The Palace

A tour of the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California

Marcin Wichary
Urban explorations


I first heard of the Paramount Theatre in Oakland in late 2012, when my friend suggested seeing a special Christmas showing of Miracle on 34th street. It was the theatre that stole the night, though, much more interesting than the movie. After finding out such a thing was actually possible, I participated in a two-hour behind-the-scenes tour in mid-December 2012.

The theatre welcomed me with its marquee neon, much less impressive on a dreary Sunday morning than it would be after dark, lit up in all its twenty-ton glory. (Back when constructed, it was visible pretty much from everywhere in Oakland.)

“The Paramount greets you.” It’s been greeting people with an impressive array of once-2,860 light bulbs since it was built in late 1931. Designed in the lush Art Deco style typical of that time, it was nonetheless as interesting then as it is today — not a carbon copy of any other theatre, but a unique movie palace designed by a great architect in his prime, Timothy L. Pflueger.

The building was originally to be located in San Francisco, but the 1929-built Fox Theatre posed too much of a competition — not to mention the new Castro Theatre, opened in 1922, and also designed by Pflueger. (The Fox was demolished in 1963, the Castro survives and is still screening movies today.)

The Paramount was among the last of its kind (New York’s Radio City Music Hall, opening a year later, is considered the last one). Soon, the Depression and the war put a stop to such projects, and when the economy finally rebounded, the Art Deco era was long but over.

Our tour started in the Grand Lobby, overwhelming and grandiose, and even more impressive with the extra Christmas decorations.

A roaring success initially, the theatre fell on harder and harder times. The lush 4-hour extravagant shows (cartoon + orchestra concert + dancing girls + newsreel + movie) were soon replaced by more austere movie projections. Even after the war ended, the bad news continued as erstwhile patrons started moving out to the suburbs and seeking entertainment there.

The decrepit, abused, grime- and soot-laden Paramount was closed altogether in 1970, but that turned out to be the end of the dark times. The restoration started not long after that, and the theatre — now owned by City of Oakland — reopened in 1973 in a shape great enough to be designated a California Registered Historical Landmark. Today, it doesn’t play first-run movies, but welcomes people often for special events or shows.

We’re still in the Grand Lobby, looking up towards the entrance and The Fountain Of Life. The ill-fitting Santa Fe model train (in the middle) is there only for holidays, put up by one of the employees.

Looking the other way, towards the staircase. The snowflakes hanging from the ceiling are Christmas-specific. Prior to the restoration, the theatre was so dirty the dust and smoke needed to be cleaned with fire hoses:

The elaborate ornaments — Polynesian/Egyptian golden maidens — on both sides of the lobby:

The generic Always the best show in town marquee used to be replaced often with details of various shows currently playing. Not sure if that’s still the uppercase. (Rimshot.)

Even the glass wasn’t left behind when it came to the Art Deco maximalism:

And neither was the ceiling. Since smoking was allowed from 1930s through the seventies, you can imagine how this must have looked before the restoration.

The Paramount also proudly displays some of the then-cutting-edge technologies.

Here, a “Tele-Chec system” that allowed the staff to check and update what seats were available by dialing in numbers. Also known, poetically to my modern ear, as “the seat annunciator.” It came from a company established by a guy who himself invented the rotary dial phone, Almon Brown Strowger. Apparently, the idea for the rotary in 1891 — a technology that rendered the telephone operators unnecessary — occurred to him after his own operator started recommending a competitor’s business over his.

Available at the theatre’s opening, this system was not yet electronic, but electromechanical, supported by a room full of relays somewhere in the theatre’s bowels.

The Paramount also has a built-in vacuuming infrastructure. Just plug in a hose to any of those receptacles strewn around all the levels, and you’re good to go. They had this technology in 1931 and I still don’t have it:

A corridor view. Note another annunciator on the right. If you look at the light fixtures at the top of the mirrors, only one of them (on the immediate right) is original, put together from bits and pieces of other damaged fixtures. The rest are copies made out of a cast impression of the original.

