Everything Old is New Again: Dec-O-Win at The Paramount Theatre

Rachel Hinson and James Sweeney at the Paramount

Rachel Hinson and James Sweeney at the Paramount

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]

7 Comments

  1. Charlene Hazeldine Sanford

    It was great to see this. I went to the theater, a few years back, but the best part was seeing my brother Art doing his “deco thing” and everyone having so much fun. It is good to know that this is not getting lost in the shuffle to make all things new. I, for one, think the old things are best.

  2. katie schramm

    um… that picture with Deco Win on the screen creating a silhouette of the Master of Ceremonies and crew… I took that picture.

  3. Katie,

    we are looking into this and will let you know what we find after we talk to the reporter and photographer, can you give us more details about your image.

  4. The image in question was in fact taken by Ms. Schramm. Thank you for her photo credit. I supplied all of the images for the piece that were not actually taken by Howard Hsu. (great images, Howard) In your wonderful slideshow the red background Dec-O-Win shot of the orchestra elevator reaching stage level was taken by Ms. Schramm at a Paramount movie classic on an occasion when I was working in the capcity of Emcee. The black and white image is of Master of Ceremoines Jack Bethards at the very first Paramount Theatre Dec-O-Win in 1974. We have no credit on file for that photo here at the Paramount, but it is from our collection of negatives of the theatre’s first year of operation as The Paramount Theatre of the Arts, Inc. after being restored and becoming a National Historic Landmark. I am researching that matter further, and if I find out who took the image, I will supply the name. Until then, a credit of: Paramount Theatre of the Arts, Inc. would be appreciated.

    On behalf of all of us here at the Paramount, thanks for the great story and slide show, I’m always sending people to see it.

    Warmly,

    Matias A. Bombal
    Docent
    Paramount Theatre of the Arts, Inc.
    Paramount Movie Classics
    Dec-O-Win

  5. Bob Ekman

    I hope to bring many more lobby card reproductions to be used as gifts for years to come! I’m a big fan of the Paramount Theater and try my best to attend every Movie Classics program at the Paramount! Best deal in time! ;-)

  6. Im a Paramount Fan too. great work and nice site. Well done.

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