The beautiful Art Deco style Paramount Theatre, located on Glenarm Place adjoining the Sixteenth Street Mall, is a survivor of the golden age of motion picture “wonder theaters”, when simply going to the movies meant stepping into a world of glamour. Now converted to a live performance venue, the Paramount Theatre nevertheless retains its vintage style. The richly detailed “zigzag”-style terracotta exterior survives, and the gilded decorations and fanciful murals that adorn the interior have been restored. The theatre also contains a rare Wurlitzer pipe organ, which provided early film audiences not only with music but with sound effects such as train whistles and galloping horses.
Construction began on downtown Denver’s Paramount Theatre in
1929, and the theatre opened to the public in 1930. It was the era when silent
films were giving way to “talkies” and the Roaring Twenties to the Great
Depression. At the time, many movie theatres were owned and operated by the
studios in Hollywood, and the Paramount was built as part of the Paramount
Pictures-owned Publix chain. (Studio
ownership of theatre chains was later successfully challlenged under anti-trust
laws in the 1940s).
In 1925, the Publix chain (formerly Famous Players/Lasky) merged with the Balaban and
Katz theatre chain in Chicago. Denver’s Paramount and other Paramount “wonder theatres”
across the country were modelled on Balaban and Katz’s flagship theatre in
Chicago. The “wonder theatre”, with its lavish appointments and live music, enveloped movie patrons in an atmosphere more
evocative of Hollywood high life than of their workaday lives.
Denver’s Paramount is credited to the celebrated Denver
architect Temple Hoyne Buell along wth the Chicago firm of Rapp and Rapp,
builders of the original Balaban and Katz “wonder theatre”. An example of the
bold “zigzag” version of Art Deco, the theatre’s terra cotta exterior was
crafted by the Denver Terra Cotta Company; on the façade, sleek geometric forms
are contrasted with intricately detailed panels incorporting feathers, ferns,
and other organic motifs, the work of Denver Terra Cotta sculptor Joseph Ambrusch.
The grand opening of Denver’s Paramount Theatre on August
29, 1930 reportedly drew 20,000 people.
The opening featured showings of “Let’s Go Native”, a musical comedy
starring Jeannette MacDonald. The choice of a musical for the opening showed
just how quickly the motion picture business was changing, as the theatre had
originally been designed with silent films in mind. The theatre’s Wurlitzer twin-console organ was
designed to provide sound effects as well as music to accompany the images on
the screen. Along with its “sister” in Radio City Music Hall in New York, it is
one of the largest installed in an American theatre.
In later decades, the Paramount was threatened with
demolition, but was saved by a group known as Friends of the Paramount. It was
added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Converted to a venue
for live musical performances, it remains one of the most popular and most
elegant performance spaces in Denver.