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Deco Raving 

Getting carried away at the 20th anniversary of the Art Deco Society of California

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
The first sight of Oakland's Paramount Theatre at night is dazzling, even if that initial glimpse is an illusory reflection caught in a storefront window on 20th Street. The shimmering albedo of 7,000 feet of neon flashing up and down a 100-foot-tall sign is enough to quicken the blood of any glamour-loving film fan, and for good reason. During the early part of the 20th century, neon light exemplified the dizzying elegance of American cities and ushered in the Golden Age of the Silver Screen. Beginning in the late 1920s, theaters and movie houses across the country created glowing signage for each and every show hung on the marquee; the names of emerging starlets and famous monsters were resplendently framed in ice-blue and ruby-red electrical current; neon light and the business called show were inextricably joined. In 1931, with the opening of the Paramount, glamour, architecture, light, and style convened in the art deco masterwork of Timothy Pflueger, the architect who also designed the Castro, El Rey, and Alhambra theaters. There could have been no better place on the Pacific Coast to watch the premiere of Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street; indeed, even Berkeley's signature "top shot" technique and his grand dance numbers, which engaged dozens of chorus girls to form the kaleidoscopic patterns and mesmeric geometry of the era, must have paled next to the real-life majesty of Pflueger's creation. Tonight, under the flashing sign and two towering mosaics depicting twin puppeteers, the words "Art Deco Preservation Ball" glow warmly on the marquee. Certainly, I think, the Art Deco Society of California could not hope for a more exquisite setting in which to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

At the ticket booth, a handsome young man in a tuxedo ushers me back to the curb where a line of vintage cars awaits. I bustle into a toffee-colored 1937 Oldsmobile with whitewall tires and gleaming black fenders. Thirty-nine-year-old Roberto Isola greets me graciously from behind the wheel as I make myself comfortable, which is not difficult: The back seat conjures bygone words like "coach" and "carriage"; it's elegant, and spacious enough for a game of cards. Isola starts the engine, and we roll past the old art deco-era I. Magnin building and the beautifully detailed Oakland Floral Depot with its tears of pearly gray glass, to the once-abandoned Fox Theater on Telegraph.

"They light it up every night at 7," Isola says from underneath his driver's cap. "A pretty nice sight."

In fact, the "Fox Oakland" sign, which was also designed by Timothy Pflueger, is so brilliantly lit it takes a minute to realize a chain-link fence hangs in front of the dusty entranceway. But the theater is clearly on its way back; the newly restored marquee reads, "Friends of the Oakland Fox," a little thank you to the crusaders who convinced the city of Oakland to begin restoration on the 1928 movie house.

"The sign is the first step," says Isola, who became a member of the Art Deco Society 10 years ago. "It's quite nice to go to a movie theater that makes you feel like you're actually in the movies. That's what's so much fun about tonight. You'll see."

Isola stops in front of the carriage entrance of the Paramount, and another young man opens the car door and offers me his hand. I step out of the automobile, and the mild evening air explodes with flashbulbs and shouting -- old-school paparazzi with old-fashioned cameras jostling for position as I make my way to the door.

"Hey sweets!" shouts a man with a thick Brooklyn accent and a well-thumbed fedora. "How's about a smile for the morning papers?" A flashbulb explodes in my face. "Thanks! You're a doll."

"Sorry about the photographers," says a soft-spoken gentleman inside as he gently takes my coat and indicates a stairway in the lobby that sweeps to our right. "You know how the press can be."

