd probably sell it," said Brett. The gourmet popcorn is topped with real butter.

For the 21-and-older crowd, they offer a selection of alcoholic beverages, most of which are produced locally. "We're not in the business of being a tavern or a bar," said Brett. However, people are very grateful to be able to enjoy a glass of wine with their movie. "It is unique."

The theater can also be rented for private events. New technology allows for live streaming, and in September Harvest of Voices reading was streamed to a full house from the Blue Sage Center for the Arts, marking the first live streaming of an event.

FOPT recently announced its "Take a Seat at the Paradise" campaign through Colorado Gives (ColoradoGives.Org). In one month the campaign has raised $25,000 toward a goal of $150,000 - $200,000. Funds will go toward paying off debts. Once those are honored, said Brett, the theater will truly belong to the community and provide a space for a variety of cultural events into the future. The board would eventually like to purchase one of the adjacent buildings to increase space.

While looking to the future, FOPT is not forgetting the past, said Brett. They are currently in talks with Jim Wetzel from the Delta County Historical Society about a theater exhibit. Some of the items would come from the collection at the Paonia Historical Society, which lacks space for the special exhibit.

The Paradise is garnering a great deal of attention from beyond the North Fork area. By invitation from the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media, on Feb. 4, Rocky Mountain PBS will screen two films, "Cinema on the Plains," about Colorado's small theaters in the early days of statehood; and "Ladies of the Mines," about the challenges faced by ladies in the state's remote mining towns in the late 19th century. A Q&A session will follow the screenings.

On Feb. 6 the theater will play host to a TEDx event, with the theme "Pushing Through the Pavement." "It'll be a day of new and brilliant ideas," said Brett.

About 20 carefully selected speakers will deliver 15- to 18-minute talks on various subjects, interspersed with creative performances. The event will be recorded and posted to the TEDx website, which has potential to bring the world to Paonia. "We're telling other people we're here, and they'll be interested in seeing who we are," said Brett. "That's a good thing, I think."

Organizers hope to attract people from as close as Delta and Montrose and as far away as the Front Range and beyond. The event may also be streamed live at other venues. The TEDx event "isn't just about Paonia," said Brett. "It isn't about the North Fork Valley ... it's about Delta County."

FOPT recently received confirmation of a $7,500 grant from the Anschutz Family Foundation and a matching $6,000 grant from the Colorado Tourism Office for marketing the fourth annual Paonia Film Festival on April 28-30. FOPT is reaching out to the county and beyond to bring people to the festival, and requests for film submissions, due in January and February, have gone out across the state.

Included on the wish list for 2016 are humanities scholar and Thomas Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson, and a live streaming of a Broadway show. Downtown Colorado, Inc. wants to offer a Downtown Institute workshop training program for businesses and local government in collaboration with the Town of Paonia and Chamber of Commerce.

"The change to digital was a tough hurdle that many small theaters didn't make," said Brett. But the Paradise survived and represents the great potential for revitalization. "People are coming to small towns to get away. If they come, they need something to do. A theater, I think, is a mark of something alive."

Upcoming events at the Paradise Theatre in December:

Dec. 12 -- The Scones "Light in the Forest" CD release party and performance. The 3 Tinkers will open.

Dec. 18-19: Dark Night with author Craig Childs.

Paonia’s original theater, the Gayety, burned down and was replaced in 1928 with the original Paonia Theatre.
The Paonia Theatre shown with the old ticket booth.
A 1950s-era photo shows how popular the theater has been with local kids.
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