The Paramount Theatre is in Oakland, California. This is the One True Paramount: all others are merely pretenders to the throne.

It is a stunning Art Deco building on Broadway at 20th Street, which is also the only real Broadway. And the only real 20th Street. The building's tall façade rises above all the drab pedestrians and mundane automobiles of downtown Oakland, its elaborate gold-edged mosaic of dancers and cowboys and all manner of insanity glimmering flatly against the pavement. At night, the word "PARAMOUNT" shines in red and gold and green and blue, several stories tall, against the smoggy, streetlamp-lit sky.

Of course I jest; in fact, there are many Paramount Theatres (and who knows, maybe even another Broadway) around the United States.

In 1925, Paramount Studios was Paramount-Publix. Even then, they were a major motion picture studio. They built a chain of theaters across the country, beginning in Times Square and ending five years later in Oakland. The Depression had hit, and Paramount was forced to cut its losses and sell Oakland's theater to Fox, although it kept its original name.

Fox, in fact, was also engaged in the business of building fabulous housing for their movies: today the Paramount is paralleled (and was once operated by) by the equally large Fox Oakland Theater a few blocks away. However, the Fox has been non-operational for decades, and is finally in the process of being restored. In many ways, the tables have turned, and the theater which once owned the Paramount is now where the Paramount was some thirty years ago.

It may give the reader some idea of the Paramount's fabulous air to know that it originally cost $3,000,000 to build... in 1930 dollars. The theater's website (and who knows what drives them to call it "Theatre," the spelling traditionally used to refer to the art and not the building) somewhat fatuously says,

Designed by renowned San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger and completed in late 1931, it was one of the first Depression-era buildings to incorporate and integrate the work of numerous creative artists into its architecture and is particularly noteworthy for its successful orchestration of the various artistic disciplines into an original and harmonious whole.

In other words, many artists were engaged in designing this building. They include:

  • Timothy Pflueger, the architect whose gorgeous and lambent work glows all over Oakland's downtown area, as well as San Francisco's Castro Theater and other theaters, schools, and churches around the Bay.
  • Charles Stafford Duncan, the artist of the mural in the women's basement smoking room of the theater, a languid tree-lit scene.
  • Gerald Fitzgerald, the fabulously-named artist who drew the cartoons on which the theater's massive front mosaic was based, as well as designing the thirty-five-foot-tall glass mosaic "fountain of light" in the lobby.
  • Michael A. Goodman, the artist, architect, and city planner who designed the velvet grand drape curtain which veils every performance.
  • Robert Boardman Howard and Ralph Stackpole, who created the golden bas-relief designs which decorate the walls and ceiling. Howard was a sculptor and muralist who gained his experience making relief maps for the U. S. Army in World War II, and did most of the work on the walls. Stackpole was a sculptor as well as a painter, focusing on the integration of monumental sculpture with architecture; he did the bulk of the work on the ceiling panels.
  • Dorothy Wright Liebes, textile designer, served as consultant on all the textiles used in the theater. As the Paramount history pages note, "She specialized in custom-designed hand-loomed textiles, not infrequently combining metallic yarns with silk and cotton. Her textiles formed an integral component of the architectural settings in which they were used, and her influence raised the craft of weaving to the status of an art."
  • Milton T. Pflueger and Theodore Bernardi designed details for the theater including the human and animal figures in the façade mosaic; Milton is Timothy's brother, and continues as head of their firm today.

    All this work resulted in a breathtaking theater, from the glittering external artwork to the series of cavernous rooms inlaid with art like a living museum. Every room is filled with luxe Art Deco touches, including glowing murals, sparkling chandeliers, layers of stage curtains, and golden sculptures. As first-time visitors often gasp, there are nekkid ladies on the walls - another gift to us from the Roaring Twenties, much like the downstairs bar, aforementioned smoking rooms, and the voluptuous movies themselves.

    Today, the Paramount Theatre provides a chic home for the Oakland Ballet and the Oakland Symphony. Its own performances include notable musicians like k.d. lang and Me'Shell N'Dege'ocello, (Ouroboros says, "as well as the Godfather of Soul, the hardest working man in show business, James Brown!"), as well as a host of old movies and family events. Every week they feature one of their "Movie Classics," including a newsreel, cartoon, and previews from the time the movie was originally released, as well as a performance on its own Wurlitzer theater organ and a lottery game on the Dec-o-Win prize wheel. It is just one more of the many hidden jewels in Oakland's scorned crown.


  • The Paramount Theatre's website, with history, schedules, and pictures:
  • A San Francisco Chronicle article on Jim Riggs, the theater's organist:
  • And, of course:
    personal experience.
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