“There’s a step here,” Ida Cole tells me as we enter The Paramount Theatre. She barely looks down as we maneuver past stacks of chairs and boxes of wine in the Paramount Club bar. “And a step here.”
My eyes are still on the floor as Cole strolls into the lobby of the Pine Street landmark. She stops to chat with workmen preparing for the next night’s “Doors” fundraiser for the Seattle Theatre Group, then leads me up the stairs.
“I kvell!” she said, as we turned a corner into the theater — striking for the emptiness of its velvety seats, and the echo from the soaring ceiling.
“Kvell,” Cole repeated. “That’s Yiddish. I beam with pride at this. Like a mother seeing her child.”
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The theater was more like a grandparent — 75 years old, and failing — in 1994, when Cole, 67, bought it for $10 million with some of her $40 million Microsoft stock portfolio, then tapped her former colleagues to help fund a $29 million renovation.
With the can-do attitude of the flight attendant she once was, and the skill with numbers and business she mastered in the tech world, Cole made the Paramount a Seattle staple once again.
“It’s a community organization and asset,” she insisted. “Not my dilettante project.”
While not a dilettante, Ida Cole has done many things since leaving her native Virginia for the University of Massachusetts, where she earned a math degree and (after a short stint in the air for United Airlines), entered the tech world as a data analyst for the Army.
She married, divorced, traveled the country on the back of a motorcycle, then got a front seat for the computer revolution, first with Tymshare, then Apple and then Microsoft, where Bill Gates made her his first vice president of applications. After a stormy but successful five years, she left in 1990 — with a serious amount of stock — and started life anew.
She took French lessons in France, learned how to cook in Italy and even worked on an archaeological dig in Tunisia. And she brought new life to the Paramount.
And while Cole transferred ownership of the theater to the Seattle Theatre Group in 2002, her connection to the place — and to what crosses its stage — remains strong.
She was recently honored at the Microsoft Alumni Foundation for her support of the arts, and given the 2013 Integral Fellows Award. The award — which honors the impact of philanthropy like hers — came with a $25,000 unrestricted grant for the Paramount.
“There are things I’d like to do with it that aren’t romantic,” she said of the money, tilting her head back in her seat. “Change the bulbs in the ceiling. Change the front curtain.”
Maybe something with the walls, she said, looking from side to side.
“If you mar a wall, you can’t just paint,” she said. “You have to call in a restorer.”
In addition, Cole just finished the first of a three-year term as a Tony Award nominator. She is one of 33 artists, designers, producers and actors who see every show on Broadway, then gather to fill out ballots, putting their favorites in the running. (Cole limits her theatergoing to one show a day).
A month ago, Cole and her fellow nominators started filling out their ballots at 4:30 in the afternoon and didn’t finish until 11 p.m.
The next day, the nominations were announced. Cole heard them with everyone else.
She is a theater fan of the highest order — out a couple of nights a week anyway. But as a nominator, well, between March 15 and April 25, she saw 18 shows.
“You have to pay attention in a different way,” she said of her new role, “to notice what shouldn’t be noticed. The kind of things you only notice when they’re bad, like sound design.”
The minute she gets home, she makes notes in a spread sheet.
“It is a different way to see theater,” she said. “There have been shows I’ve gone back to, just to see it as an audience member.”
She wasn’t much of a theater person before she came to Seattle in 1985 to work at Microsoft.
The only experience she had with performing was playing the oboe in high-school bands and a chamber orchestra. But that ended when she was 25.
New friends encouraged her to subscribe to The Seattle Repertory Theatre, the ACT and the Intiman, whose board she joined in 1987.
“I love the business of theater,” she said. “And I love the creative. The actors, the music.”
The trick, she said, is not letting the numbers “kill the joy,” she said. “You have to know that it’s a package deal.”
Some of her fellow Microsoft alumni have invested their millions into fighting disease or homelessness, or funding education programs.
“I think the arts are the great communicators,” she said. “There are things you can do through the arts that you can’t do any other way. Ever notice how you don’t have to teach kids to sing and dance?”
“In the arts, you learn teamwork, collaboration, attention to detail,” she said. “Even physics. The final output is so emotionally satisfying.”
Cole splits her time between a place on Queen Anne (she still votes and sees her doctors here) and an apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side — just two blocks from the iconic Zabar’s food emporium.
Philip Roth is a neighbor, and she sees actress Dianne Wiest walking her dogs as she walks hers: a matching set of Cavalier King Charles spaniels named Poppy and Pansy. (“They’re my babies.”)
She sits on the Lincoln Center Theater Board, and in that capacity oversaw the construction of the Claire Tow Theater, built atop the Vivian Beaumont Theater two years ago.
“I brought it in on time and on budget,” Cole said, not so much bragging, but pointing out that it can be done.
Seattle changes every time she returns. The forest of cranes around South Lake Union and downtown; the chain-link fences that forecast the transformation of the Pike/Pine corridor.
“It’s good that the city evolves, that it’s not being bonsai-ed,” Cole said. “What makes Seattle different from other cities? The Paramount is one of the them.”
Back in New York, Cole is a volunteer with the AARP’s Volunteer Tax Program, doing taxes for people in Manhattan libraries and senior centers.
“It’s great fun, and it puts me in touch with people,” Cole said. “I love their stories. Some of them are Holocaust survivors, or people who I don’t know how are managing in New York.
“I haven’t had so much fun in forever,” she said. “I want to have some solitude, to try to stay useful and have fun.
“I was in really stressful situations, and it’s time to lay that down and not live my life around accomplishment and achievement. So much of myself needed to play roles, and now I get to find out who I am.
“It’s not like you’re a static being. Sometimes you surprise yourself.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org