One of Abilene’s most interesting features is the historic Paramount Theatre, located in the heart of downtown. Built in 1930, this magnificent movie palace is a monument to a by-gone time in America, when movie-going was a chief form of entertainment for people of all ages. Restored in 1986 to its original appearance, the Paramount now offers a yearly Film Series, as well as live entertainment on its renovated stage.
Through the years, the Paramount has enjoyed an illustrious history. Construction began in 1928 when Horace O. Wooten financed the magnificent showplace adjacent to his Hotel Wooten. Its opening night on May 18, 1930, featured the film “Safety In Numbers,” starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Carole Lombard. The entire town turned out to witness the social event of the decade when over 1,400 electric bulbs illuminated the 90 foot marquee.
Promotional stunts were second nature for manager Wally Aiken, in whose loving hands the Paramount progressed for over forty years. Many locals still remember bringing milk bottle caps to get into “Uncle Wally’s Birthday Club” on Saturday mornings. The Paramount was a frequent destination of the soldiers from Camp Barkeley—named for David B. Barkley (note the difference in spelling)—a native Texan who was awarded the Medal of Honor in World War I. Located just outside of Abilene, Camp Barkeley was a large Army training camp during World War II. The Paramount remained operating as a movie theater until the mid-seventies when reduced downtown traffic saw declining box office revenues. After closing for a brief period, the Paramount re-opened in 1979 as the Paramount Opry for a short lived career in the country music business, but was not successful in that format.
A group of individuals with mutual love for the historic structure banded together to save the Paramount from future destruction. With dedication and determination, these volunteers organized the Paramount Committee under the umbrella of the then newly established Abilene Preservation League. A month prior to the Paramount’s scheduled demolition, members of the Abilene Preservation League secured the deed, halting its destruction, and acquired placement of the Paramount on the National Register of Historic Places. They also created the Classic Film Series from a strictly volunteer staff.
The theatre was purchased in 1984 by a generous benefactor who prefers to remain anonymous. The new owner financed its restoration which began in 1986 and was completed in 1987. The restoration and renovation, under the direction of Killis Almond of San Antonio, took over six months and won the Paramount the prestigious Texas Award for Historic Preservation from the Texas Historical Commission.