David Boysel keeps Oakland's Paramount Theatre in mint shape – SFGATE


No matter how many paint dings he patches or seats he repairs, there will always be more to do for David Boysel, the curator and restorationist of Oakland’s 91-year-old Paramount Theatre. 
Boysel has spent the last 34 years keeping the theater in mint condition, a job that requires as much detective work as fabrication skill. But he’s a man well suited to the endless task. On a recent visit to the art deco palace, as I was mesmerized by gleaming golden statues, towering fountains of lights and luxurious antique furniture, Boysel was busy scanning for imperfections. 
“I won’t be able to unsee that,” Boysel muttered every time he spotted a bit of chipped paint or a fingerprint smudge on a lacquered mural. “That’s going to bug me until I come back and fix it.”
Restoration expert David Boysel stands inside the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Nov. 14. Boysel’s meticulous work helps renovate and upkeep the theater to be as historically accurate as possible.
Boysel grew up in Ohio, where he began to assemble the wide range of skills he’d eventually need as a restorationist, including classes in woodworking and commercial art. His first job after moving to the Bay Area in 1978 was hanging cabinets; he quickly gravitated toward vintage kitchen remodeling, which helped him expand his knowledge of classic building materials. It also, serendipitously, led to his current career. 
“I was working on a historic house in the East Bay hills. The owners happened to be a friend of the Paramount’s manager. He was having a hard time finding people to do the kind of work he wanted. He was very exacting. So I came one summer 34 years ago, to do a little touch-up here and there,” Boysel said, the thought trailing off as he strolled through a gently curving corridor lined with furniture, paintings, sconces and carvings he’s kept looking flawless for decades. 
Since being revived in 1973 after suffering decades of decay, the theater has hosted dozens of events a year. Bob Marley, Prince, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, “The Nutcracker” and “Cats” have all graced the sweeping main stage. Over the years, it’s also been used for political rallies, religious gatherings and naturalization ceremonies, celebrating immigrants who have attained American citizenship. That’s a lot of wear and tear for Boysel to mitigate. But without fail, whenever some paint starts peeling or a roof starts leaking, he’s there to arrest the damage before it spreads.
Since his tenure as curator began in 1988, Boysel has tackled projects ranging from painstakingly reapplying “acres” of imitation gold leaf along hundreds of yards of ceiling trim to the never-ending task of scraping gum off the theater’s 2,996 seats. He often works alone and in the dark because the electric bill is a constant concern in a building with thousands of lights.
His work is the key to the Paramount’s dazzling authenticity, allowing generations of theatergoers to fully embrace the sensation of being transported back in time when they step into the cavernous lobby, which glows like a Jazz Age rainforest. And yet, you’ll never see Boysel in the spotlight. After all, the goal of even his most ambitious work is to be invisible.
“The trick is not leaving an imprint,” Boysel said. “You shouldn’t walk through here and think that I was involved.” 
The interior main lobby and fountain of light are seen at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Nov. 14.
The Paramount was originally built by the theater division of Paramount Pictures as an oasis of escapism in the earliest days of the Great Depression. The studio commissioned a design from revered San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, who also built the iconic (but much smaller) Castro Theatre, and broke ground in 1930 with a golden shovel. Pflueger’s grand design took one year, five days and $3 million to build, or about $61 million today. 
When the Paramount debuted in December 1931, it wasn’t only a smorgasbord of visual delights. It was a technological marvel as well. Pflueger’s design was so innovative that he earned two patents over the course of the project: one for the “silvery metal fins” of galvanized iron that make up the theater’s ceiling and another for his pioneering use of illuminated columns, which look like frosted glass but are really made of overlapping sheets of aluminum, to light the stage. 
The auditorium is seen from the stage at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Nov. 14. 
The natural acoustics of the space can carry voices from the stage all the way to the nosebleed seats with little need for amplification, allowing the theater to host both films and vaudeville-style performances. Pflueger also employed a record-breaking 105-ton steel girder to hold up the balcony, eliminating vertical support beams that might block patrons’ views. (The piece was so heavy it had to be rolled on logs from the waterfront shipyard to the construction site on Broadway.) 
When the venue opened to the public, promotional materials heralded it as “a castle of splendor.” For the inaugural gala, tuxedo-clad parking valets and a platoon of ushers greeted throngs of attendees, including Hollywood celebrities and politicians. A neon-lit marquee featuring a tile mosaic towered 120 feet above the streets of downtown Oakland, enticing would-be viewers to part with a few quarters in exchange for a couple of hours of entertainment in a posh setting. 
The ceiling of the entryway to the women’s smoking room and powder room at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland is seen on Nov. 14.
Patrons were greeted by engravings of Greek gods and goddesses and chandeliers shaped like inverted ziggurats. Those paying close attention were rewarded with endless playful details. The air vent in the ladies’ room, for instance, features musical notes that appear backward — until they’re seen reflected in the makeup mirror. 
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Despite the movie studio’s best efforts to market the theater, the Great Depression soon made even pocket change too much to splurge on a ticket. The theater went dark by the end of 1932, reopening a few months later without live entertainment, just films. For the next several decades, the Paramount’s fortunes rose and fell with economic trends and technological disruptions. As ticket sales plummeted in the 1950s, a result of suburbanization and the rise of television, managers resorted to desperate measures to cut costs. 
