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The Paramount Theatre ~ an Art Deco dream

March 16, 2010

paramount theatre oakland, art deco murals

The Paramount Theater was conceived around the same time as the Fox Oakland Theater, during the heyday of grand movie palaces. I wrote about this era in my post on the Fox, so I won’t repeat it all here. But I will say that the Paramount followed the Fox’s opening in 1928 by a couple of years, in which our country seemingly turned upside-down in the blink of an eye.

On Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929 the Great Stock Market Crash of Wall Street occurred, thrusting the previously ebullient nation into a decade-long economic downturn. There are various theories about the relationship of the Crash to the subsequent Great Depression, but one thing is certain… the amount of investment capital available for large expensive projects basically dried up. At that time, plans for the Paramount were already well underway… investors were in place, including the large studio company Paramount Publix (in those days, the individual studio film companies owned their own theaters to show their own films), and the renowned Art Deco architect they had hired, Timothy Pflueger, had completed his design plans.

Then “The Crash” occurred, literally wiping out $14 billion in one day. Stocks continued to slide in the following days, bringing losses for the week to over $30 billion (and keep in mind, these are 1930 dollars!) Ahhhh… those clever traders on Wall Street. What would we do without them?!

Fortunately, the investors behind the new theater were not heavily staked in Wall Street. They had the cash to complete the project and decided to move forward, gambling that they would never again have access to such cheap materials and labor. Talk about foresight. The Paramount Theatre was built in one year and five days for approximately $1 million. Amazing!

The theater’s grand opening was held on December 16, 1931 and, despite the depressed economy, thousands thronged to the opening, including Hollywood’s elite stars who travelled by train from Los Angeles.  Below is the opening night poster (left) and a representation of the scene on opening night from a local newspaper which reads “Another Oakland Milestone” (right).

paramount theatre posters, art deco poster

When the Paramount first opened, a night at the Theatre included more than just a movie… it was a full evening of vaudeville entertainment including dancing by the Sunkist Beauties (the West’s answer to New York City’s Rockettes), symphony performances, songs played on the theater’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ, and film shorts. Unfortunately, in subsequent months ticket sales were too low to keep the theater profitable, and just six months after it opened, the Paramount closed its doors.

It reopened the following year in 1933, but with a no-frills sensibility, devoid of the live entertainment (no dancers, no symphony), and without all of the decorative lighting that makes the space so incredibly beautiful (the electricity was too expensive). To give you an idea of what some of the decorative lighting actually looked like (now fully restored to its original appearance), just take a look at this lobby…

art deco lighting, art deco redwood forest, paramount oakland lobby

What does it look like to you? Perhaps a redwood forest? Because that’s exactly what Pflueger intended. The green light in the ceiling, reflected through an intricate pattern of metalwork (a form that he patented called “silver-fin” though it was made of steel) represents the leaf canopy; the panels of gold, left and right, with their signature Deco zig-zag motifs represent sunlight streaming through the trees; the terra-cotta colored columns are the tree trunks; and the focal piece of it all is the enormous “Fountain of Light,” made of etched glass in a similarly quintessential Deco arrangement.

Ok… there’s much more to tell, and many more photos, but that’s all I’ve got time for today. Please check back tomorrow…

3 Comments
  1. March 16, 2010 3:18 pm

    This is such a wondeful Art Deco theatre and I am pinching myself because I am actually going to see it in the flesh in about a month’s time.

  2. Gerald McCann permalink
    September 20, 2010 1:29 pm

    Hello,
    Do you know if the opening night art deco poster is for sale anywhere? Price?

    • September 21, 2010 12:38 pm

      I really don’t know. I checked their website pretty extensively and didn’t see anything but you might give them a call… here’s the Paramount’s 24-hour hotline 510-465-6500.

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