The next photo is of a lobby upstairs leading to both the men’s and the women’s restrooms. About 65% of the furniture in the theatre is original, the rest is period or recreated based on documentation and photos. (The owners had a foresight to ask a photographer to immortalize the theatre in 1932, just six months after The Paramount opened.)

One of the tour guides, Art, is explaining the the details of the marble table in front of him. Some of the artifacts (paintings, sculptures) were lost or stolen, but this “sucker” is so heavy no one ever tried.

Details of the art leading to the ladies room. This lady is affectionately called Ginger. It is left as an exercise to the reader to figure out what the guy’s name is on the other side of the room.

The make-up room leading to the ladies room is all greens and violets, and full of mirrors. The walls are not covered in wallpapers; everything in the theatre is painted by hand:

This is the other side of the same room. The decorative vent at the top is not an anomaly — all the vents in the theatre look very distinguished:

This one goes even further, being an inside joke. If you see the notes in the mirror on the opposite wall, while working on your make up, they will spell F-A-C-E.

(They later used the same idea in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.)

Yes! You got it. It’s Fred. (As in: Ginger and Fred. Names of popular street drugs from that era, I believe.)

And so we move to the men’s make-up room. It has no mirrors because the men could apply their make-up without mirrors even in the 1930s.

Just kidding. This is men’s lounge, and inside jokes abound, too. Among the types of wood used here, we have both Hungarian crotch ash, and walnut. That is, indeed, what she said.

An awesome Art Deco lamp. Hard to imagine how futuristic it must have seemed back then:

The only chance for the ladies today to see the men’s room! “Now I see why you don’t ever have any lines in here.” Gross.

Curtains were recreated digitally from old samples and photos:

Finally heading upstairs to see the actual theatre, starting with the balcony. Side note: There are zero elevators in the building.

Pretty wonderful Art Deco signage:

A balcony corridor with an opening overlooking the Grand Lobby:

And a view from that opening. It would make Freud really, really happy:

Further down the same corridor. Note the beautiful sunken lights and bird decorations, earning this place a colloquial moniker “the bird level.”

And finally, we get to see the actual theatre. The yellow ceiling here can actually change colours — for example blue on a hot day, making it feel it’s colder than it actually is:

As you can imagine, this place (and the entire theatre) is much darker than the photos make it look like.

The big curtain was so damaged and covered in soot thanks to decades of smoking that it had to be ripped apart to look at the inside fabric, and then a new one made to match. Which wasn’t easy, since the metal thread material is actually applied on top of the regular one.

Another look at the curtain and at the elaborate top light. If you’re careful, you can actually see an Egyptian goddess of life holding the sun:

The balcony has 1,284 sets. Those are still in the original, somewhat cramped arrangement. The ones in the orchestra downstairs were changed to be a bit wider and have more room, because… people got bigger since the 1930s. Then again, who’s been serving them butter-covered popcorn for eighty solid years?

A look at the orchestra from the balcony. You can see the larger seats and some accessible openings:

Then we look back at the balcony, admiring the seat and carpet details. There is a 105-ton steel girder holding all of this in place — you can actually feel the balcony shake a bit during the performances where people stand up and dance. It’s pretty secure, though; the 1989 earthquake did very little damage to the theatre overall.

The opening in the wall on the left, close to the stage, is for the Wurlitzer organ chamber. There is a matching one on the right, too:

The first non-silent movie (or, “talkie”) appeared in 1927, and it took two short years for the talkies to take over the movie world, and every cinema to convert to support sound. The last full-length silent film premiered in 1929. Since the theatre opened in 1931, why would it still care about the organ? The truth is very simple: the organ was ordered much earlier, and it proved impossible to cancel the contract once Wurlitzer already started putting one together.

