PAC turns 90: Built in 1931, theater needs some TLC

Sep. 4—ASHLAND — The Paramount Arts Center is widely considered one of the jewels of Ashland and one of the centers of artistic activity in the region.

From a theater built to show moving pictures to a performing arts center that offers arts education and a venue for local performers, the Paramount has served many roles.

The theater will mark 90 years of serving the area on Sunday with an ongoing fundraiser to refurbish the marquee and the great sign that rises above it.

PAC devotion

One of the most avid supporters of the restoration is Kathy Setterman, who was executive director of the theater for 25 years and currently is active in the Paramount Woman's Association, which is a volunteer organization that raises money for restoration and education at the theater.

"The marquee is a symbol of how much of a success the community is and the fact people are willing to invest in a historical building like that and the impact it can make financially by bringing people here," Setterman said. "(The sign) is as old as the building and although we've taken very good care of it to the best of our knowledge, it ws brought to our attention about five years ago when PWA was hanging the tree ornament on it for Festival of Trees. There was a huge amount of rust on the canopy and we started looking closer at the marquee itself and trying to determine exactly what was needed." She said the sign has rusted from the inside out.

The sign, constructed in sections, poses no danger of falling off the building, but parts could fall onto the canopy, she said.

"We can't go in and fix it. We have to replicate it," Setterman said. "But it will look exactly the same."

She said Harris Signs in Huntington will do the restoration, which means the panels will be removed and measured, then duplicated. Harris Signs has had experience at the job, having recreated the marquees at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center in Huntington and the Ro-Na Theater in Ironton and are familiar with the historical preservation guidelines issued by the National Park Service.

Going strong since '31

Paramount Pictures purchased the property the theater stands on from the Southern Methodist Church, which moved to the site of Ashland Junior College, which became Ashland Community College and then Ashland Community and Technical College. The church prospered with the money from that sale and the Paramount Theater became the city's showplace and a center of activity.

Stories in The Daily Independent from 1931 showed exactly how important the new theater was to the community:

"If it's beauty you want in your theatre, here it is. In days gone by, residents showed their out-of-town guests their post office, city hall and other public buildings, but now it is their theatres. Since the advent of the super-show house, the moving picture palace has taken the place of all other public buildings in the estimation of the residents."

Designed to show silent films, during construction "talkies" arrived. The theater opened on Sept. 5, 1931, and was one of the first transitional theaters, meant to usher in movies with sound. It was to be a model for others in the country to show films from Paramount Pictures, with seats designed to absorb sound to reduce echo, which was high-tech for theaters at the time. The Paramount also contained advanced technology in the area of projection, according to reports in The Daily Independent:

"Whereas only a few years ago film was measured by hand in order to determine the length of shows, we find an automated film footage meter which rewinds and measures film simultaneously. It is an ingenious machine which stops automatically when the end of the film has been measured.

"Another highly interesting feature is the automatic curtain control. This arrangement enables the operators to control curtain closings at the end of the performance, by merely pressing a button which automatically closes and opens the draw curtains as desired. This feature is to be found in only a very few theatres in the United States."

But plans to open were nearly foiled by The Great Depression, when the movie-making company decided not to complete the theater. Then, an Ashland company took over to complete the project, but at a third of its original size.

The theater was renamed the Paramount Arts Center in 1972 and preservation efforts have continued over the years. It operates as a not-for-profit organization.

Preservation efforts

Fundraising to continue restoration has been difficult for the last year and a half, as COVID-19 caused many shows to be rescheduled and deterred many from attending any kind of public gathering.

"The Paramount is just trying to keep heads above water," Setterman said. "They have actively solicited contributions for (the sign) and we're hoping, through the 90th celebration, contributions people would make would be given to the restoration of the marquee."

She said plans were to refurbish the sign last year.

"It became more important to funnel money into operating, but we've got to keep that marquee," Setterman said. "It's important to our town."

A New Orleans native, Setterman got involved with the Paramount when she moved here.

"The first organization I volunteered for was the Paramount, and I was astounded a community this size had such a beautiful, historical building," she said, noting she joined the PWA when it formed in 1973.

"Historical preservation was my focus from the beginning," she said. "Once employed there, it was all about the programming and PWA was doing restoration work." She said she had been involved in restoring the lobby and murals. "Once I went to work there, we started talking about expanding the stage house so it could accommodate the kinds of programs the community deserved."

Once that expansion was complete, the Paramount could host large Broadway shows.

The theater remains a passion for Setterman.

"The place has been my life from the time I moved here," she said. "I'm very proud of all that we have done and they continue to do to serve the mission to inspire, educate, entertain and preserve. The road has been hard, COVID made it very difficult, but they're still adamant about the sign and the impact of having the theater in the community and preserving the building."

Funding the sign

While the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Paramount Arts Center will be quietly observed on Sunday, staff and volunteers are making a loud push to obtain the funding needed to restore the sign.

Carly Stout, director of development and volunteer services at the Paramount, said repairs will cost $100,000 to $125,000.

"Years of weather and wear have caught up to it," Stout said. "It's a significant part of the Paramount and the downtown."

A GoFundMe account aims to raise $100,000. To donate, visit the the Paramount Women's Association's Facebook page or visit and search for Paramount Arts Center.

(606) 326-2661 —

The Paramount Woman's Association is hosting a fundraiser for the refurbishment of the marquee and great sign on the front of the Paramount Arts Center. To donate, visit the PWA's Facebook page or go to and search for Paramount Arts Center.