7. The Paramount Theater and Convention Hall

Part 1

 

Several remarkable places epitomize Asbury Park. The Paramount Theater and Convention Hall are two such places - or maybe one such place. It's a matter of opinion whether we're taking about one building or two. I like to think of them as two places in one building separated by an arcade (the arcade being yet a third division). And what a building it is! - a gargantuan ship of a place that crosses the boardwalk and juts into the waves. This fascinating building was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects who designed New York's Grand Central Station, the Biltmore Hotel and many other terminals and hotels of repute.

Image 1.7.1. This photo, looking south, shows the Paramount Theater (with the tower) and the Convention Hall, which juts out onto the beach. Between them, and joining them, is the Arcade. (Nearer to the foreground, incidentally, are the Sunset Avenue Pavilion and the bridge that used to lead to it from the Berkeley Carteret Hotel.) This photo appears to have been taken from a corner window in the Monterey Hotel.

I define the exterior of the building as Venetian Deco. Its sand-colored colonnades, its red bricks frosted with medallions, garlands, symbolic and nautical figures; its iridescent tapestry effects and sundry compilation of windows, pilasters and arches; its lantern and torch spires of sea-weathered copper, all contrive to enthrall and transport. This is a place that is in the world but not entirely of it. It reflects "Somewhere Else." The heart begins to race.

Image 2.7.1. The Arcade section, looking south, between the Paramount Theater and Convention Hall. Note the assortment of architectural embellishments, including the copper ship.

 

The Paramount Theater

With 1500 seats, the Paramount Theater is the biggest of the Asbury Park movie palaces. The town had several gorgeous ones; and somehow, in my mind, they blend together and mix with the movies themselves all while remaining absolutely distinct. The dark hollow presence of the Paramount was sprinkled with touches of turquoise, purple, and gold. Everything was a little bit bigger, spread out, in the Paramount - the giant rosette on the ceiling above the orchestra; the golden proscenium, the carpeted lobbies, stairs and staircases sashed with heavy drapes that led to the loge, the mezzanine, the balcony and all sorts of mysterious places.

Image 3.7.1. Stage and grand proscenium of the Paramount.

As always, the scent of buttered popcorn drifted in the barely-there Atlantic salt. Also in the mix were the age-passed mustiness of heavy fabrics and a gentle touch of old cigarette smoke from the balcony. I am told that the Asbury theaters were air conditioned to remove bad ions from the atmosphere. A feel-good freshness did pervade their space. But how could you feel otherwise in castles of this kind, bordered by ocean and with a summer-charmed town around you teeming with magic? (For a more images of the Paramount click HERE. Don't worry, I'll get you back to this page so you can finish reading it.)

On its gala opening night in 1930, the Paramount hosted the musical comedy Love Among the Millionaires, a film starring Clara Bow, the "It" Girl, who is most noted for her silent films. In attendance that evening were several of Hollywood's valued stars: Fredric March, Carol Lombard, Ginger Rodgers, Ed Wynn... I have heard that a few of the Marx Brothers showed up.

The Paramount not only featured first-run films. Throughout the '30s and '40s, theater and concerts found a home on its 40-by-27-foot stage. In the late 1950s, when I was a child, I saw the Three Stooges perform a skit there. As I recall, they were on hand to introduce the latest of their wacky flicks.

Toward the end of the 1960s, the Paramount - and the Convention Hall - followed Asbury Park's rapid downward plunge. Rock groups, such as the Rolling Stones and the Doors, were among the last "names" to play at Convention Hall, before a deserted sense of finality seized the place. Deterioration of the building was steady. Off and on, various events, such as the well-known boat show (at the Convention Hall) occasionally took place. But the establishment barely hung on.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Paramount and Convention Hall received $1.2 million for restoration from the state. With much effort, the theater has been admirably saved and restored. This has been heartening for a town that for so long has seen mired in nearly indescribable - almost uncanny - stagnation. The Monmouth Symphony Orchestra gives concerts there. (The Paramount's fine acoustics, and its 13 dressing rooms, have made it well suited for opera.) Singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen, who has become associated with Asbury Park, has given performances on its stage. In general, the entertainment fare has been ongoing, if less spectacular, and is quite varied, with "golden oldies" shows, plays, dance performances. It is fortunate that the theater is in use again.

Few movies, however, make it to the Paramount. There was a time - not so long ago - when the place pulsed with bright activity on a daily and nightly basis. A continual sense of life infused it, surrounded it, passed through its grand arcade. Time was, you could actually fill a 1500-seat "small-town theater" for the latest blockbuster movie. This fact says so much about what our hometowns used to be like. I'm convinced that Asbury Park was Heaven's idea of a town - but with far more than the usual, as we shall continue to see.

Now on to the Convention Hall and Arcade!

 

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