Oakland's landmark Paramount Theatre is approaching a big milestone. On Dec. 16, it will be 80 years since the opulent Art Deco movie palace opened its doors.
A look at its calendar shows that, while no specific event is planned to commemorate the date, there are plenty of other events and programs coming up, including the always-anticipated performances of the Nutcracker Ballet.
A crowd of 5,000 was on hand that evening 80 years ago when the theater opened for the first time. Construction had started exactly a year previously, in December 1930. It would be the last important theater of its type to be built in California and, at the time, construction of the project was seen as a boost to the local economy, given that the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression.
Hundreds of artisans, steelworkers, plumbers, carpenters and builders worked on the theater. Renowned Art Deco architect Timothy L. Pflueger was the designer. The 130-foot wide and 150-foot long auditorium was outfitted with close to 3,500 seats. After the theater's splashy opening, a staff of 150 saw to the needs of patrons.
Decades later, like its neighbor the Fox Theater, which was built two years earlier two blocks away, the Paramount underwent a dazzling renovation after suffering years of neglect. Its painstaking restoration took place in the 1970s when it was decided that it would become the home to the Oakland Symphony. A community fundraising campaign that urged people to pledge "a buck" raised $1 million toward the renovation cost. Work got under way in December 1972 and the doors opened again in September 1973.
The Paramount's successful rehabilitation served as a model for other vintage theaters elsewhere around the country looking to create new uses as downtown performing arts centers. Craftsmen familiar with the lost arts associated with historic theater decor were recruited to carry out the painstaking restoration. For its grandeur, use of materials and influence as a community cultural center, the Paramount Theatre has been declared a National Historic Landmark.
An important figure associated with the theater is the late Calvin Simmons, born in 1950, who was a child prodigy who began conducting at the age of 12. After assisting at the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, Simmons came to Oakland, where he was named the first African-American conductor of a major U.S. city symphony. His brilliant career was tragically cut short in 1982 when he died in a drowning accident. The music world and the citizens of Oakland were stunned by the news.
I recently learned that a bust of Calvin Simmons was completed before he passed away by a local sculptor by the name of Ann Fisher and is looking for a permanent home. John Tuttle, a longtime symphony subscriber and self-described history buff, has been trying to find an appropriate place for the piece to be displayed. "I am in touch with the folks at the Paramount," Tuttle told me, "and I hope there is a way for this tribute to Calvin Simmons to become visible to a wider audience. I feel his contributions to Oakland history and culture should not be overlooked."
Files in the library's History Room have much more on the Paramount and also on the life of Calvin Simmons. Do you have a memory to share? If so, Dorothy Lazard, History Room librarian, asks that you send in a letter, by mail (no emails, please) in care of the Oakland History Room, Main Library, 125 14th St. Oakland, CA 94612. Your memories and comments will be added to the files.
The Paramount's web address is www.paramounttheatre.com. Be sure to take note of guided tours of the theater's interiors, offered on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
The Oakland Tours Program is accepting requests for reservations for group tours of five or more in the Uptown, which includes visits to the outside of the Paramount and the Fox. For details, go to www.oaklandnet.com/walkingtours.