California obviously has more than its fair share of glittering movie houses with a history. Hollywood has of course the famous Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theatres, San Luis Obispo has the Fremont and San Francisco has the Roxie and the glittering old paddle steamer that is the Castro Theatre. But just across the water from San Francisco in neighbouring Oakland stands one of movie exhibition’s most beautiful monoliths. Opened at the peak of the Art-Deco movement in 1931 and designed by Timothy L. Pflueger (who also designed the Castro Theatre), the Paramount Theatre is one of the most luxuriant, ornate and precious working movie houses.
Greenlit in the 1920s by Publix Theatres (the then exhibition face of Paramount Pictures) and taken on by Fox-West Coast Theatres before construction was even complete, the Paramount eventually fell into neglect as movie audiences queued up at their own home box office to watch that personal movie-box they called television. In the 1970s (when its namesake production studio was about to have a heyday at the hands of playboy producer Robert Evans) the cinema was eventually taken over and its thirty years of neglect replaced with a gilt-edged renovation that drops the jaw to this day.
Having been fortunate enough to be invited to Paramount to see an apt screening of Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North By Northwest (apt as it is one of the classics of movie making and movie going), to enter this Babylonian enclave is itself as cinematic as it gets – with a scale of design, scope and detail that would not be out of place onscreen in Fritz Lang’s peer contemporary Metropolis or RKO’s 1933 King Kong. The 2025 Broadway front facia alone is an emerald green neon tower of letters beckoning the queuing audiences in to its world of cinematic Ozmosis. Heck, there is very nearly a yellow carpeted brick road weaving into every corner of a gargantuan front lobby replete with Chrysler era flat, dancing metallic gods betraying their Egyptian influences like graphical guardsman in an ancient Luxor tomb. Brass fixtures, vintage telephone kiosks, cigarette vendors, candy machines, “Mezzanine” signage, stair rails and light guards combine to bling ring you into an ancient world of exhibition opulence. “Always The Best Show In Town” is not just a promise as more emerald green twirls and swirls above the punters heads and Lang’s Metropolis comes to life as 1930s friezes stack up like graphical depictions of pre-WWII skylines. And this is just the front lobby.
The Paramount’s greatest structural tic and trick is its hidden scale. Taking your seat is now a dirty carpeted chore, as we trudge in our multiplexes past bored students with their fave film quote (as decided for them by people who are clearly not film fans) emblazoned upon their creased shirts like threadbare welcome mats. But at the Paramount, the welcome is the experience. And that welcome is yours to investigate. Part of the cinema’s monthly screenings (it is a key venue on the live music and performance circuit now too) involves plenty of time to explore the theatre itself. And that possibly takes longer than all three versions of King Kong played back to back. Proud and suited staff are on hand to guide with a [sadly] yesteryear panache but the beauty is taking a look yourself as the cliff-face sized red curtain of the only screen in the house follows you upwards and into the gods as each further level proves it is not the last.
There is no welcome to the cheap seats as there aren’t any. Every viewpoint, every row of chairs, aisle, end row fixture and side panel is truly glorious. This is a movie house with a “Ladies Smoking Room” more opulent and spacious than most new cinemas. This is a movie house – like the Castro Theatre – with a working Wurlitzer organ. This is a movie house with over 3040 seats with access spread out over at least five levels of carpeted and brass luxuriance. This is a movie house with a men’s lounge, a woman’s lounge, a hydraulic orchestra pit, its own historically documented mosaics and at least two bars. This is a movie house that does not need the movies for its thrills and awe. This is a movie house that was declared an official American National Historical Landmark in 1977. And this is a movie house that charges just $5 dollars a movie ticket. That’s right. North By Northwest. At the Paramount. For $5. Always the best show in town indeed.
For more details about visiting the Paramount click here.