Paramount Theatre: Broadway-Scale on a Local Stage

Downtown Aurora’s performing arts center is far more than a house for touring shows. Its Broadway Series is drawing audiences from a wide geography – and the admiration of Chicago’s top theater critics.

Caron Buinis portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West in Paramount Theatre’s most recent Broadway production, “The Wizard of Oz.” (Liz Lauren photo)

When you think of captivating musical theater, your mind quickly goes to titles like “My Fair Lady,” “Cabaret” and “August Rush.”

Wait! “August Rush?” Like that 2007 Robin Williams movie that brought in $65 million at the box office despite a cult following among music lovers? Who would take a chance on bringing that to the stage?

Tim Rater and Jim Corti, that’s who.

Rater, the president and CEO of the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, and Corti, his artistic director, have proven to be unrivaled risk-takers in American theater. Their track record over their eight years together has shown a knack for turning a risk into a sure thing.

“It all feels like some kind of synchronized, cosmic thing,” Corti says, trying to explain the expansive growth of the Paramount since he and Rater teamed up. “It’s happening because it was meant to be … that it was supposed to happen.”

Since it opened in September 1931, the Paramount has been a popular entertainment venue in downtown Aurora. From silent movies to “talkies,” from classic Vaudeville acts to modern-day performers, the Paramount’s 1,855-seat theater, with its Venetian decor and 1930s Art Deco influence, has been a true hub for the arts.

But in 2010, the theater’s board wanted more. It wanted more shows and a wider audience. And it wanted to grow with self-produced shows. It was a risky venture, one that needed the proper leadership. Enter Tim Rater.

“I think some people thought it would work somewhere else, but not Aurora,” Rater says. “My biggest fear was, ‘Could we produce at the level to make people come back?’ That was why it was so important to get people like Jim Corti.”

That was the next risk: putting this plan in the hands of a veteran actor, singer, dancer and choreographer who had never served as an art director.

“He seemed a little leery, but the theater blew him away,” Rater says of meeting with Corti. “He was actually scared about how we would do this.”

But all of the reviews I read about Jim regarding his attention to detail, I knew he was the right guy.”

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Corti says. “I drove out to Aurora for the first time and didn’t know where I was going. Then I turned the corner on Galena Boulevard and saw this incredible marquee. There was nobody there but Tim in front of the theater. He brought me in, and my jaw dropped. Everything made such an incredible first impression. It was so grand. What really got me was the size of this place, and my thought was, ‘I could direct on this stage.’ I said, ‘Give me a week of tech and a full orchestra, and you have yourself a director.’ And he said he’d make it happen. He’s a genius. He totally understood what I was saying and where I wanted us to go, and we found a way to make it happen.”

Thus began Paramount’s Broadway Series, which now features four locally produced musicals every year.

For decades, the Paramount was a presenter house, meaning it offered roughly 40 to 50 shows per year from touring productions that would stop in Aurora for a few days and then move on. Now, with the Broadway Series, Rater and Corti draw local and regional talent in productions that run from seven to 10 weeks.

“We license the rights to do our own version from the authors,” Rater explains. “We then hire directors and they cast all of the actors, scenic designers, and costume and props people. We do it all from scratch. We’re to the place where we do 400 performances a year now.”

Those performances have included such classics as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Miss Saigon,” more unfamiliar productions like “Tommy” and “Once,” and adaptations such as “The Wizard of Oz,” and “The Producers,” the Mel Brooks hit that runs in February and March.

Over the past eight years, Paramount’s reputation has grown to award-winning status. In 2015, Paramount’s Broadway Series became eligible for the Jeff Awards, the Chicago theater scene’s equivalent of the Tony’s.

Paramount has since netted 55 nominations and 18 wins, including consecutive Best Musical awards, for “Les Miserables,” “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd.”

And the Broadway Series has been an even bigger success at the box office. Subscriptions have grown to more than 40,000, making it the second-largest subscription house in the country.

“We created a sensation, and we did it in Aurora,” Corti says.

“We wanted to create more economic growth for the city,” Rater adds.

“These people who come here also fill our restaurants. Now, we have people from outside the Aurora area come to see our city, and our river and the historic, beautiful buildings. It’s a downtown that has come alive again, like it was in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.”

“Aurora in 2010 was a different place,” Corti says.

Which brings us back to “August Rush,” which runs from late April through June.

The Paramount could simply continue to ride its current success formula. But Rater and Corti want more, and they’re willing to take a chance on a title that many theatregoers are not familiar with.

“The risk is investing in something new that has less name recognition,” Rater says. “The concern is that we’re not going to sell as many tickets, and cost will outweigh the money coming in. The key was to develop a subscriber base large enough that we could take some risks.”

The other key was faith from their patrons.

“We’ll offer a title people won’t know, but they will come to see it,” Corti says. “After eight years, it almost doesn’t matter what the title is. They know it will be a great show.”

The 2019-20 series, which begins in the fall, is already set: “Newsies,” “Beauty and the Beast,” the original production “The Secret To My Success,” and “Kinky Boots.”

But the Paramount is more than the Broadway Series. It hosts concerts like Boyz II Men, Home Free, and the Happy Together Tour featuring Three Dog Night, the Turtles and the Cowsills. And there are weekly screenings of classic movies including “The Goonies,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Pearl Harbor” and “The Little Mermaid.”

Also under the wing of the Paramount is RiverEdge Park, a summer concert pavilion. A new Paramount School of the Arts is scheduled to open right next to the theater on June 1, with multiple camps like Beginning Guitar, Piano, Junior Improv, Songwriting, Ballet and Hip Hop. Copley Theatre, a smaller theater across the street from the Paramount, will be the site of a proposed drama subscription series.

“I try to imagine what this will all look like in the next three to four years,” Rater says. “I think we will become an arts mecca. I’m guessing 10 to 12 venues producing entertainment with multiple hotels, a place where people can spend multiple days seeing top-quality shows.”

“We’ve got quite an operation going with great spirit and enthusiasm,” Corti adds, “and I just love being a part of that.”