Paramount Theatre’s Fire Curtain Discovered – April 15, 1975
The date was April 15, 1975. It was very late at night when myself, and my two partners, Charles Eckerman and Steven Scott, were working, double time, to try and clean up a mess of popcorn boxes, candy wrappers and Coke containers after the final movie showing by Interstate Theatres. Our custodians, Otis and Willie, were also busting a gut. We were about to re-open under new management in about 18 hours. That very night, around 5pm, we would be showing the classic dance film, Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In other words, the general public was going to be walking in the front doors of the Paramount, and soon.
Have you ever tried to clean up a building with a half million cubic feet in 12 hours and be ready for business with 5 guys? At least we got the bulk of the junk and crap off the floor. The theatre is dimly lit, thankfully. Thus, not many people could see peeling paint, water marks on walls that showed rain leaks, carpet runners that would absorb you if you fell down like in a sci fi movie, worn out seat covers and a lot more. Oh, your butt could feel worn out stuffing and springs in the seats which, if one weighed a bit too much, might erupt like a mini Pompeii, rearranging your anatomy along the way.
The Paramount wasn’t the only “historic theatre” in disrepair in the country or the world for that matter. Interstate Theatres had given up any semblance of maintenance of the old girl when losses began to mount faster than a cowboy high tailing it out of Dodge with the law on his trail.
Did I mention it was hard to see? Grand theatres like the Paramount maintain the illusion of grandeur long after the last hurrah was a distant echo. So, there we were, all hunched over, picking up a lot of litter, doing our best to make her presentable to theatre goers who had long since forgotten her, or, in many cases, had never even been inside the theatre. You have to have a delicate movie palate to enjoy the nuance and subtleties of Bruce Lee Kung Fu movies.
Needing to take a break from my new role as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I went backstage to find some peace in the relative dark of fantasyland. The main drape was “in” which meant it was closed. I was able to flit from here to there unseen by human eyes. I suddenly realized that it was very dark and very quiet in that stage house. It smelled of mildewed drapes, rotting from age, a lack of use and dust. I’m taking a lot of dust!
Being an actor, I became aware of what it must have been like, back in the Vaudeville days, to be on that stage with Katheryn Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, or Houdini or Cab Calloway and on and on. I had done enough research to know a goodly portion of the names of the stars that had played the Paramount on the Interstate Theatre Circuit owned and operated by Karl Hoblitzelle of Dallas. Karl and his circuit was a powerhouse in the country featuring as many as 150 theatres. RKO, Paramount Pictures and Cecil B. DeMille paid homage to Mr. Hoblitzelle as did scores of others in the Hollywood movie industry.
What happened next is hard for another person to believe as it falls in the realm of the paranormal or supernatural – territory with which most people are uncomfortable and naysayers to put it mildly.
I could feel the spirit of all of those legendary actors and musicians as if they were right in front of me. Even as I write these words, chills are going up my spine in to my brain, like an electrical circuit going back and forth. I wouldn’t say I could “see them”. It was, however, something must more visceral. I could feel them, so thick was the spirit of so many souls, giving everything they had to give as mortal human beings to entertain their audience, night after night, train station after train station. When you empty your soul for an audience, believe me, it stays right where you left it for that matinee. All of the spirits of all of the performers and the stage crews was as thick as heavenly taffy minus the sticky part.
Overcome by the burst of human emotion present in every square inch of the stage, I started to walk to get a grip on myself. There’s nothing like walking on a wood stage in the dark for a natural showman to give a guy a big, juicy dose of reality.
I started checking out the rigging and fly rail. My other two partners had no theatrical background so my mutterings and fascination with the hemp rope, sand bags, battens, drapes, electrical switches that looked like something out of Frankenstein’s play room would count for nothing.
There was an unspoken rule that all stage hands knew by osmosis: you never whistle backstage. Way back in the late 19th century, stage riggers were actually sailors who rigged the big four master ships for one country or another. If you started to whistle a jaunty tune, it might signal that a rigger up on top of the grid might bring in a line. That’s stage speak for a 42’ long, heavy metal pipe coming toward your cranium with abandon to knock you on the head. Once knocked on the “boggin”, you wouldn’t need to worry about working for a living because you wouldn’t be in that category!
