Tag Archives: fountain of light

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…