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Paramount Theatre brings back movie classics

on November 13, 2010

There was a time when going to the movies had nothing to do with $12 tickets, the inevitable cell phone symphony or sitting through endless commercials before the main event. True, this was decades ago, but the Paramount Theatre in Oakland refuses to let a tiny detail like the passage of time stop film lovers from reliving the days of movie glamour. About once a month, the brightly lit theater on Broadway hosts a Movie Classics night, at which patrons can enjoy old favorites at the right price: $5.

The movie night began thirty years ago, and has long been a favorite of local cinema junkies and Paramount staff. The theater screened its second-to-last classic of 2010 on Friday night, with another tentatively schedule for December. A January film is already lined up and, as far as general manager Leslee Stewart is concerned, the series will go on indefinitely.

Always held on a Friday (any night that isn’t already booked for a concert), doors open to the public at 7:00 p.m., and the curtain goes up at 8. Beforehand, patrons mill around the lobby, purchasing candy, sweet and savory popcorn (all $3 a pop), as well as beer, wine and champagne. “It’s a very popular event,” said Stewart. “We usually sell at least 1,200 tickets, but sometimes we sell out all of our 3,000 seats.”

The Paramount Theatre has a specific set of studios it works with (Paramount the studio, it turns out, is not one of them), and the staff meets every few months to select the movies, often based on a theme. “We showed The Candidate a few years ago around election day,” said Stewart. “But in general, people like the Marilyn Monroes and Rock Hudsons. Alfred Hitchcock movies do really well, too.”

The last two films in the series have been wildly popular—on Halloween weekend, Paramount brought in a huge crowd with the classic chiller Dracula. On Friday night, the theatre screened From Here to Eternity, a military flick from 1953 directed by Fred Zinnemann and based on the novel by James Jones. It was chosen because of its tie-in to Veterans Day.

The film is set in 1941, on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, at an army base in Hawaii. On the base, drama unfolds between the businesslike Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), a bull-headed private, Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) and their leading ladies, played by Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed. Comic relief is provided by Prewitt’s goofy sidekick, Pvt. Maggio, acted by the ever-charming Frank Sinatra.

Pianist at Paramount Theatre

Jerry Nagano plays the Wurlitzer, a brand of pipe organ popular in the 1920s and 30s, at Movie Classics night at the Paramount Theatre on Broadway. Patrons enjoyed the organ music while waiting for Friday night’s screening of “From Here to Eternity” to start.

Friday’s weather was pleasant, and Oaklanders strolled around outside before filtering into the Paramount, purchasing cocktails and chattering in the ornately decorated theater, which was, in fact, a movie palace at its inception. As folks wandered around looking for that perfect seat, organist Jerry Nagano, bespectacled and wearing a bright red tie, played the Wurlitzer, a brand of pipe organ popular in the 1920s and 30s.

At 8 p.m., the heavy burgundy curtains pulled apart, promptly, to reveal—another curtain! Once that was drawn, too, the real fun began. The familiar “Merrie Melodies” logo appeared on the screen first, followed by “Rhapsody in Rivets,” a short cartoon about a dog conducting a huge construction site’s worth of workers as if they were an orchestra. At the end, Droopy the dog’s clumsy destruction of the freshly constructed building was rewarded with laughter from the Paramount crowd.

Following the cartoon and retro previews for Lost Horizon and Citizen Kane, the crowd geared up for Dec-O-Win, a game that harkens back to the Depression era and once encouraged customers to come to the movies despite the financial hardship. On Friday, a pair of hosts dressed in classic 1930s finery—shiny pink dress and opera-length gloves for her, tuxedo for him—spun the Dec-O-Wheel and handed out prizes to audience members whose complimentary raffle tickets matched. Most were gift certificates to local restaurants, including one to the trendy Japanese eatery, Ozumo, on Telegraph.

Then the lights went down, and a smoldering Montgomery Clift appeared on the screen, drawing applause from the crowd. At Paramount Theatre Classic Movies night, audience interaction is a huge part of the show. As Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr launched into their famous make-out-in-the-surf-on-the-beach bit, the audience gave its approval with whistles and a chorus of “Whooo whoooos!” The crowd snickered when the camera lingered on Lancaster’s chiseled jaw line just a little too long. People laughed outright when Deborah Kerr said she’d need an “adding machine” to figure out how many men she’d been with. And so on. Paramount patrons may take their classics seriously, but there’s nothing serious about this movie-going experience.

While general manager Leslee Stewart and the Paramount staff are still trying to work out a Classic Movies night for December, January is already locked in. Fantasia, the musical Disney classic from 1940, will be screened on January 14. “We’re very excited about this one,” Stewart said. “A lot of people who now have children saw this movie as children, themselves, so they can bring their kids and have a really unique experience.”

For information about upcoming Classic Movie Nights and to purchase tickets, visit the Paramount Theatre web site.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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