Standing in the dusty, cavernous basement of the historic Orpheum Theater, which he just purchased for $1.7 million, Gus Paras lets out a heavy sigh.
"Nothing has been easy with this. Look at this place," Paras says. "I don't even know where to start; it's a mess."
The Orpheum -- which Paras now owns with restaurateur Henry Doane -- is indeed in bad shape. This was evident during a Nov. 9 tour Paras gave Isthmus. Plaster is crumbling off sections of the ceiling, the result of years of water damage from a leaky roof. The walls are littered with scratches and marks, in bad need of a paint job. A plastic garbage can sits in the theater, collecting water leaking from an upstairs urinal. Paras even found dried-up vomit in two spots on the carpet.
Making matters worse, Monona State Bank, which controlled the property while it was in foreclosure, filled in the "vaults" behind the theater, which means replacing the building's frail boilers and air conditioning will be much more complicated and expensive.
"I don't have any idea how I'll get the boiler in and out," Paras says. "The stairs are not strong enough."
Nevertheless, Paras insists he's not feeling buyer's remorse for taking over a potential money pit. At a time when most would be eager to retire, the 68-year-old Greek immigrant sees restoring the Orpheum to its former glory as a culmination of a life of hard work in his adopted hometown.
"When I came to Madison I had nothing," he says. "The people in Madison, they adopted me; they helped me out. I make it good thanks to those people. They give me love, care and education. So my heart is in Madison, especially State Street. I spent a lot of time on State Street, and I love it. All this gives me the energy to want to do more. This is the first time in my life I'm able to do something for the city.
"The Orpheum to me is not private property," he adds. "It belongs to Madison. I'm very lucky and proud to be the one to do it."
Paras doesn't like to dwell on his childhood in Greece. His home there didn't have electricity or running water, and the economy was severely depressed. Paras sums it up with one sentence: "I grew up hungry."
In 1966, when he was 21, Paras moved to Chicago, where a sister had settled. He went to work in a series of restaurants and hotels, always in the kitchen. He remembers his starting salary with a laugh: "a dollar an hour."
In 1972, Paras moved to Madison with a couple of friends who knew the town. They took over a Greek restaurant at State, Broom and Gilman streets, renaming it Athens Restaurant. His first partners didn't last long, but Paras stayed on.
As he recounts his life story, a pattern emerges, with Paras struggling with various business ventures, but always getting a helping hand. He remembers university professors and politicians who became regulars at Athens, encouraging him through the lean economic times.
"I had zero experience running my own business," he says. "I get so much help from so many people; it's unbelievable."
He eventually sold Athens in 1985, but he made a terrible deal, agreeing to wait six months before collecting any money. Shortly afterward, Athens burned down, with the new owners walking away unscathed. "I lost everything," he says. "I had to scramble to start my life again."
Paras started a business buying and reselling used restaurant equipment. But he wanted to have his own restaurant again. His new Madison friends helped make it happen.
A real estate agent friend helped him find a building for sale in the 100 block of State Street. But Paras needed $165,000 to buy it. Jack Heifetz, who owned an insurance company, cosigned the loan.
"I asked him, 'What do I owe you?'" Paras recalls. "He said, 'You don't owe me nothing. Someday, you're going to help someone else out.'"
That was the birth of Kosta's Restaurant. Paras ran it for about a dozen years, until his body began to wear down. "I didn't know how to take care of myself," he says. "I was always tired and blamed it on the long hours."
In fact, Paras had been suffering from diabetes for years. After a doctor diagnosed him in the late '90s, he realized he had to get out of the restaurant business.
The funny business
By chance, the family that had owned Madison's Comedy Club -- a venture that started in the Concourse Hotel but had moved a few times -- were looking for a new home in the late '90s. Paras agreed to rent them the third floor of his building on the 100 block of State Street if they agreed to take over Kosta's on the ground floor.
The new owners had a tough time making it in the restaurant business, and it failed. Paras stepped back in. It was then that he found himself in the entertainment business.
He rented out the ground-floor restaurant, which was first run as Spices and, later, Frida's. At first he was going to close the Comedy Club, but the late comedian Dave Gray pleaded with him to keep it open. Paras agreed to give it a shot and, to his surprise, found it "easier than running a restaurant."
He credits his daughters, Eve and Anna, with elevating the entertainment there a notch. They took a special interest and made sure the comedians were good. As a result, the club became a hotspot on the national circuit. He also helped set trends, as when he became one of the first club owners to ban smoking.
Paras eventually traded his State Street building with Jerome Frautschi, who funded the Overture Center for the Arts. At the time, Frautschi was buying up property on the 100 block of State Street for an office and retail project, now under construction, to support Overture. Paras traded for the old Associated Bank building at the corner of Dayton and State streets. He renovated it and renamed it the Paras Building, moving the Comedy Club into the basement.
Paras owns several other properties, which he rents to ventures like Roast Public House and Whiskey Jacks Saloon, in the 500 block of State Street. Also in the 500 block of State he runs affordable apartment units, some of the few in a city that direly needs them.
Ald. Mike Verveer, a longtime friend, says of Paras: "He's very friendly, not just to me, but everyone. That's one of the secrets to his success."
Paras points to a neighbor -- the Overture Center -- as another reason for his success.
"When the Overture Center opened and started bringing crowds, it filled up every place downtown," he says. "Restaurants and bars downtown do fabulous because people come downtown to see shows. I want to do the same thing with the Orpheum."
Paras' vision for the historic theater is to offer a little bit for everybody. He says one good thing that former owner Eric Fleming did was to combine the Orpheum's two theaters, making the smaller back theater part of the main theater's stage.
"That's why everybody wants the Orpheum today, because the stage is big enough that you can put any show you want on there," he says. "Now everybody wants it."
Along with Frank Productions, which had hoped to buy the theater in an auction, promoters from around the country have inquired about booking the venue. Paras and Doane recently tapped Majestic Live, run by the owners of the Majestic Theatre on King Street, to book shows there.
Paras still doesn't have full control of the building. While the theater was in foreclosure, the Monona State Bank's receiver signed a contract with Frank Productions to manage the space, a contract that remains in place through February.
The $7,500-a-month rent that Frank is paying doesn't cover the theater's utility bills, which can approach $10,000. And Paras is clearly unhappy with how the theater has been maintained. He's flabbergasted that overflowing toilets have not been fixed and puke stains have gone uncleaned.
But he's resigned to wait until after February to begin doing his own events. In the meantime, he plans to methodically improve the place, figuring out options with the boilers and air-conditioning, repairing the plaster and slowly upgrading equipment. Eventually, the iconic marquee hanging outside the Orpheum will be completely restored. He wants to open a restaurant in the venue, but where it will be located is still up in the air.
One dream is to create a large kitchen in the basement, where food for weddings and parties can be prepared. He also wants to put in a freight elevator, to easily move the food up and down.
While Paras plans to host all sorts of shows, including music, comedy and films, he also wants the theater to be a premier place for weddings, holiday parties and other gatherings.
"Of course I will take the comedy shows and music. You have to, to keep the doors open," he says. "But my dream is to see a mellow crowd coming in. I want to see people walking in and out during the daytime."
And although the theater is currently in rough shape, Paras keeps noticing its underlying beauty, which jumps out in little details like stencils on the wall and in the light fixtures.
"The place has beautiful, beautiful art work," he says. "Nothing is going to stop me with the Orpheum. Every time I walk into the building, I love it more."