Category Archives: My favorite things…

The Paramount Theatre ~ an Oakland Icon

I quoted a writer the other day in my post about the Floral Depot building, who argued that its restaurant Flora was the “anchor” of the Uptown district, and I agreed. But now that I think about it, I realize that it’s truly the Paramount Theatre that grounds this neighborhood, and has for decades.

Before there was the Fox-reopened, before there was Lukas, before Van Kleefs, before Flora and the Uptown nightclub, before Art Murmur and its slew of hipster galleries, before the condos Jerry Brown envisioned (now realized), before all of thisthe Paramount Theatre stood, proudly serving this neighborhood for decades despite the departure of nearly everything around it.

I’m wrapping up my Art Deco Days series… there’s much more to tell – I haven’t even covered the gorgeous I. Magnin building – but I’m itchin’ to move on to other topics, so I’ll finish up with a bit more about this Oaktown icon.

We left off in the expansive and extravagant “redwood forest” lobby designed by Timothy Pflueger.  Additional features included the Egyptian Princesses cast in plaster and painted in real gold-leaf (remember, this was the time of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the world was captivated by Egyptian art).  These lovelies may appear identical, but there are subtle difference between them, in the number of folds of fabric draped behind their legs.  Attention to minute details such as this can be found throughout the entire theater, designed to ensure the patron’s experience of true artisan craftsmanship, rather than cookie cutter repetition.

art deco sculpture, art deco lighting, egyptian princesses

art deco sculpture, egyptian motif, paramount theatre lobby

Pflueger was considered one of the foremost architects of the Art Deco style – and like another famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright – he designed everything in this theater right down to each and every light fixture. It’s incredible. Though there are numerous influences (Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Polynesian), the same Deco styling is applied to all. And the same zig-zags, swirls, leaves, flowers, & vines can be seen throughout… on the walls in cast plaster, in the ceiling treatments of silver-fin metal work, in the carpeting, upholstery, and more.

paramount theatre, art deco architecture, art deco oakland

paramount theatre inside, paramount theatre oakland

paramount theatre ceiling, paramount theatre oakland

isis holding sun, art deco silver fin

art deco motifs, art deco designs, paramount theatre oakland

art deco cast plaster, paramount theatre interior

paramount theatre light fixture

The theater continued to show movies through the 1930’s and beyond. During WWII, the Paramount became a favorite gathering place to watch news-reel updates on the war. In the 50’s, a thousand youngsters came to see Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. But as development moved to the suburbs and people were able to enjoy entertainment at home on their televisions, attendance at the Paramount declined. It was eventually closed in September 1970, to be later rescued by an unlikely candidate.

In the early 70’s the Oakland Symphony was looking for a new home and they considered both the Fox Oakland Theater and the Paramount. The story goes that the symphony was brought onto the stages of both theaters (both shuttered at the time) to determine which space had the best acoustics. The Paramount won hands down, and the Symphony later purchased the theater in 1972 for $1 million, cobbled together with some creative financing, including a 50% kickback from the seller.

The theater was completely restored to its original 1931 splendor by project manager and Art Deco expert Peter Botto with additional architectural firms consulting. Elements that were added mid-century, such as candy counters and popcorn machines, were removed; new seats were installed; the carpet was replaced (extreme care taken to exactly match the original carpet); and the entire theater received an intensive cleaning. Supposedly when the dust was blown out of the upper levels of the theater, the ground floor was filled waist-high with the debris. Years of smoking indoors also added thick layers of grime that needed to be carefully cleaned from all surfaces. The effort was not a renovation, but a complete restoration, our tour guides emphatically noting the difference. The complete restoration cost about $1 million dollars (the same price for which the theater was built in 1931). Compare that to the cost to renovate the Fox in the 21st century… a whopping $75 million, and you can understand why some folks thought the Fox would never again see its doors opened to the public.

