180 Essex Street,
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Architects: George W. Leslie Rapp
Firms: Rapp & Rapp
Previous Names: Publix Theater
This Paramount Theater opened on April 19, 1930, originally as a Publix Theater. It was one of the first theaters to feature air conditioning.
The front entryway under the rectangular red and white marquee (Publix’s marquee was black and white) was finished in black marble. The ornate ticket booth was within the covered entryway. The front doors opened into a very long, dark red-carpeted hallway with a dark red velvet rope on stanchions down the center to delineate the traffic flow for patrons arriving and departing. The walls there were lined with occasional glass display cases holding movie posters. At the end of this hallway, a uniformed usher stood collecting tickets.
The hallway led into the theater lobby which was finished in a light green and ivory color scheme. An alternate lobby egress faced St. Peter Street. The manager’s office was at one side of the lobby. There was a large refreshments counter in the lobby as well. The restrooms off the lobby were all finished in tile and marble. Two grand staircases ascended to the balcony. There were five sets of double doors leading into the theater on each level, one for each of the five aisles.
Inside awaited a cavernous theater with 2,187 seats. The decor of the theater was Rococo style, with an intricate and graceful proscenium arch framing the wide stage. The cinemascope screen it held was 85 feet long. The molded ceiling was likewise ornate, as was the ceiling under the balcony in the rear. Speaking of which, the theater had a large balcony with brass railing, which, when the theater first opened, was intended as the smoking section. Later it was opened only for overflow crowds. When a movie was starting, two sets of curtains parted in front of the screen, one after the other, rather than the usual one at most other theaters.
The side walls featured faux boxes in the Rococo style. They were of dimensions that would convince anyone that they were real. These were actually light boxes to illuminate huge murals in the style of the French artist Watteau towering in arches topped by lunnets above the boxes. The two front boxes had velvet draperies instead, creating the illusion that they were seating areas. But they were organ chambers housing the pipes for the great Wurlitzer theater organ on stage. All the wood and plaster–for example, the balcony fascia, boxes, exit doors, proscenium arch, ceiling and other trim were gold.
Regarding lighting, to either side of the two front boxes there were very tall florescent lamps behind ornate frosted/etched glass covers. Along the side walls were sconce lights, and small aisle lights built into the aisle seats at intervals helped patrons see the aisles in the dimness.
This was certainly one of the most beautiful of the Publix (later Paramount) theaters ever built. It was much larger than the lovely art deco Paramount in Boston, and perhaps as or more beautiful. But it died a slow death with the advent of television and the pressure of exhibitors having to high rental fees for films, based on the huge number of seats in large theaters. First-run films became too costly, and reruns diminished the size of audiences further. Thankfully, this grand old dame was never cut up and converted into 10 separate theaters. Its dignity was preserved to the very end. Sadly, it was demolished in around 1971 to make way for a parking garage.
The Paramount Theater could probably have been restored and used as performing arts center. There was a parking lot in back of the theater that would have allowed a significant enlargement of the stage. But urban renewal in that era ruled, and they put the ball to the theater along with other important buildings in the city. Those of us who patronized the Paramount Theater in Salem will never forget the many good times we had there.
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