Column: Concept of a ‘theater district’ taking center stage in Aurora

The news coming from the Paramount Theatre in Aurora continues to deserve applause.

Last week’s reception that introduced the new season for its Bold Series in the Copley Theatre and its Broadway Series on the big stage was another feather in the cap of what’s often referred to as “the Paramount family.”

It’s a family that is definitely growing.

In addition to its Broadway Series now having the largest theater subscription base in the country, the Paramount’s full-time staff has jumped from 10 employees in 2012 to more than 200 today, with another 700 part-timers to keep things going not just on these two stages on Galena Boulevard but also down the road at RiverEdge Park.

And coming July 10, the new kid on the block, Stolp Island Theatre, will open its doors to “Million Dollar Quartet,” with a run-date that could be counted in months or even years.

It’s no wonder Paramount Board Chairman Jonathan Hylton was so exuberant at the reception last week. Not only did he proudly tout the Paramount’s growth, from $3 million back in 2012 to its current $30 million budget, he predicted that in the next few years, that number could double.

All this, he added, is only the beginning.

As Hylton pointed out, even as most theaters are struggling in the wake of COVID, the Paramount, which has never used the fear of failure to hold back, is pushing full speed ahead.

“We are not slowing down,” he said. “We are not plateauing.”

“This will,” Hylton declared of downtown Aurora, “be a theater district.”

It’s a statement as bold as the series of intimate shows that opened at the Copley Theatre, despite the pandemic and its impact on entertainment venues across the country.

But what exactly does “theater district” mean?

When I asked Paramount President and CEO Tim Rater that question the following day, he paused briefly, then offered a few clues rather than a definition.

“Everything we do is to complement what we already do well,” he said, quickly adding that ”a lot is happening in the coming months and years” that can’t be said just yet “in our out-loud voices.”

What the theater used to do prior to the Broadway Series was to present touring shows, concerts and comedians. But those, Rater went on to note, were put on a back burner “because the huge Broadway shows pretty much have taken over.”

Not only do these productions run longer now to accommodate demand – for example, “Frozen,” next season’s holiday performance, will go for 12 weeks – “it also takes longer to load them in and out.”

Which prohibits the Paramount “from doing what we historically did,” he said.

“Not everyone wants to see musical theater. They want to see their favorite band or artist or comedian. We want to bring those people to Aurora as well .. to bring in different types of theater that will appeal to different tastes.”

While the term “theater district” may not yet apply to Aurora, Rater notes that once Stolp Island Theatre is open, “we will be at over 900 performances a year,” which is darn close to that four-digit mark officials have their sights set on.

“What I do know is we can absolutely do more,” he said.

While there have certainly been a few setbacks, Rater does not necessarily look at them through a half-empty glass. Yes, it’s been disappointing Stolp Island Social, the restaurant that’s part of the Paramount’s School of the Arts building, has been shuttered this entire season. But the city is currently negotiating with a group to reopen a restaurant there which could possibly happen before the final show in the spring, Rater told me.

And the Paramount’s New Works department that brought two homegrown productions to the big stage and another to the Bold Series is “trying to regroup and start again after COVID.”

It takes “more time to build back up” that particular department, but the Paramount hopes to accomplish that in “two to three years,” Rater said, adding that upcoming meetings with Disney “to talk about pilot projects” could jump-start that endeavor.

Even as Rater alludes to more big news in the pipeline, for now he’s plenty pumped about what has already been made public. In addition to the drawing power of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the Broadway Series includes two big-name regional premieres, “Frozen” and “Waitress,” as well as “The Full Monty” and “Cats.” And the Bold Series features “Peter and the Star Catcher,” “An Act of God,” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

“We are doing a lot of things, none of which are small,” Rater said, adding that the idea is not to cannibalize sales from other venues but to provide “that breadth of entertainment” that will “be part of the downtown that attracts people for the weekend or even the week.”

Which means making Aurora an entertainment destination.

And yes, a bona fide theater district.