Historic Cinemas—The Paramount Theatre

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Historic Cinemas—The Paramount Theatre

Location: Oakland, CA
Built: 1931
Status: A beleaguered history but currently thriving.

I did a favor for a friend. His thank you note arrived in the form of two second-row seats to see Leonard Cohen at the Paramount. Suffice to say I am open to doing favors for this person any time.

When it was built, the Paramount was the largest multi-purpose theater on the West Coast, seating over 3,400 guests. A true Art Deco movie palace, the Paramount spared no expense in its construction, creating an extraordinarily opulent space—gilded, marble-clad, full of expensive, rare materials from the 110-foot tile mosaic exterior to a lobby with a 58-foot ceiling and incredible lighting, to the auditorium’s gold walls and sculpted mythological figures. Custom organ by Wurlitzer, epic splendor throughout—apparently the place opened at a cost of $3 million, and that’s 1931 money. The Paramount is one of the true masterpiece examples of cinema as escape from reality. It really is like walking into another world.

Its success was short-lived: unable to keep up with operating costs, the Paramount closed in 1932. It reopened in 1933 under new management, who got the place out of debt by screening films only-no stage shows, no orchestra … just the best of the current releases.

It closed again in 1970, buckling under competition from a mushroom-like growth of suburban multiplexes. This time, its savior was the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association (and some generous private donors), who oversaw renovations and opened the Paramount’s doors again in 1972. Today it is operated as a nonprofit, and is both a California and a National Historical Landmark.

At the Paramount, you might, depending on the night, see the Oakland East Bay Symphony, a classic film, a stand-up comedian, a rock concert, a ballet, a lecture or a string quartet. The sense of epic opulence has not faded. It’s still otherworldly in its beauty and luxuriousness. It still makes you feel transported to another time, maybe even another dimension.

But the Paramount is more than a fabulous symbol of the escapist joy of going to the movies. It’s a symbol of tenacity. It was ambitious to build—so much so that it became, on multiple occasions, too unwieldy to run. But it never stayed down for long: people have come together to keep this place alive every time, and I think it’s worth having physical reminders of what we can do if we band together to save things that are valuable.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how Leonard Cohen was? Man, talk about tenacity. The man was 80-years-old, so thin he was almost transparent, and he mesmerized the house for hours. In fact, he outlasted me and the person I’d brought with me (who is a touring musician himself and no stranger to late nights). About three hours in, we both reluctantly admitted we couldn’t keep up with him, and when we left he was still onstage, on his knees as if in prayer, letting that deep, mournful voice resonate through the house. Two legends with prolific artistic careers, person and place. There could not have been a more perfect venue for Cohen, but whoever or whatever is playing at the Paramount, it’s always worth it to go.


Amy Glynn is a poet and essayist. In addition to literature, film and television, she also thinks a lot about wine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her on Twitter.

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