The Paramount Theater (1621 Glenarm Place, Denver) is the best-known Art Deco design of architect Temple Hoyne Buell. Buell created this 1930 palace as the most ornate of all Colorado movie theaters and a gem in the coast-to-coast chain of exuberant movie houses planted by Paramount Publix. Like grand downtown move theaters everywhere, it struggled with the advent of television and digital entertainment. Closed and facing possible demolition, it was rescued by National Register of Historic Places and Denver landmark designations. Historic Denver, Inc., purchased the theater in 1981 and began restoration. Kroenke Sports and Entertainment purchased the Paramount in 2002 and continues to operate it as a performance center for concerts and other events.
During the giddy 1920s, theaters became a primary social gathering place, a great escape into an air-conditioned fantasy world at a time when A/C was a refreshing novelty. Theaters were inexpensive and open to all, though for people of color that might mean sitting in the balcony. Whereas opera houses had once been the prime venue and boast of a town, now every city and even smaller towns had to have a colorful, often Art Deco–style, movie theater on main street. As Hollywood blossomed, many independent live theaters and old opera houses switched to movies to pump up attendance. The big Hollywood studios—Paramount, MGM, RKO, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers—also built their own chains of theaters. Paramount had more than 1,000 across the country.
In Denver, Curtis Street had been the city’s brightly lit theater district since the Tabor Grand Opera House opened at Sixteenth and Curtis Streets in 1880. It once boasted more than a dozen live theaters. By the 1920s, they were fading as modern movie places sprang up on Sixteenth Street along with a dozen neighborhood movie houses around town.
Denver’s Paramount Theater was the grandest of the movie palaces to open on Sixteenth. It was designed by Temple Hoyne Buell, then working with the theater design firm of C. W. and George L. Rapp, the nation’s foremost movie-palace architects. Buell made it a superb example of zigzag Art Deco, a style introduced by the Paris Exhibition of 1925 and characterized by sharp angular or curvilinear forms, flat roofs, shiny glazed surfaces, and sleek design. Inside and out, the Paramount displays exquisite Art Deco craftsmanship and ornamentation. Construction cost about $450,000, not including elaborate interior work added by Paramount Publix in a profusion of Art Deco designs, textures, and colors.
The Paramount was originally intertwined with the older Kittredge Building next door, which housed the theater’s grand, two-story entrance lobby on Sixteenth Street. Around the corner on Glenarm Place, the theater’s main facade consists of three stories of precast concrete block sheathed in glistening white glazed terra cotta trimmed with black marble. Julius Peter Ambrusch, a noted Austrian-born painter and sculptor, handled the theater’s terra-cotta work with the Denver Terra Cotta Company. Twelve bays of paired windows are framed by ornate moldings with recurrent motifs of rosettes, leaves, feathers, and fiddlehead ferns. Narrow vertical rows of concrete blocks create an arrowhead pattern crowning the ends of the building.
The Italian artist Vincent Mondo decorated theaters in the Paramount chain, covering every paintable surface with fantastic colors and designs. In the Denver theater’s cavernous interior, scarcely a surface goes undecorated. Inside, the surviving lobby leads both to an upstairs balcony and to the main floor, with a total of 1,200 seats. The sixty-five-foot-high auditorium ceiling has a huge sunburst pattern with rays flung far across its barrel vault. In the middle of the sun hangs a one-ton chandelier equipped with 100 light bulbs attached to an octagonal platform, a favorite Art Deco shape. Other twinkling light bulbs are scattered across the ceiling, creating a starry sky. An intricate system of color lights could be matched to the mood of the movie. The auditorium walls are covered by exquisite floor-to-ceiling silk tapestries featuring commedia dell'arte characters such as Harlequin, Pierrot, and Pierette. The basement contains the original ammonia air-conditioning system outlawed soon after the theater opened.
The Movie Years
The Paramount’s grand opening on August 29, 1930, was marked by planes flying overhead promoting the event. Some 20,000 people showed up. The Denver Post claimed that the Paramount attracted “the largest assemblage that ever greeted the opening of a playhouse.” Jeanette MacDonald, the leading lady of the opening feature, Let’s Go Native, sent a large bouquet, which she claimed to have handpicked.
For silent films, which depended on organ accompaniment, the Paramount boasted a custom $80,000 Public One Wurlitzer organ with twin consoles. The organ’s 1,600 pipes had names such as Tuba Mirablis, Dulcinana, Fat Flutes, and Viol Celeste. Its encyclopedic keyboard could produce sound effects ranging from thundering hoofbeats to the heavy breathing of a steam locomotive. The twin consoles rose dramatically to the stage on a lift from the orchestra pit, which also harbored twelve musicians. Today the restored organ remains one of the largest, most intact, and functional of its kind.
The Great Depression drove the Paramount into bankruptcy in 1933. Twentieth Century Fox subsequently ran the theater until Denver movie mogul Harris P. Wolfberg, president of Wolfberg Theaters, purchased the lease in 1948 for more than $5 million. Wolfberg spent some $30,000 remodeling the theater, including the addition of a thirty-eight-foot-long and ten-foot-high marquee facing Glenarm Place. During these years, movies were often accompanied by local talent. In 1952, for example, Bugles in the Afternoon, starring Ray Milland, included acts by local comedian Willie Shore interspersed with music by Mike DiSalle’s Top O’ The Park Orchestra.
Of a dozen downtown Denver movie palaces, the Paramount is the sole survivor. Like all the other picture palaces, it seemed doomed to demolition by suburbanization, television, modern multiplexes, and home videos. The Paramount never completely shut down, but it did go through long naps. To keep the shows going, the Friends of the Paramount formed in 1978 and began holding fundraising events at the theater. In 1980 the Paramount was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A year later, Historic Denver, Inc., bought the theater and undertook its restoration through a subsidiary, the Historic Paramount Foundation. The rebirth of Sixteenth Street as a pedestrian mall in 1982 brought new attention and foot traffic to the area, but the venue still spent more time closed than open. Denver Landmark designation came in 1988, and the theater benefited from a broader revival of downtown Denver in the 1990s.
Since 2002 the Paramount has been a part of Stan Kroenke’s professional sports, television, real estate, and entertainment empire. Kroenke has been the cure for the Paramount’s financial ailments. The reborn Paramount now hosts more than 100 performances a year, primarily concerts by big-name musicians.