By Tasneem Raja and Howard Hsu/Oakland North. Additional images provided by the Paramount Theatre and Katie Schramm.
During the Great Depression, lavish movie palaces from New York to San Francisco suffered serious financial setbacks. The theaters that didn’t shut down altogether came up with new tricks to lure customers and fill seats. Thus, the Dec-O-Win was born, a spin-wheel raffle game played onstage before the movie feature.
Moviegoers were handed a raffle ticket on their way in, and winners went home with cheap glassware and dishes that came to be called “Depression ware” (and now sell for many times their original cost on eBay).
Oakland’s famed art-deco movie palace, The Paramount Theatre, which opened in 1931, revived the Dec-O-Win concept in 1974 with an original 1936 wheel from San Francisco’s Embassy Theater. Now, on a few Friday nights each year, the Paramount plays old movie classics like Casablanca and Philadelphia Story and starts off the show with a game of Dec-O-Win. Employees and a devoted group of volunteer tour guides and ushers dress up in 1930s-style tuxedos and evening gowns and host the show. Before Dec-O-Win starts, old black-and-white newsreels and Looney Tunes shorts play on the giant screen. On these classic movie nights, the cost of admission (one raffle ticket included) is only $5.
Gina Bishop is the Paramount’s box office manager. She says the recession hasn’t slowed ticket sales on the classic movies nights at all. In fact, a December screening of Singin’ in the Rain was nearly sold out — that’s 3,000 tickets. “We haven’t seen any change since about a year ago,” she says. “The movies are a great deal.”
Rachel Hinson and James Sweeney, who were at the Paramount on a date during this Friday’s screening of Philadelphia Story, agree. “It’s very economical,” says Hinson, who calls herself a “big classic movie buff.”
Sweeney has been coming to the Paramount since he was a kid — he vividly remembers a performance of The Nutcracker during elementary school. He’s also a huge fan of old movies, and he’d come to the Paramount’s vintage nights even if admission weren’t just $5. “It’s just fantastic,” he says. “A great opportunity, and a great rate. It brings out a lot of different people.”
[Dec-O-Win silhouette photograph in slideshow courtesy of Katie Schramm]