I misspoke in one of my earlier posts on the Paramount, stating that it was still currently owned by the Oakland Symphony. Actually, the symphony went bankrupt just two years after purchasing and restoring their new home (oops!). But they made a deal with the City of Oakland, donating the theater to the city for the lump sum of one dollar, in exchange for an agreement that they’d be guaranteed 40 years of bookings. Pretty sweet deal, eh? The Paramount Theatre is now operated and managed by a small non-profit organization on behalf of the city.

The theater became a California Historical Landmark in 1976, a National Historical Landmark in 1977, and is considered one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the country. We’re so lucky to have this treasure.

paramount theatre lobby, paramount fountain of light

View of Lobby from Upstairs Balcony

art deco architecture, paramount theatre oakland

paramount theater downstairs, paramount interior, art deco

The Paramount Theatre ~ an Art Deco dream

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…

The Paramount Theatre – for frugalistas

I asked a friend the other day if he’d ever seen the inside of the Paramount Theatre. He smirked slightly and rubbed his forefingers and thumb together, indicating that this establishment was a bit too steep for his price-line. But while many shows are fairly expensive ($50 and up, but usually worth it in my humble opinion), there are plenty of ways to experience this incredible venue for a lot less cash. And you really should. It’s one of those things-you-should-do-before-you-die kind of things.

paramount theatre, paramount oakland, movie night at Paramount

The best ways to see the Paramount on the cheap – though trust me you’ll want to put on your finest dandies and make a night of it, even if you are on a budget – are either of three ways, all of which I have done and enjoyed immensely:

  1. Volunteer as an usher – I mentioned this in my short post about touring the Paramount… pretty much anyone can usher shows here for free.  It simply requires that you complete a few prerequisites, such as taking the tour at least once ($5 fee is waived), attending a volunteer meeting, and having access to black dress clothes & shoes along with a nice white shirt.  You also have to usher a few “required” shows before you can pick your own.  It’s definitely a process, but for those who have more time than green, it’s a great option… especially if you love seeing a lot of music.  And it’s actually quite fun.  The theatre has an unusual historical opera-house method of seat numbering, so it’s really pretty tricky to figure out where one’s seats are.  The ushers provide this valuable service, and offer historical tidbits to inquiring patrons.  You generally get dismissed one to two songs into the headline act, at which point you can find a seat in the back or make your way to the back of the floor to enjoy the rest of the show.
  2. Take the tour – only $5.  Offered twice every month on Saturday mornings.  If you catch them on a day when there’s no performance, they’ll take you up on stage, under the stage, the whole shebang!
  3. Classic Movie Night – this too only $5!  I’ve said it before… this is the best deal in town.  And includes fun stuff like Jim Riggs performing on the mighty Wurlitzer, a hosted game of Deco-win, and more.  Last movie I saw at the Paramount was Cool Hand Luke, in memorium for Paul Newman.  What a great movie, and what a handsome man!!!  ol’ blue-eyes… (sigh)

Then of course, there’s always the option of buying tickets to premiere events. I’ve seen some shows of a lifetime at this venue… Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen, The Flaming Lips with Beck, WilcoDamn I love this place! And you should know that it’s not just pretty to look at.  The Paramount is currently owned, as it has been for the last 38 years, by the Oakland Symphony who purchased it explicitly for its acoustics.  But more on that tomorrow… I think I just decided that I’m rambling at this point and need to shelve some of this material for tomorrow.  I’ve got tons of photos (I took over a hundred on the tour in addition to ones I already had in the archives)… there’s history galore, and so much extravagant Art Deco craftsmanship it will stump you speechless.  I told you it was a lot!  Please stay tuned…

The Trappist

So I spent like two hours of my supposed-to-be-a-day-of-rest Sunday working on setting up the stupid Facebook Fan Badge that you see off to the right hand side of this column. You would think it would be so simple… in this age of technology and social networking and applications capable of hand-holding with each other. And it should be so simple. But NOooooo!

