Historic Structures

Paramount Theatre, Oakland California

Date added: August 20, 2021 Categories: California Theater

Construction of the Paramount Theater was initiated in 1930 by Publix Theatres, the exhibiting organization of Paramount Pictures. Financial difficulties forced the sale of the uncompleted building to Fox-West Coast Theatres, the firm that completed the theatre and operated it until it closed on September 15, 1970, although the name "Paramount" was ultimately retained. In 1972 the building was purchased by the Board of Directors of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association. During 1973 the building was restored, and in 1975 the City of Oakland, the present owner, assumed ownership from the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association.

The Paramount Theatre in Oakland was one of only three theatres built by the Publix chain on the West Coast and was the last one started in a construction program which began in 1925. It was not only the last Publix house but was also the last very large moving picture theatre built on the West Coast and is now the largest of the type still extant there. The groundbreaking ceremony was performed with a golden spade by E. B. Field, President of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, on December 11, 1930. Speeches by Paramount and municipal officials, including Commissioner George H. Wilhelm representing Mayor John L. Davie, who was ill, and music by the ROTC Band and the Oakland Firemen's Band marked the occasion.

During construction, Fox-West Coast Theatres took control from the financially distressed Publix chain. On December 16, 1931, a year and five days after the ground-breaking, the theatre was opened with all the fanfare that had become customary. A late afternoon luncheon at the Hotel Leamington preceded the dedication ceremony at the theatre. At 5:00 p.m. on a streetside bandstand, President C. J. Struble of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce dedicated the theatre to the East Bay public, a trust accepted by Oakland Mayor Fred. N. Mordom. Arch M. Bowles's pledge of community service, made on behalf of Fox-West Coast Theatres, was followed by speeches by members of the Hollywood contingent, director Howard Sheehan, and stars George Bancroft, John Breedon, Slissa Landi, and Frances Dee.

Kay Francis, star of the opening film, "The False Madonna," and cast members Conway Tearle, Charles D. Brown, Marjorie Bateson, and William Boyd (not yet known as Hopalong Cassidy) were in attendance. A stage show on a Russian theme titled "Slavique Idea" was accompanied by the 16-piece orchestra under Lou Kisloff, and variety acts by Fanchon and Marco, the Seven Arconis, Breck and Thompson, Patsy Marr, and Sam Hearn made up the rest of the program. The audience at the 9:00 p.m. repeat performance was spared the speeches. The sounds of both programs were broadcast to a throng estimated at 10,000 that crowded the roped-off street in front of the flood-lit theatre. Theatre officials apparently succeeded in their announced intention to produce a first night to "rival in magnificence and splendor any similar opening on the Pacific Coast."

Some six months after the auspicious opening, the Fox-West Coast chain encountered difficulties arising from the antitrust laws. By 1933, a group including Spyros Skouras and Joseph Schenck took over most Fox interests. For a number of years the theatre operated successfully, but by the 1960s attendance diminished, and the house went dark when subway construction reached its vicinity in 1967. As the 1970s began, the theatre was operating only one day a month, just enough to retain its franchise. By 1972, the National General Corporation, the theatrical realty firm then owning the building was discreetly seeking a buyer. A brief episode as a setting for scenes in Warner Brothers' "The Candidate" starring Robert Redford showed little of the theatre but drew some attention to it.

In that same year, 1972, the Historic American Buildings Survey, aware that the building was vulnerable, initiated steps to record it. At about the same time, quite independently of any other actions, the Oakland architect and preservationist Marshall McDonald suggested to certain interested people that the dormant theatre might very well serve as Oakland's much-needed concert hall and performing arts center. A test performance in the Paramount led by Oakland Symphony Orchestra Conductor Harold Farbman demonstrated that the theatre's acoustics are excellent, and the Board of Directors of the Symphony Orchestra Association purchased the building for $1,000,000, one half of which was donated by Edgar F. Kaiser and Stephen D. Bechtal. The National General Corporation, with magnanimous civic loyalty, contributed the remaining half.

