The glamour of old-time Hollywood entrances David Hartnell at magnificently storied Art Deco theatre

It's been said that were the Paramount Theatre in San Francisco to require a new name, it might well be called the Paradox, for its history is studded with contradictions. Built in 1925, at a cost of US$3 million ($4.45 million), it was one of America's grandest motion-picture palaces, seating 3476 in a large, decorative and very exotic space designed especially for the "movies" and the stage pageantry that generally accompanied them.

The grand opening night was December 16, 1931, which brought out a gaggle of San Francisco's social elite, along with the American actress Kay Francis who was the star of The False Madonna, the movie that screened that night. Then in June of 1932 disaster struck, Paramount closed its doors, unable to meet the weekly operating cost of around $27,000.

In 1971, the Paramount was boarded up and rumours were the wrecking ball was waiting in the wings to demolish this grand old Art Deco lady.

In 1972, the Oakland Symphony orchestra came to its rescue, and bought the Paramount Theatre for $1 million as their new home. The orchestra also set it up as a performing arts centre for the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 1973 a full and authentic restoration was completed. Two years later, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra went bankrupt and gave the Paramount to the City of Oakland for $1, with the stipulation of guaranteed bookings for the next 40 years.


In 1972 it was entered into the National Register of Historic Places, and on August 14, 1973, it became a California Registered Historical Landmark. The Paramount Theatre reopened on September 22, 1973, in its original 1931 splendour.

On October 1, 1975, the City of Oakland received title to the building and Paramount Theatre of the Arts, Inc, a non-profit corporation was organised to operate the theatre.

It has since installed the mighty Wurlitzer, thus completing the restoration.

One of its unique features is the intriguing anachronism at the top of the stairs to the mezzanine foyer, a seat annunciator, part of the "Tele-Chec" system, a standard feature of Paramount theatres of the time. It enabled the theatre's staff to keep track of seat availability.

The interior of the Paramount Theatre in San Francisco. Photo / David Hartnell
The interior of the Paramount Theatre in San Francisco. Photo / David Hartnell

Ushers stationed at the head of each aisle dialled the number of available seats in their sections on a dial inset in the wall. The numbers were transmitted via telephone lines to the ornate seat annunciators in the foyers, and lighted corresponding numbers behind the vertical glass panels.

The usher in the centre of each foyer - who was called a "splitter" - could then greet entering customers with exactly where they might find seats: "There are three seats on aisle five, to your left, Madam."

"Sir" and "Madam" were requisite forms of address in the halcyon days of ushering: ushers of the day were taught speech, deportment and theatre-management skills.

Today, Oakland's Paramount Theatre is one of the finest, if not the finest examples of Art Deco design in the United States, now standing in all its original splendour, meticulously maintained, and completely upgraded to modern technical standards. It started out life as just a movie theatre, but now it's one of the San Francisco Bay Area's premier performing arts facilities, hosting a schedule of year-round concerts, variety shows, popular music concerts, theatre, ballet and, of course, movies.

When you walk into the main lobby with its gold ornamentation along the walls, glowing light fixtures, bold rich carpet and wonderful curving staircases you are immediately transported back to the days of old Hollywood where glamour was king.


Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to San Francisco, with one-way Economy Class fares on sale for $699 until May 30.

Tour the Paramount Theatre on the first and third Saturday of each month, excluding holidays for US$5 ($7.40).