Apparently the WordPress text widget only accepts straight HTML and not the Javascript programming incorporated into the Facebook Fan Badge. And if that’s all Greek to you, then you can understand my frustration as well. I needed a 12 year old to program this for me! But instead, I struggled with building the little HTML widget myself… wasting precious time, and literally driving myself to drink.

So please, if you’re a Facebook-er, make it worth my while and click on that stupid button and be my fan on Facebook. sigh.

My friends and I met at The Trappist in downtown Oakland (8th Street @ Broadway). It’s a gorgeous bar housed in an 1870’s Victorian building, specializing in Trappist, Belgian, and other European fancy brews. Steeped in Euro-pub ambiance, the bar itself is as beautifully crafted as the beers they offer, each served at the correct temperature and in the properly shaped glass to allow one to fully experience the subtle & complex flavors.

the trappist, belgian beer bar, downtown oakland specialty bar

Trappist refers to the reformist order of Cistercian monks established in the 17th century at the La Trappe monastery in Northern France. The monks lived austere lives characterized by vows of stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. The monasteries were required to be self-supporting, living off their own land, labor, & resources, and it was out of this commandment that monk-maintained breweries originated. (Wikipedia)

Today there are only 7 true Trappist breweries, owned and run by active Benedictine Abbeys: 6 in Belgium and 1 in The Netherlands. The Trappist carries beers by all seven: Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren, in addition to many specialty beers not easily found elsewhere. They currently maintain 25 beers on tap and have a rotating bottle stock of between 130 – 140 different brands. Wow!

the trappist brewery, trappist brewpub

Do you know those Stella Artois commercials you see before the previews start at the movies? The bartender takes such exquisite care with preparing the glass just so, pouring the beer ever so particularly, all in an effort to deliver the perfect glass of beer. That’s how they do it here. Not kidding. If you take your beer seriously, please check them out. You won’t be sorry.

the trappist, belgian beer pub,

Zoolights! & Willy Wonka

My girlfriend and I took her 6 year old to Zoolights the other night… I’d been reading lots about it and people really seem to love this holiday light display and show. It consistently gets ranked in local editors’ picks for holiday to-do’s and gets 4 stars on Yelp. As someone who’s never even been to the Oakland Zoo (and I hear it’s quite lovely for the small zoo that it is), I was pretty excited to see this show too. And for the most part, I’d say it didn’t disappoint… just check out these lights!

oakland zoo, zoolights entrance

oakland zoo, zoolights

oakland zoo, zoolights, tunnel of light

oakland zoo, zoolights giraffes

From an artistic standpoint, these animal representations are pretty darned impressive. And the kids love ’em! If you have young children, or the maturity of a kindergartner yourself, you should definitely check this out.

Though not free, it’s for a good cause as all proceeds go towards The Oakland Zoo, a non-profit organization that depends on your support. A regional treasure for over 80 years, the Oakland Zoo’s mission is to inspire respect for and stewardship of the natural world while providing a quality visitor experience. The Zoo is open daily 10:00am – 4:00pm. And the Zoolights holiday shows run evenings through January 4th…

5:30pm – 9:00pm (Monday – Thursday)
5:30pm – 9:30pm (Friday – Sunday)

*Note that Zoo animal residents will be nestled all snug in their beds, with visions of fresh fish and steak, dancing in their heads.

And just in case you were worried, you don’t have to feel guilty about indulging in the electric spectacle, because PG&E has collaborated with the Oakland Zoo to make the lighting display extremely energy efficient through the use of LEDs (which use about 1/10th of the electricity of regular xmas lights).

Shown below is the Holiday Light Show Safari that’s set up in the zoo’s meadow. It’s a light show sychronized to a musical/theatrical soundtrack, and if I were to be totally honest (which I am), I would have to say that this was somewhat disappointing, at least for grown-ups. The lights were great, but the medley soundtrack was an awful disjointed mismash of stuff that might appeal to the sensibilities of a 2 year old, but frankly, was just plain bad. It could have been way cooler. Sorry.