Earlier, I had found a light switch and through it. Turns out there were about 4 sections of “X-Ray” type lights situated in a trough, downstage, acting as “footlights”. This was how most acts were lit in the old days. X-Rays have individual bulbs – red, blue and white. And, they are bright. Having them on the deck, shining upwards, illuminated the act so that anyone in the theatre could see quite clearly, even in the nose bleed seats way at the top of the balcony. These footlights also created a kind of eerie effect that one could almost called “garish” on the faces of the performers, due to the up angle of the lights. At least it added some light to the auditorium for the cleanup which was still in progress.
As I communed with the fly rail, I floated to the electrical panel to see what kind of power we had backstage for a future lighting system. I looked to the left for some reason. I could see a metal cable vanishing upwards in to the dark. Straining my eyes, I could just make out the bottom of what looked like some kind of “drop”. That is a theatre term of a set piece which “flies in”, down to the stage deck. Many times it is a part of the scenery of a play. It could have been an “oleo curtain” from Vaudeville. These were lowered so that an “act” could perform in front of it while scenery for the next act was being changed out behind it. Then, it would be flown out and, voila, a new set and a new show. It was common for these oleo curtains to feature advertisements of local businesses in addition to some type of painting – usually of a pastoral nature.
I was grinding away in my head as to what to do or not do. You didn’t just pull on cables in a stage house, willie nillie. My curiosity got the better of me. I started to pull down on the cable.
There was an instantaneous and loud chorus of “Wow” and “God” and “Magnificent” and on and on. Then, someone shouted, “John, get out here right now”. I did a fast walk in the dark to the fire door to the steps to the auditorium and emerged in to a surreal moment in time where everything stopped like in a dream sequence in an Ingmar Bergman film.
There, filling the entire proscenium arch, was this stunning “fire curtain” with a sumptuous pastoral scene, colors still resplendent due to the absence of sunlight.
I’ll digress for a moment before continuing. A fire curtain was so named because it was made out of asbestos. Here’s the way it would work. It was not uncommon in the day for a fire to break out backstage. Some of these were caused by actual footlights that were like small kerosene lanterns before the days of electricity. A fire could be caused by some special effect in a show or any other number of reasons. If the fire got hot enough, it would melt a “wax coupling” at the cable for the fire curtain, causing the curtain to drop to the stage in seconds. This sealed the stage off from the audience so that the fire would be contained out of sight. There was another reason, far more ominous. A panic could result in people being trampled or even killed by a stampede for the exits to avoid a fire. That is a theatre manager’s greatest fear.
Chuck, Steve, Otis, Willie and me lowered our astonished persons in to some seats near the apron of the stage and just marveled at what was before us. I think we had a couple of friends with us to like Bill Schreiber who was a very short term member of Paramount, Inc. He bailed in the first couple of months when it became clear we could not operate the theatre at a profit. It is more than likely that the fire curtain had been in the flown position for 15-20 years or even longer. It was not in use as the Paramount became a full time movie theatre by the early 1950’s. The only crew member was in the projection booth running the carbon arc film projectors. No one was backstage during a film.
I think I can speak for all of us. That was the exact moment in time when the Paramount introduced herself to us in dramatic fashion. It was truly awe inspiring as it represented a golden age of entertainment history, long gone with the construction of sterile, modern performing arts auditoriums and drag, vacuous multi-purpose venues like the old Municipal Auditorium which could move from concert set up to boat show, overnight.
We really didn’t need much more inspiration, so committed were we to the herculean task that laid before us – to resurrect the Paramount from the wrecking ball to shine, once again, in all her glory for new generations and a legion of new stars of every type imaginable.
She would go on to tantalize and amaze, for decades to come, with her delicious architectural design, brilliant plaster designs, colorful stenciling, art deco chandeliers, a vaulted ceiling in the 2nd lobby that borrowed from the Sistine Chapel in Rome with its decade’s old patina and those 500,000 cubic feet of space that embraced movie patrons and live entertainment ticket buyers by the hundreds of thousands.
The Paramount was awakened that night. She will forever be shimmering to play with the imagination of what a bygone era was really like but would be alive, in the present and future, to the enrichment of all who grace her presence.
VAUDEVILLE OLEO CURTAIN