On May 18, 2015 the Delta County Board of County Commissioners approved the application to declare The Paradise Theatre in Paonia a Historic Landmark. This designation recognizes and honors the cultural and historical heritage of the building. It is is yet another milestone for the nonprofit, The Friends of the Paradise Theatre, in their plans to enhance and promote the historic venue.
In the summer of 1928, a much anticipated, movie theater, was under construction at 215 Grand Avenue in the quaint mountain town of Paonia, Colorado. Final touches were added in early fall and it was completed in time for the October 5th grand opening. It filled a need, as it replaced the nearby, Gayety Theater which was constructed of wood and destroyed by a fire. So, the new 102’ x 29’ structure was masonry, with a rough stucco finish.
Today the theater still stands and occupies the original 125” X 29’ lot. It shares common walls with buildings on each side. According to early photos, it looked much like it does today with the exception of the three-sided marquee that has been replaced several times over the years. Its’ current configuration is a single sided marquee, above a porch style awning, that was added in the 1970’s. As when it was built, the lobby area consists of restrooms, a concession counter/ticket booth and an entrance hallway leading to the auditorium. Beyond the hallway is a stage, balcony and the seating area that once held 385 wooden chairs that could be moved to make room for dancing. As was typical of most movie theaters, a projection room is located behind and just above the balcony.
It all began when the original owner Tom Poulos, sold his bookstore to Dr. Waldo Haley. Poulos plan was to construct a new theater, to replace the Gayety Theater that had burned a few years before. Poulos was born January 9th of 1885 and led an interesting and altruistic life, before his death in April of 1966. A long time resident, he worked for the railroad and later was in charge of the American Red Cross in Paonia. He was an enterprising man with vision and saw the need for retail stores, office space and a new theater in the town he loved.
The grand opening of the theater was October 4th of 1928, and the first featured film was the 1926, Raoul Welsh, silent film “What Price Glory”. Staring in this screen adaption of the original Maxwell Anderson play, were film actors, Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe and Dolores Del Reo, all of which were major stars with credits that extend into the 1950’s and 60’s. Admission was twenty-five cents for children and fifty cents for adults.
Movies were a way to escape the hard reality of life in the coal mines and on the small farms and sprawling ranches that supported Paonia. However, the young theater was not without controversy.
Shortly after the sale of his bookstore, a legal dispute arose between Poulos and Dr. Haley who was a Doctor of Osteopathy born in 1887 and who died in 1959. The ownership of the theater and bookstore was contested in court. The decision found in favor of Tom Poulos, in September of 1929.
Later that same month, The Paonian Newspaper reported that the first “talkie” was shown at the theater and referred to Dr. Haley as the proprietor. Evidently he continued to operate the theater until January of 1932, when Poulos took over. It was initially reported that he considered closing the theater, but by February of 1932 Poulos had decided to reopen the theater with all new equipment. The first film “Emma” stared comedic actress Marie Dressler.
Prohibition of alcoholic beverages became law in 1920 and lasted until 1933. According to reliable local sources, Poulos, like many otherwise law-abiding citizens, was involved in surreptitious manufacture of alcohol, commonly known as bootlegging. The “new equipment” may have included a still, the bookstore may have sold more than books and the dance parties were likely enhanced. There were subterranean rooms and a tunnel that connected the theater to the bookstore building.
As well as showing movies, holding dance parties and allegedly distilling and selling spirits, Poulos was a community minded man and sponsored events for school pupils of the North Fork Valley. At one event, he estimated 1000 guests were in attendance. There is mention in the Paonian that he donated three evenings of programing to the Community Chest. He hosted Santa Clause on Christmas Eve and invited all the children from surrounding towns. A Fireman’s Ball, a free band concert and movie, a benefit for the Paonia Library were all testaments to his civic responsibility and community spirit. In 1969 the theater and the buildings on each side, were sold to Lynne and Charles Bear.
The Bears continued with the legacy of a community-oriented theater and like Poulos, were very generous putting on free movies and sponsoring children’s events. They were a very busy family as Lynn ran a beauty solon in the adjacent building. After the theater lost its projectionist, Lynn would close her shop for the day and go run the projector.
In 1991, the theater was sold to Daniel Perkins who continued to make improvements and keep the theater going during a period of increased competition from television, videotapes and later, DVD’s. It was a time when many small town theaters closed their doors. After a showing of the award winning foreign language film, “Cinema Paradiso” the theater name was changed from the Paonia Theater to “The Paradise”, an appropriate name that depicts the way the residents feel about the theater and the North Fork Valley in which they reside.
Public records show the building being conveyed, at least in part, to Thomas Ricketts in 1996 and then -there is a gap in the chain of title- Michelle Riley conveying to Paradise Theater Properties LLC in 2001. In 2006 it was sold to New Paradise Holdings LLC. In 2010, Raven Heart purchased the theater and continued the commitment to keeping the theater going.
Again the much-loved movie theater and needed new equipment, and it was once again put up for sale. In 2014, thanks to some generous, local financing, the newly formed non-profit, the Friends of the Paradise Theater acquired the property. Since the current movie technology required a very expensive digital projector to show first run movies, an Internet fund raising campaign was launched. Funds from a State grant combined with many donations from around the world and enough money was raised to buy the needed projector and renovate the interior.
The Paradise Theater has hosted many nationally known artists and it is known as a small premier venue by music fans and top musical artist.
Joe Cocker, Otis Taylor, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, James McMurtury, Martin Sexton, Lake Street Dive, Lucius, Mollie O’Brien, Chip Taylor, The Steep Canyon Rangers, March Fourth Marching Band, David Linley, Open Road and the New Reeltime Travelers are among the notable performers that have sold out the theater to thousands of exuberant fans.
The theater has also hosted many writers, directors, producers and scientists such as Craig Childs and Davis Coombe and Amory Lovins.
The Friends of the Paradise Theatre formed in 2013 to enhance the quality of life in the North Fork Valley by providing multi-use performance space and by creating opportunities that enable community activities.
KVNF’s Laura Palmisano spoke to Tom Stevens, the vice president of the theatre’s board, about the designation. Listen to this 1 min and 46 sec interview.