As the Paris exposition of 1925 effectively launched the style now called "Art Deco" and thus lay behind certain concepts adopted by Pflueger in designing the Paramount, so also the timely revival of interest in the style played a significant role in the restoration of the theatre. Time, "distilling its essence," as Professor Michael A. Goodman put it, had made the once "modern" historic and the "historic" up-to-date. In October-November 1970 Elayne Varian mounted an exhibition titled "Art Deco" at the Finch College Museum of Art in New York City. That was followed in 1971 by a very large July-September Art Deco exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The catalog of the latter show contained the "first definitive bibliography" of the subject. A third exhibition, "Movie Palace Modern," held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in December 1971-January 1972, illustrated the work of Anthony B. Heinsbergen and was, of course, directly related to picture theatre architecture. Wide press coverage of those exhibitions heightened general public awareness of Art Deco and theatre architecture.

Most of the ninety-three members of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association Board of Directors favored retaining the original 1931 decorative treatment of the theatre as a setting for the orchestra, but some members doubted the practicality of that course of action. They conceded, however, that they would vote for retention, if they could be persuaded to do so within twenty-four hours. Steven Levin, President of the Theatre Historical Society, appealed to the Historic American Buildings Survey for a persuasive statement of significance to be sent overnight to Jack Bethards, member of the orchestra and of the restoration committee.

The Survey responded to the crisis by sending a night letter of about 440 words over the signature of Chief John Poppeliers that mentioned HABS Writer/Editor Lucy Pope Wheeler's preparation of a HABS photo-data book for publication and emphasized the significance of Pflueger's interpretation of the spirit of the 1925 exposition. The wire also cited recent exhibitions of the style and Elayne Varian's plea for preservation, quoting a fragment of her January 1973 Art Gallery Magazine article as follows:
The stability and grandeur of Art Deco architecture was the product of careful planning that resulted in totally harmonious units. All the artists, architects, painters, sculptors, and designers were commissioned at the inception of each building and worked together to create a synthesis that involved every last detail of the external and internal structure.

With the telephoned assistance of Mrs. Varian, then in Florida, and the editor of Art Gallery Magazine in Connecticut, a copy of the issue containing the Varian article, which was published that day, was located and rushed by special messenger to Jack Bethards in time for the 2:00 p.m. meeting of the full board on December 30, 1972. The night letter from HABS and the copy of the magazine were duly presented, and no further objection to retaining and restoring the original decorative treatment of the Paramount Theatre was made.

The restoration was made possible by a great number of people. Joe W. Khowland, Vice-President and General Manager of the Oakland Tribune, and Mis. Knowland, an active Bay Area civic and cultural leader, headed the campaign to raise $3,000,000 above the $1,000,000 purchase price already contributed. One million was designated for the restoration, renovation, and refurbishment of the building, and the other $2,000,000 were to be for an endowment to provide operating funds for the Paramount Theatre of the Performing Arts. A group of sixty Bay Area leaders formed an Advisory Board to operate the five campaign divisions. Mr. and Mrs. Knowland keynoted the campaign by stating that:
The success of the Paramount's rebirth will be watched by communities throughout the nation. Many are faced with making the decision we did in the Bay Area: whether to preserve an irreplaceable theatre and its historical significance or to pay the price of building a new cultural arts center.

The architects for the restoration and new construction were Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, San Francisco in consultation with Milton T. Pflueger, brother of the original architect. M. W. Garing was the contractor for the new work.

The restoration, including general refurbishment, new seating, modernized air conditioning, the 21st Street hox office, renewed and reproduced furnishings, and reproductions of the original carpets and upholstery, continued until the theatre reopened as the Paramount Theatre of the Arts on September 22, 1973. On August 14, 1973, the Paramount was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On August 26, 1975, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to accept ownership of the theatre, provided it was debt-free by September 30, 1975. The Symphony Association planned to liquidate the outstanding $800,000 debt, incurred by the refurbishing and restoration, by that date through private donations. The City Council agreed to absorb an annual operating deficit of not more than $180,000 and voted certain controls and restrictions. The agreement allowed the Oakland Symphony Orchestra priority for 98 annual dates (40 for concerts and 58 for rehearsals) rent-free for forty years. On May 5, 1977 the Paramount Theatre was declared a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior. In addition to its primary use for symphony concerts and films, the theatre is used by ballet and ethnic dance groups, jazz groups, lecturers, and popular singers. The grand lobby is used for business meetings, luncheons, parties, and wedding receptions, and conducted tours of the entire building are frequently scheduled.