Deco Raving

Getting carried away at the 20th anniversary of the Art Deco Society of California

The first sight of Oakland's Paramount Theatre at night is dazzling, even if that initial glimpse is an illusory reflection caught in a storefront window on 20th Street. The shimmering albedo of 7,000 feet of neon flashing up and down a 100-foot-tall sign is enough to quicken the blood of any glamour-loving film fan, and for good reason. During the early part of the 20th century, neon light exemplified the dizzying elegance of American cities and ushered in the Golden Age of the Silver Screen. Beginning in the late 1920s, theaters and movie houses across the country created glowing signage for each and every show hung on the marquee; the names of emerging starlets and famous monsters were resplendently framed in ice-blue and ruby-red electrical current; neon light and the business called show were inextricably joined. In 1931, with the opening of the Paramount, glamour, architecture, light, and style convened in the art deco masterwork of Timothy Pflueger, the architect who also designed the Castro, El Rey, and Alhambratheaters. There could have been no better place on the Pacific Coast to watch the premiere of Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street; indeed, even Berkeley's signature "top shot" technique and his grand dance numbers, which engaged dozens of chorus girls to form the kaleidoscopic patterns and mesmeric geometry of the era, must have paled next to the real-life majesty of Pflueger's creation. Tonight, under the flashing sign and two towering mosaics depicting twin puppeteers, the words "Art Deco Preservation Ball" glow warmly on the marquee. Certainly, I think, the Art Deco Society of Californiacould not hope for a more exquisite setting in which to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

At the ticket booth, a handsome young man in a tuxedo ushers me back to the curb where a line of vintage cars awaits. I bustle into a toffee-colored 1937 Oldsmobile with whitewall tires and gleaming black fenders. Thirty-nine-year-old Roberto Isolagreets me graciously from behind the wheel as I make myself comfortable, which is not difficult: The back seat conjures bygone words like "coach" and "carriage"; it's elegant, and spacious enough for a game of cards. Isola starts the engine, and we roll past the old art deco-era I. Magninbuilding and the beautifully detailed Oakland Floral Depot with its tears of pearly gray glass, to the once-abandoned Fox Theateron Telegraph.

"They light it up every night at 7," Isola says from underneath his driver's cap. "A pretty nice sight."

Art Decadent: Old-school paparazzi photograph guests as they arrive at the Art Deco Preservation Ball.
Paul Trapani
Art Decadent: Old-school paparazzi photograph guests as they arrive at the Art Deco Preservation Ball.

In fact, the "Fox Oakland" sign, which was also designed by Timothy Pflueger, is so brilliantly lit it takes a minute to realize a chain-link fence hangs in front of the dusty entranceway. But the theater is clearly on its way back; the newly restored marquee reads, "Friends of the Oakland Fox," a little thank you to the crusaders who convinced the city of Oakland to begin restoration on the 1928 movie house.

"The sign is the first step," says Isola, who became a member of the Art Deco Society 10 years ago. "It's quite nice to go to a movie theater that makes you feel like you're actually in the movies. That's what's so much fun about tonight. You'll see."

Isola stops in front of the carriage entrance of the Paramount, and another young man opens the car door and offers me his hand. I step out of the automobile, and the mild evening air explodes with flashbulbs and shouting -- old-school paparazzi with old-fashioned cameras jostling for position as I make my way to the door.

"Hey sweets!" shouts a man with a thick Brooklyn accent and a well-thumbed fedora. "How's about a smile for the morning papers?" A flashbulb explodes in my face. "Thanks! You're a doll."

"Sorry about the photographers," says a soft-spoken gentleman inside as he gently takes my coat and indicates a stairway in the lobby that sweeps to our right. "You know how the press can be."

Upstairs, in the mezzanine, exquisitely attired men and women float past exhibits of lithographs created by Stephan, the artist who illustratesthestylish covers for Sophisticate, the ADSC magazine. Over cocktails, the crowd peruses items for silent auction -- four tickets to "Gershwin Night" at the Hollywood Bowl, millinery by the Hat Guys, hand washing by Ideal Cleaners, Franciscan wine, vintage masks by Kai, dinner at Bix, and so on -- and discusses this year's Art Deco Preservation Award winners. Photographs of the winners stand on easels in a portico bathed in amber light just across from the grand staircase: the Fox Theater, the apartment building at 172 Parker St. in San Francisco, the Monterey County Courthouse, the Theatre Del Mar in Santa Cruz, Nevada City City Hall, Don Neely's Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, and Rusty Frank, the dance instructor who wrote and choreographed the stage production of Swing!in Los Angeles. Surrounding the photographs are tables overflowing with succulent hors d'oeuvres; the smell of dark chocolate wafts through the air, mingling with the scent of women's perfume and starched tuxedo shirts; the sound of popping champagne bottles keeps time at the side bar like a decadent metronome. Captivated as I am by the proliferation of satin, feathers, and sparkling beads, it takes me a full hour to realize our luxurious portico is actually the entrance to the Paramount's upstairs restroom. No one seems to mind. In fact, it's perfect: The view from the grand staircase is breathtaking. From the ceiling, sea-green light cascades through a latticework of metal over a multitiered golden pinnacle, which rises over the grand lobby doors. Vermilion columns and amber light descend from the right and left walls, which are accented by white-veined black marble and golden Egyptian figures in bas-relief. In front of the lobby doors, a movable stage is set for the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, and over the orchestra, blocky silver letters spell out, "Always the Best Show in Town."

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