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When the grand, Art Decostyle Paramount Theatre opened, it was like many theaters of its day a respite from the troubles of the world. But it wasn't immune to its own problems. In fact, the Paramount has struggled throughout its storied 75-year history, having already closed on two separate occasions.
The $3 million vaudeville and movie house was built during the Depression, according to the 1981 book The Oakland Paramount by Susannah Harris Stone. It was expected to boost the local building industry, add to the city's prestige, entertain theatergoers, and provide jobs. But at the time, according to the Web site CinemaTreasures.com, downtown Oakland was home to at least a dozen theaters most of which are now closed.
The Paramount's financial troubles began even before it was finished. Mid-construction, its owner, Paramount Publix Corporation, sold the building to rival FoxWest Coast Theatres, the owner of its nearby competitor, the Fox, which had opened in 1928. FoxWest Coast had given management of its ailing theater chain to a group of East Coast theater businessmen, the Skouras brothers.
Shortly after opening its doors on December 16, 1931, the Paramount shuttered them, succumbing to the $27,000 per week operating expenses. In May 1933, it reopened under strict management. This time around, the Paramount and the Fox Oakland would divvy up available movies rather than compete for them. The tactic worked.
As the Depression's grip eased, World War II brought an economic boom to Oakland, and the Paramount thrived. But by the late 1950s, the era of television began eroding movie audiences. The Paramount closed in September 1970.
Hope surfaced in 1972 when the Oakland Symphony, in need of a new home, purchased the Paramount for $1 million. Although many such theaters were being demolished at the time (including San Francisco's Fox), the Paramount underwent a speedy restoration financed for less than $1 million. New, wider seats were installed, as was a replica of the original carpet. Two bars and a new box office were added. It reopened on September 22, 1973 in its original 1931 splendor.
Again, the glory didn't last long. Two years later, the orchestra went bankrupt and gave the Paramount to the City of Oakland for $1, with the stipulation of guaranteed bookings for the next forty years.
Seeing an opportunity, a group of seven private citizens banded together and approached city officials with the idea of managing and operating the Paramount on behalf of the city as a nonprofit organization. They agreed, and the structure has remained to this day.
But despite the nonprofit board's good intentions, the Paramount ran at a deficit and required a city subsidy. According to The Oakland Paramount, the theater's revenues equaled about 65 percent of its expenses, and the city picked up the tab for hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
If there's one thing the city's track record shows, it's that its arts and entertainment projects aren't always well thought out. "The zoo loses $2.3 million dollars a year," observes developer Phil Tagami. "Fairyland loses money. The Coliseum loses $16 million a year. The Henry J. Kaiser, they closed it."
Board member Boisvert takes a similar view. Back in 1995, he criticized the optimistic prediction that the Oakland Ice Center would generate 500,000 customers per year. "This ice rink project will not even come close to meeting the City of Oakland's hopes nor the developers' projections," he wrote the City Council. Sure enough, center developers defaulted on their city loans after the rink had been open just three months. Since then, the center has struggled to make a profit.
Then in 1996, Boisvert, who had owned a minor league baseball franchise from 1990 to 1995 and was working as a consultant for the Oakland Football Marketing Association, criticized the association's meager sales of personal seat licenses in an anonymous commentary in the Montclarion newspaper. The licenses were supposed to help pay for the renovation of the Raiders' stadium after the team moved back to Oakland, and the association had claimed the seat licenses would sell out. The failure resulted in a settlement, which included the eventual abolishment of the licenses.
In 1997, the city council approached Boisvert to do an operational study of the Paramount. As a promoter in the early- to mid-1980s, he had booked half a dozen shows there. "They were going through a budget cycle and they wanted to know if the Paramount still deserved to be subsidized," Boisvert recalled. The report, which he did for free, found that the facility not only could be self-sufficient, but also that it had more potential if it chose to emulate other successful facilities around the country.
By July 1999, the City of Oakland cut off its subsidy to the Paramount for good. "It didn't come as a surprise," recalls Paramount general manager Leslee Stewart, who had just been hired a couple of months earlier. "It was something the city had wanted to be able to untie the apron strings."
The Paramount Today
It's 8 a.m. on a Wednesday in mid-May and members of the Paramount board are trickling into the cloistered music library in the theater's basement for their bi-monthly meeting. The members some of whom have been on the board for decades take their seats around a large work table bearing plates of chocolate and glazed doughnuts. Stewart, dressed in a white pinstriped blazer, sleek glasses, and blond streaks in her layered, chin-length hair, busily offers tea, hot cocoa, and coffee. Judging by the members' reactions, strangers and especially reporters don't often attend these meetings.
When it starts, seven of the eleven members are present, but absent are the president, vice president, and treasurer the lattermost due to foot surgery. The meeting begins with a financial report examining the recent ten-month period. Stewart happily notes they have a surplus of more than $75,000, even though the number of performances was down slightly from the year prior. Back then, they had a surplus of more than $327,000.
"Why was attendance down?" asks Ed Thomas, an attorney. "Crappy concerts?"
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