Upstairs, in the mezzanine, exquisitely attired men and women float past exhibits of lithographs created by Stephan, the artist who illustrates the stylish covers for Sophisticate, the ADSC magazine. Over cocktails, the crowd peruses items for silent auction -- four tickets to "Gershwin Night" at the Hollywood Bowl, millinery by the Hat Guys, hand washing by Ideal Cleaners, Franciscan wine, vintage masks by Kai, dinner at Bix, and so on -- and discusses this year's Art Deco Preservation Award winners. Photographs of the winners stand on easels in a portico bathed in amber light just across from the grand staircase: the Fox Theater, the apartment building at 172 Parker St. in San Francisco, the Monterey County Courthouse, the Theatre Del Mar in Santa Cruz, Nevada City City Hall, Don Neely's Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, and Rusty Frank, the dance instructor who wrote and choreographed the stage production of Swing! in Los Angeles. Surrounding the photographs are tables overflowing with succulent hors d'oeuvres; the smell of dark chocolate wafts through the air, mingling with the scent of women's perfume and starched tuxedo shirts; the sound of popping champagne bottles keeps time at the side bar like a decadent metronome. Captivated as I am by the proliferation of satin, feathers, and sparkling beads, it takes me a full hour to realize our luxurious portico is actually the entrance to the Paramount's upstairs restroom. No one seems to mind. In fact, it's perfect: The view from the grand staircase is breathtaking. From the ceiling, sea-green light cascades through a latticework of metal over a multitiered golden pinnacle, which rises over the grand lobby doors. Vermilion columns and amber light descend from the right and left walls, which are accented by white-veined black marble and golden Egyptian figures in bas-relief. In front of the lobby doors, a movable stage is set for the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, and over the orchestra, blocky silver letters spell out, "Always the Best Show in Town."

In the reception room, short speeches are made by this year's award recipients -- including Francis Biglieri, the darling woman who owns, maintains, and lives in 172 Parker St., a building that has been in her family since 1933, and Erma De Lucchi, the woman who bought the Fox to save it from destruction and refused to sell it until she found an owner willing to restore it. "The essence of art deco is elegance," says Society founder Michael Crowe, nodding at the 20-member Deco Belles dance troupe as they slink past in varying shades of hip-clinging satin, "but it's accessible and functional, too. You can use deco utensils and live in deco houses. This tuxedo is from 1939. You can still find beautiful things."

Architect Lisa Kramer saunters by in a floor-length, champagne-colored coat made entirely of ostrich feathers.

"I found it at a flea market in Southern California," says Kramer conspiratorially, "but I won't tell you how much it cost. This is all about illusion and glamour; if you knew, it would ruin it. This is like being one of those women in the movies I used to watch on TV."

"My mother was just like one of those women," says Michael Crowe, whose book, Deco by the Bay, is dedicated to her. "She was born in 1904. ... She created some consternation when she showed up at a family party with her stockings rolled down below her knee. She was quite a sensation."

Patty Gerrie, a longtime ADSC member and proprietor of the Skin Care Forever salon, understands the meaning of sensational. Her knee-length hair took almost two hours to finger wave, braid, and pin, and her gown -- a skirt of peacock feathers topped by a gold-lamé halter -- was custom-designed by Theresa LaQuay. "I really wanted something wild, something that would go against the grain of the Society," says Gerrie with a flourish and a grin. "After the ball, I plan to wear the skirt to work, maybe with a sweat shirt. I could get away with that I think." Seeming to agree, a passing gentleman suddenly lowers himself to one knee and kisses the hem of Gerrie's gown, a compliment on style that Gerrie acknowledges with a demure nod.

As the band strikes up a waltz, the dance floor floods with people, a spinning mélange of starlets and broad-shouldered leading men. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, William Powell, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, any of them would feel right at home here. Between sets, the Deco Belles, clad in shimmering LaQuay gowns of silver and gold, perform a synchronized dance routine that would make Busby Berkeley shed a tear, and the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra plays its specially composed "Paramount Waltz." Rusty Frank gleefully declares that, for her, winning a Preservation Award is better than winning an Academy Award, then launches into a delightful tap-dance routine from 1927. The crowd is invited back to the floor, and the band strikes up a lively rendition of "Black Bottom," the dance the Prince of Wales was banned from performing in public. Laughter, tinkling crystal, and swirling gowns stretch through time and space as everyone awaits a chance at a close-up from Mr. DeMille.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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