The organ was obsolete on arrival, yet still pretty impressive — not only having all sorts of melodic and percussive instruments, but also special effects such as horses, waves hitting the shore, or telephone bells. All analogue/acoustic, mostly, with only a few electromechanical relays helping out.

The orchestra level gives a better view of the chambers:

As you can imagine, the organ was hardly ever used. Mostly abandoned by the 1950s, it was sold to a novelty pizza parlor, then another one, then another, travelling from California to Nevada, and then even farther to Florida. (Some organists fell in love with it so much that they kept moving with the instrument.)

When the theatre reopened in 1973, it didn’t feature one. Soon afterwards, however, an “organ donor“ appeared. Eventually, The Paramount put together an impressive instrument reassembled from bits and pieces of different sets. It took seven years to complete this last missing part of the restoration, with the first organ performance taking place on November 7, 1981.

We didn’t see it during the tour, but an organ keyboard can be elevated from underneath the stage, and then disappear there with the organist still performing.

We admired the details of the beautiful flower-inspired lamps on the orchestra level:

And the intricate carved panels with many scenes, plus various lights illuminating the scene or the curtain:

The theatre was originally built not just to show movies, but also for vaudeville. The stage is maybe “shallow,” as theatre people would call it, but it is still a stage. Here it is with the curtain up:

And we actually got to see it up close and personal!

Those three repeating structures are steam heaters. Part of the appeal of building the theatre where it ended up instead of San Francisco was that city of Oakland threw in free steam heating in the deal.

The orchestra has 1,756 seats, bringing the total to a little over three thousand seats for the entire theatre. Here’s aview of the orchestra and balcony from the stage:

These ropes are used to move things around:

The one on the right (“teaser”) controls the big curtain. I am not sure what the other ones mean, but man, did I want to pull the “X-ray” one.

The tradition claims that if all the lights in a theatre go out, they might never come back again. Therefore, a “ghost list” like this one is always on behind the curtain, even during performances.

The jacket hanging here is that of one beloved theatre organist. Rosie passed away many years ago, but the staff still puts his jacket on the light stand just like Rosie used to do every time he played.

A messy backstage desk, of which I can tell you very little:

Now we’re going down to the basement, travelling through the areas inaccessible to public. Where’s your Art Deco now, The Paramount?

Oh, wait, right here, in a directory of what’s happening in the basement.

We then arrive in the green room, where the artists and performers wait before they go on stage. Today it is filled with some posters and machinery of yesteryear…

…such as one of the old movie projectors from the early days of the Paramount. It was replaced by a newer one in the 1970s. Both the old one and the new one use carbon arc lamps, a rarity in today’s theatres, but supposedly resulting in better illumination.

We also get to see a vintage electromechanical telephone exchange — operational until 1989 and the only real casualty of the Loma Prieta earthquake — and a once-spectacular special effects projector, allowing to show lyrics for sing-a-longs, among other things.

The close up of the telephone in the exchange. I like the little typographical detail on “operator”:

We emerge from the theatre’s underbelly into the lower public lounge:

And here it is. One of these mirrors is a hidden door we just used to enter. Try to guess which one!

Ladies’ smoking room. Since it was considered a faux pas for women to smoke in public, they were supposed to hide in this dark room behind a curtain.

Details of the lower level lounge with the stairs going up to the main corridor, and elaborate ceiling decorations:

And looking the other way. No wonder some people call this place “the Art Deco museum.” I think at this point I lost feeling in my eyes:

And another view of the same lounge:

More signage details on the way back:

And we’re up again on the ground level, and the tour is nearing its end. Now hypersensitive to things like that, I can’t help to notice even the little desk lamps (look to the left) are crazy ornate:

This was a feast for the eyes, and a great testament to a challenging restoration project (believe me, I skipped many of the amazing details). Go see the tour if you’re ever in the area — every other Sunday morning, just $5. It’s more than worth it.

Written in December 2012.