If I could put myself anywhere to watch a movie, I'd choose a theater I've never visited--one of the West Coast's greatest motion picture houses that today rarely shows films. It exists in my mind only as a dream conjured up by photographs in a book I've pored over for a decade, and it is precisely that overlay of fantasy that makes it seem like the perfect place to look at movies. For just as reality is rarely as idealized as films like to portray it, so no real-life movie house could be as satisfying as the one I've experienced only in my mind.
The theater is the Oakland Paramount, constructed at the height of the Depression in the city across the bay. Costing $3 million, it opened in 1931, a spectacular Art Deco showplace that sat more than 3,000 people in a setting fronted by more than a mile of neon tubing in an enormous marquee / sign that weighed in at 20 tons.
Next to the last of the country's great picture palaces (followed only by New York's Radio City Music Hall, which opened a year later), the Paramount, decorated to the teeth and featuring a drop-dead gorgeous rain forest motif, had a checkered career before the Oakland Symphony purchased it for its new home in 1972 and began a landmark restoration program that included finding and utilizing the only factory in the country that still manufactured its high-pile mohair seats.
Today, the Paramount is owned by the city of Oakland and shows films only sporadically. Still, with the aid of a book written by Susannah Harris Stone and photographed by Roger Minick, I can imagine myself back in its magisterial confines, being pampered by the attentive staff while waiting for an exciting show to begin. If I want to get a bit closer to that experience, I can visit the unreconstructed but still grand picture palaces along Broadway, or go to Hollywood's less elaborate but still lovingly restored El Capitan. And, I suppose, I could take a plane to Oakland and check the Paramount out in person. But when I think about movie pleasures, I find it is much safer merely to dream.