Pretty blue tree.

You still with me? I hope so, ’cause we’re just getting to the really cool stuff. Below is the entrance to Candyland, which is where the carnival rides are: merry-go-round-where-you-can-ride-a-tiger, airplane spinny rides, little racecars, and of course, the launching point for the mini-steam train, the Snowball Express.

This is the view of the bay from our train ride… and yes, you have to pay extra for this. But aren’t you used to the whoosh of cash flowing through your hands these days? And remember, it’s for a good cause. This, truly, was my favorite part of the night. Do ride the train, but do dress warm!

oakland zoo train, view from train ride

The ultimate experience was travelling through the tunnel of light… it totally reminded me of that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory…the psychedelic boat trip…

“there’s no earthly way of knowing
which direction we are going
there’s no knowing where we’re rowing
or which way the river’s flowing…”

Watch it here. It’s AWESOME.

tunnel of light, oakland zoolights train

Which reminds me: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, this Friday night 8pm (doors at 7), at the aptly named Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Part of their wonderful classic movie series… pay five bucks to see a great work of art, in a great work of art, with pre-film entertainment to boot. This is one of the best deals in town. I love the Paramount. More on it during Art Deco Days…

Grandma’s Ginger Molasses Cookies

So I’ve been feeling a little Grinchy these last couple of days… I even watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for some inspiration…

It’s one of my favorite holiday specials, and really, what’s not to like?! From the killer Vince Guaraldi Trio jazz soundtrack, to the humor that’s still hilarious decades later (“Christmas is run by a big eastern syndicate you know”), to the larger message of consumerism vs. spirituality that also holds true in today’s modern shopping society.

Charlie Brown goes to see Lucy for some psychiatric advice… her suggestion: “you need REAL involvement.” Involvement.  Sounds like a pretty good antidote to me.  Easy to be glum sitting on the sidelines, watching the frenzy from afar.  But harder to maintain, with hot fragrant cookies fresh from the oven, that you helped create.

So in the interest of putting my Grinchy self back in a box, here is Grandma Sherman’s Ginger Molasses Cookie recipe.  She called them “Million Dollar Gingersnaps,” but I prefer to bake them chewy, so no snap for this girl.

  • 1/2 c margarine
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 c molasses (unsulfured)
  • 2 c sifted flour
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground ginger

Cream margarine and sugar until light.  Beat in egg and molasses.  Mix dry ingredients together and add to batter gradually.  Beat well.  (Dough will be soft).  Cover and chill in fridge, ideally overnight.

That’s it for the pre-baking part.  It’s pretty easy, but there are a few noteworthy points:

1) Do not be tempted to substitute butter for margarine.  Believe me, I believe butter makes everything better, but not these cookies.  You will lose the crisp/chewy consistency.

2) Make sure to sift the flour before measuring.  Crucial for correct consistency.

3) Follow instructions and add dry ingredients gradually for smooth soft dough (I forgot this and look how lumpy my dough turned out.  Hopefully the finished product will not suffer too terribly.)

4) Dough must be thoroughly chilled before baking, otherwise you can’t roll it into balls. Don’t try to bake immediately… you’ve gotta be a little patient.

cookie recipe, margarine and sugar

Now for the baking part…

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  • Lightly grease cookie sheet
  • Roll dough into 1 inch balls
  • Roll balls in sugar (I added this touch!)
  • Place balls approximately 3 inches apart on cookie sheet (they will flatten & spread while cooking)
  • Bake 8-10 minutes (start with a few testers to get desired crispness or chewiness)
  • Allow cookies to remain on cookie sheet 2-3 minutes before removing to cooling rack (immediate removal results in smushed cookies)

cookie dough on cookie sheet

cookies on cookie sheet

cookies on cooling rack

cookies to share

So not really “art,” I know. But kinda artful. And definitely delicious.