Paramount Theater

180 Essex Street,
Salem, MA 01970

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Paramount Theatre, Salem MA, 1940 premiere of The Scarlet Letter

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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.

Contributed by David April

Recent comments (view all 17 comments)

DApril on October 29, 2007 at 12:37 pm

Here is the link to an article describing the current installation with picture of the Paramount’s Wurlitzer #2121 in Jerry Gould’s barn studio in Maple Valley, WA. The article also lists the instrument sounds available in this huge theater organ.

View link

JonMontgomery on November 25, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Hi Dave1, You are absoulutely correct about “Midnight Cowboy” being the last film ever shown at the Paramount because thats where I saw it. I also remember that there were only a handful of people in the theater at the time. Kind of sad when you think about it. I remember the admission price was very cheap at the time (probably an attempt to entice more patrons but it didnt work). All I could think of was how sad it was that this movie was the theaters swan song as it closed for good after this run. I can remember that night it was raining heavily and there were buckets in a few spots where the ceiling was leaking. We knew James Fields was the manager because if you remember, his office was opposite the candy counter and his name was on the door with a bronze plate. Also, I can remember going to the Paramount on saturdays during the day when they played horror movies. I can remember watching classics like “The Horror of Dracula” with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing or “The Premature Burial” or “Black Sunday”, stuff like that. The 3 theaters in Salem at the time seem to compete for the best horror movies.

DApril on December 11, 2007 at 9:03 pm

Hi Jon,

Probably the only more fitting movie for the closing would have been “The Last Picture Show”. I was living in Norwood at the time and had no knowledge of the closing. Otherwise, I would have driven to Salem with my wife to see the last movie. As a matter of fact, we had our first date there around 1963. The movie then was the comedy “Bachelor Flat” with Terry Thomas. I just happened to be in Salem shortly after the demolition. Driving down Church Street, I couldn’t believe my eyes! I got out of the car and stood where the theater had been. There was not even a brick left on the ground as a

souvenir. Now it’s just a memory. Speaking of Saturday matinees, where I was 10 or so and went to the Paramount with my friends, tickets for kids under 12 were 25 cents! Yes, I do recall the manager’s office directly across from the lobby exits facing St. Peter Street, and next to the left side grand staircase to the balcony when entering from the foyer. I believe that once James Field left, Phil Bloomberg became the theater manager. In the end, in the name of urban renewal, the Paramount was torn down—all for a parking garage that stood mostly empty for years thereafter. Ironically, the wrecking company went bankrupt trying to take the theater down. They had previously knocked down the much older Federal Theater (a vaudeville house), which dropped like a house of cards I’m told. The Paramount was steel reinforced, which made it a far more difficult project, thus the huge cost overruns.

DApril on March 30, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Here is a link to a photo from March 21, 1940 showing the marquee of the Paramount Theatre in Salem, MA during the premier of “The House of Seven Gables”.

View link

Bill L
Bill L on November 26, 2010 at 11:01 am

Dave, I reply belatedly, what a great photo. Everyone wishes the city had the foresight to preserve the Paramount and create a county arts center, as would have happened today. Facing the sidewalk were two insert poster frames. Facing inward toward the box office were two 40X60 frames. Field’s office was to the left of the candy stand. A new white marquee was installed around 1957. Another irony is that the current CinemaSalem 3-plex stands near where the Paramount’s men’s/smoking room was. The screen was very large and curved with a red traveler curtain.

Bill L
Bill L on November 26, 2010 at 11:08 am

I was apprenticing as a projectionist the last year of the Paramount’s operation. I was trained by Harold Hunt, the last surviving charter member of IATSE Local 245. Harold opened the Paramount and was there for its entire run. He was a real gentleman. Ironically, he didn’t run the last show; he was away for a family funeral. That show of Midnight Cowboy was run by Frank Halloran, over from the GCC Northshore in Peabody. The Paramount had two Simplex XL projectors and Strong arc lamphouses plus a stereopticon machine they’d used for song lyrics during organ performances. I heard the organ as a kid, played by Frank Simpson.

DApril on December 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Hi Bill,

Thanks for commenting on this tread. Back in the 60s came the urban renewal frenzy. Salem lost the Paramount and the castle-like train depot. Everyone who recalls them wishes them back today, but sadly it’s too late. I think you’re right—today those treasures would have been preseved and creative uses would have been found. How well I recall the poster frames you mention. Inside the long lobby there were poster frames and illuminated advertizing displays built into the walls. Pickering
Oil had a display there for years. I recall that on stage there were two curtains, the traveler curtain you mention which opened first, followed by a more sheer curtain that opened next. At the Plaza and E.M. Loew’s Salem, I can’t recall stage curtains there. I believe those screens were exposed from the moment you entered the auditoriums. So the double-curtain setup at the Paramount was unique. Everything at the Paramount was a touch of class, even as the old dame neared her demise.

DApril on December 8, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Hi Bill,

That information on Harold Hunt, the projectionist, is great information. So often the projectionist, who runs the whole show, is, ironically, hidden away and often unknown. This information adds to the history of the theater along with your description of the projection room equipment. In all the movies I saw at the Paramount as a kid or adult, there was never a single projection mishap, so he was obviously a master of his trade. In having to be absent from “the last picture show”, I’ll bet that the Paramount days live all the more vividly in his mind. Yes, I too attended a couple of Frank Simpson’s organ recitals. Those massive contra-bass organ pipes could sure shake the walls of the theater! Evidently, there was another organist there, Thomas Smith, but I never heard him play. The organ chambers were behind the drapes in the arches of the two front opera boxes on the side walls. A classmate of mine told me that he had worked part-time for the organ tuner, and mentioned that there were no doorways or stairs leading up to those boxes. So they had to access the boxes using ladders raised from the orchestra level.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on December 8, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I wish theatres had talented men like Harold Hunt,but if he saw a booth today,he would probably walk out.A so-called projectionist today has never heard of carbon-arcs or a change over!And I don’t think progress is always good.Automation has put a lot of good people out of work.

DApril on December 8, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Hi Mike

I notice too that when you have to go to a shoebox cinema these days, the movie soundtrack is usually about 90 decibels too high. That’s because the automated projector doesn’t know the difference. The projectionist in former times made sure that the sound track was at a comfortable listening level. Progress!

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