Paramount On Parade
By Jon Carroll

Listen to Jim Riggs

Paramount October 16, 1995 — The Paramount Theatre in Oakland is like the world's best haunted house. Not that it's actually haunted (to my knowledge, anyway); not that it's a house. Nevertheless.

Of course, because I am a connoisseur of fine art deco interior decoration, I know that the Paramount is also a splendid example of ornate, rococo, gaudy, let's-go-nuts-in-public decorative art, fully and lovingly restored and ornamental as all get-out, and that is important to me.

But basically, it's the world's best haunted house.

There are tunnels, trapdoors, secret doors, crawl spaces, catwalks, hidden stairs, doors that open into nothingness, props of uncertain function, great infernal machines with more gears and levers and wires than the mind can absorb, underground corridors, concrete mazes, surprises around every corner.

In here, for instance, this great green machine in the underground room next to the room where they keep the blanketed marimbas, is the Spencer Turbine, a device the size of a Yugo that supplies the wind that drives the air through the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.

And if you go up one level and across the stage, and squeeze into a narrow atrium behind one of the molded aluminum pillars that rise four stories, forming the sides of the proscenium arch, and sort of swing your legs around and climb a narrow ladder, you can get to the room (one of the rooms, in truth) that actually houses the organ pipes.

The pipes stand in rows like long trumpets, bells upward, looking like those instruments hung with banners that are played in movies when kings walk into throne rooms. The pipes are arranged by size; at their bases are various noise-making devices.

"Think of them as big tin whistles," said Jim Riggs, my guide. Riggs is a theater organist by profession and an old-movie-theater buff by avocation. He agreed to take me around, in part so I would be sure to mention the October 27 showing of the silent movie version of "Phantom of the Opera," featuring Jim Riggs at the organ, starting at 8 p.m. at the Paramount.

Give me free rein in the world's best haunted house; get a plug. Journalism is a dirty business.

There are many interesting things to know about the inner workings of a pipe organ, but you won't learn about them here because it's time to use the underground corridor and go into the lobby and climb four flights of gorgeously carpeted stairs, gawking all the way, then through an artfully concealed door and up another narrow flight of stairs to the projection room.

There are eight projectors in the projection room (the Paramount movie programs also involve cartoons, short subjects, newsreels of varying vintages, meaning various sorts of projectors are required); they look like death ray machines aimed at the stage.

Through another secret door and higher even than the projection room is the light well above the ceiling of the theater proper. The light well is a huge room with a catwalk down one side, most of its "floor" occupied by galvanized tin strips suspended from the low ceiling (the real ceiling, as it were; the ceiling above the ceiling) by dozens of guy wires, riveted into sundry swirly shapes and lit by banks of lights. If you look down through the curlicues, you can see the seats, infinitely tiny, far below.

Wait! It's time to go all the way back down to the orchestra pit and climb aboard the mighty Wurlitzer and watch Jim Riggs fool with the four keyboards and the vast array of buttons and levers and suddenly begin playing "Paramount on Parade" as he and the organ and you rise silently out of the pit so that suddenly the full magnificence of the Paramount comes into view like a morning sun.

Jim Riggs pushes a lever and suddenly an entire percussion section — bass drum, kettle drum, cymbals, crash cymbals, jazz cymbals — kicks in, and he plays a fanfare, and the organ stops noiselessly flush with the stage and we have suddenly gone to heaven.