OAKLAND -- Imagine you're walking into the lobby of the Paramount Theatre.

The sight before you is indescribable. The details are too rich to take in all at once -- the golden glow from large decorated wall panels, the intricate ceiling lights.

A buzzing mixture of sounds surrounds you.

Women in full-length gowns adorned with sequins and men in tuxedos fixed with bow ties fill the room, dancing to a live jazz orchestra or enjoying a cocktail.

The style is reminiscent of a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby."

But it's not fiction. It's what is planned for Saturday's Art Deco Preservation Ball, where the guest of honor will be the Paramount Theatre, celebrating 40 years since it was restored and honoring those individuals who helped.

The Art Deco Society of California has been celebrating surviving buildings from the Art Deco period (the 1930s and 1940s, mostly) since the first Art Deco Preservation Ball in 1984. Since then, the society has recognized other venues, including Bimbo's 365 club in San Francisco and the Berkeley City Club, said Laurie Gordon, founder of the ball.

At this year's ball honoring the Paramount, which Gordon called the "crowning jewel of the area," the Art Deco Society will give its Preservation Awards to the Paramount Theatre and a handful of key individuals who contributed to the preservation of the theater.

"The ball is as close as you might get to a time capsule and being able to go in a door and magically, you're in 1936 -- or pick a year," said H. Lynn Harrison, preservation director for the Art Deco Society.

"It's losing yourself for a moment in a time warp; plus it's a really fun event."

Grand movie palace

The Paramount Theatre opened its doors in December 1931, two years after the stock market collapsed and the Great Depression began. Faced with the worst financial era in American history, everybody went to the movies.

Extravagant theaters began popping up all over the country, including the Fox Theater in Oakland, which opened in 1928.

Business boomed at the Paramount, but as the years passed, the movie house went from being one of the most popular theaters in the Bay Area to a forgotten gem.

Over decades of neglect, its golden walls were buried under layers of black smoke residue. Seats and other furnishings deteriorated.

The demand for such large theaters declined and, like many other movie palaces, the Paramount continually lost business until the doors closed in 1970.

It was facing demolition when the Oakland East Bay Symphony chose the Paramount as its new home.

First, though, came the job of convincing the symphony that the Paramount should be restored, instead of undergoing a modern renovation. And that was difficult, said Jack Bethards, one of those being honored Saturday for his vision of the restoration.

"(The challenge) was convincing people that the art deco style of the theater was an important artistic expression and should be preserved as is," Bethards said. "There was some pressure to modernize the theater, and we resisted that."

The preservationists won, but it¿ took extensive research and a look into photos and documents from the files of the Paramount's original designer, Timothy L. Pflueger.

The restoration crew determined what was original and what could be replaced; the furniture, paintings, carpets, mirrors that needed replacing had to be as close to the original fixtures as possible.

Volunteers scrubbed the blackened walls, unveiling the once-forgotten massive golden relief, a sculptural technique where the figures are raised from a flat surface, depicting scenes of nature, people, creatures. Seats were updated to accommodate handicapped patrons, the carpet was replaced and air conditioning was installed.

Even the most minute details could not be overlooked in bringing the theater back to life.

Nine months and nearly $1 million later, the doors reopened in September 1973 as the symphony's new home, and looking just as it did in 1931. Only now, the one-time move palace was a concert hall, a stage for ballet dancers, singers, bands, comedy acts and, of course, a venue for classic film screenings.

Work is still being done as new theater details are discovered that need care.

Art deco

Art deco, a term coined in the 1960s, is defined by architecture designed with geometric shapes, vivid colors and clean, sleek lines.

"The Paramount is one of the few theaters that retains a uniformity of style and quality of workmanship all the way down to the smallest or least significant room," Bethards said.

As patrons enter, under the well-known vertical "Paramount" sign, about 10 stories high and emblazoned with lights, a mosaic depicts a man and a woman holding four tiers of puppets -- people, animals and mythical creatures -- in a preview of what's in store.

Through the doors is a huge lobby characterized by ceilings more than four stories high. The eastern and western walls display large vertical panels emitting a golden glow with more than 50 golden statues of women of ancient Egypt. Facing the auditorium entrance, spirals, circles, diamonds and other shapes make up a grille that climbs the walls and along the ceiling, illuminated by emerald lighting.

The theater is expansive, comfortably fitting more than 3,000 seats and rich in detail, from the carpeting to the walls covered from floor to ceiling with murals in a golden relief. The ceiling bears intricate light fixtures in floral shapes. Golden light emits from five identical panels of grilles.

Going to the restroom is a trip in its own, with a foyer and sitting rooms before reaching a stall.

Not even Peter Botto, manager of the Paramount from 1973 to 1999 and the restoration project's coordinator, feels he's seen everything.

"After 27 years walking around the building during concerts, standing there and looking at the features on the walls," he said. "There's always something new to discover."

Art deco preservation ball
When: Saturday, April 27, Preservation Awards at 7 p.m.; ball 8 p.m.-midnight
Where: Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland
Admission: $100-$125 in advance, $150 at door, 415-982-3326, www.artdecosociety.org/decoball
Attire: The ball is a black-tie affair; patrons are encouraged to wear styles from the '20s, '30s or '40s.

did you know?
  • The Paramount opened in December 1931.
  • The doors closed in September 1970.
  • Restoration took nine months and cost about $1 million.
  • The theater reopened in September 1973 as the home music hall of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.
  • Paramount became a California Registered Historic Landmark in 1976 and a National Historic Landmark in 1977.
  • The theater seats about 3,000 people.
  • Actors including Elissa Landi (After "The Thin Man"), Donald O'Connor ("Singin' in the Rain") and John Boles ("Frankenstein") have made appearances at the Paramount.