“They would unscrew the light bulbs,” leaving the theater unpleasantly dark, according to Boysel, “which led to a joke that if you were coming to the Paramount, you should bring your own miner’s helmet.”  
Curator and restorationist David Boysel looks through his file cabinet of the renovations he has overseen at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Nov. 14.
In the early 1970s, when historical movie palaces across the nation were either being demolished or renovated beyond recognition, the Paramount’s salvation came from a surprising place: the Oakland Symphony, which was looking for a new home. 
Although the building was in shambles, the symphony’s executive director Jack Bethards decided it would be cheaper to restore the Paramount than to build a new theater from scratch. Art deco was not in vogue in the early 1970s, according to Boysel, but Bethards fought hard for his vision of authentic restoration.
“People didn’t take movie palace architecture seriously. It was considered kind of a sham. I think Mr. Pflueger’s local fame had a lot to do with why it was saved,” Boysel told me. Thankfully, Bethards’ determination staved off some truly horrific potential outcomes. “One big donor refused to give money because they wanted the building to be painted red, white and blue inside,” Boysel said with a grimace. 
David Boysel works on the Paramount Theatre in Oakland in the months after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
With a budget of just $1 million, Bethards’ team aimed for historical authenticity, including replacing threadbare carpets and tattered curtains with perfect replicas. In addition to restoring everything that had been destroyed or stolen, the crew also had to strip away a thick layer of grime that had accumulated on nearly every surface in the massive building.
“They had been selling cigarettes at the concession stand, and the popcorn machine was belching oil into the air for decades,” Boysel explained. “That combination was like having shellac all over everything.”
Some of the repair work performed by David Boysel on the Paramount Theatre in Oakland in the months after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is seen.
Behind the walls lay other challenges, like clearing titanic wads of popcorn and cigarette butts from “miles” of pipes connecting to the central vacuum system. Hoses can be connected to small “portholes” throughout the building, all feeding into an enormous vent deep within the theater’s bowels. According to Boysel, the now popcorn-free vacuum is so powerful it can’t be operated at full throttle, for fear of sucking tacks out of the carpet.
During the grand reopening on Sept. 22, 1973, the symphony’s hopes for a downtown renaissance were high. But, once again, a spectacular theater was not enough to lure crowds sufficient to offset the building’s high operating costs. Although the Paramount was beloved by those who attended performances, the struggling symphony quickly realized it had to unload its gilded albatross. In 1975, it transferred ownership to the city of Oakland for $1 in exchange for 40 years of free rent. The Paramount has been managed by a nonprofit on behalf of the city ever since.  
The entryway to the women’s smoking room and powder room at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland is pictured on Nov. 14.
When Boysel first came to the Paramount in 1988, he primarily focused on projects that the 1973 restoration team didn’t have time or money to tackle, like having custom light fixtures fabricated to replace ones that had been chipped or cracked. These days, though, he’s mostly occupied with mitigating the natural wear and tear that comes along with operating a performance venue and battling the mundane entropy that threatens any historical structure. 
For the restoration projects he can’t complete on his own, Boysel tries to use local craftspeople whenever possible. Over the years, he’s built up a network of glassblowers, metalworkers and other specialists. 
Theater restoration expert David Boysel shows a carpet he recreated from a vintage photograph he found at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Nov. 14.
“We’ve had furniture reproduced in a shop just a few blocks away,” he told me. “The lady who’s done curtain-making for me is here in the East Bay. I’ve had some fabric custom-printed in San Francisco. The upholstery shop that we use today is the same upholstery shop that did the work in 1973. They’re in their second generation of working for us.”
Occasionally, Boysel has to reach beyond the Bay Area for materials. When the lobby bar was being remodeled, he purchased “a few hundred feet” of chrome from a company that primarily makes trim for semitrucks. 
The women’s powder room in the mezzanine at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland is pictured on Nov. 14.
“I thought my request would be unusual, but it turned out they’ve also sold a lot of chrome to Las Vegas casinos,” Boysel recalled with a chuckle. 
Boysel will soon be festooning the theater with holiday decorations, an annual tradition at the Paramount. And he’s planning to keep doing it for many years in the future — at the moment, there’s no one training to fill his shoes someday. 
“People say they’d like to work with me, but they usually last about a day,” he told me. “Once they’re scraping gum off the floor, they realize it’s not very glamorous.” 
That hidden labor may not be sexy, but the result is something truly spectacular: an immersive masterpiece that lets anyone feel, for a brief moment, like a star from Hollywood’s golden era. 
The refurbished green room is located near the stage at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, pictured on Nov. 14.
For those wishing to learn more about the Paramount, check the theater’s website for a listing of upcoming tour dates.

Liam O’Donoghue is the creator and host of the East Bay Yesterday podcast. You can find information about the show and his upcoming events/tours at eastbayyesterday.com.

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