A few months ago, Rene Boisvert was finishing up lunch at a taqueria near Oakland City Hall when the mayor walked in. As Boisvert recalls the story, fellow diners gasped at the presence of Ron Dellums, but Boisvert didn’t gawk, even when the mayor sat down next to him. They exchanged glances before the 51-year-old Boisvert got up to leave.
He made it all the way to his car before he decided to turn around. There was something he had to say.
The mayor was eating a bowl of soup when Boisvert approached.
“Mr. Dellums, my name is Rene Boisvert and I’m a board member of the Paramount Theatre. I think you should fire each and every one of us, including myself.”
The mayor, startled, put down his spoon and looked up at Boisvert. “Are you saying the place is being mismanaged?”
“Absolutely,” the cherubic-faced Boisvert replied.
Dellums paused to digest the information.
“I know the city has a lot of needs because you’re many millions of dollars short of balancing your budget,” Boisvert continued. “And if this place was run properly, you could pick up at least another million dollars.”
Dellums leaned forward. He pointed his finger to his temple and replied, “I hear every single word you’re saying.”
Boisvert says Dellums had his chief of staff jot down his information, promising that he’d follow up. But in the subsequent weeks, Boisvert says he didn’t hear anything. He made phone calls and sent e-mails, but there was no response.
It didn’t shock him. He’s used to being ignored.
Boisvert, a former concert promoter and current president of Rainy Day Productions, a sports, entertainment, and real estate consultant, has long been the lone dissenter on the nonprofit board that runs the city-owned Paramount Theatre. When he joined the board in September 1998, he was the first member to come recommended by the city, rather than nominated by a colleague. Since then, he’s consistently voted against annual budgets, and has advocated for more aggressive bookings, marketing, food and beverage sales, and sponsorship opportunities. Simply put, he believes the Paramount could make a lot more money than it does.
Yet some other board members have resisted Boisvert’s suggestions as too risky, far-fetched, or simply impractical. After all, the tightly run nonprofit theater has been self-sufficient since 1999, when the city ended its yearly subsidy. Thanks to its endowment, the Paramount not only has paid for several costly renovations and improvements, but it’s also managed to save more than $3.8 million.
Still, the Paramount’s future may not be so secure. The aging building is in dire need of a new roof, an exterior paint job, and hazardous materials removal — repairs estimated around $1 million. And there’s discussion about increasing the depth of the stage to accommodate more Broadway-type shows, plays, and musicals. “Our bottom line being near the break-even level, only a few things have to happen and we could see losses again,” says board president Tom Hart.
One thing sure to happen is the opening of the Fox Theater in late 2008. The $58 million renovation of the long-slumbering venue, also a city-owned facility, is raising concerns about competition between the two facilities. The Fox’s maximum capacity of more than 3,000 people will be on par with the Paramount’s 3,040. The non-union Fox will be operated by a successful concert promoter, Another Planet Entertainment. And, as at the Paramount, all rents and fees paid to the city by the operators of the Fox will be set aside for reinvestment in the maintenance of the theater itself.
The city’s stated goal was that creation of a vibrant arts and entertainment district in the Uptown would ultimately pay dividends in property and sales tax revenue. “Our goal as a redevelopment agency is to develop, in this case, the Uptown,” said Jeff Chew, the city’s project manager. Chew also believes the Fox will eliminate blight and create a safe environment for the residential community currently being constructed in the neighborhood.
The Fox could help usher in a new era in Oakland nightlife. And if the Paramount does suffer in the Fox’s wake, at least Boisvert thinks it will be the theater’s own fault. “They’re going to be taking their profitable shows away from the Paramount and putting them into the Fox,” said Boisvert. “And the Paramount’s finances are going to go way down. … Will Another Planet go to the city and say, ‘We’re kicking butt at the Fox, the Paramount’s floundering, can we now oversee the Paramount also?’ That’s possibly a reality.”
Defying the Wrecking Ball
When the grand, Art Deco–style Paramount Theatre opened, it was — like many theaters of its day — a respite from the troubles of the world. But it wasn’t immune to its own problems. In fact, the Paramount has struggled throughout its storied 75-year history, having already closed on two separate occasions.
The $3 million vaudeville and movie house was built during the Depression, according to the 1981 book The Oakland Paramount by Susannah Harris Stone. It was expected to boost the local building industry, add to the city’s prestige, entertain theatergoers, and provide jobs. But at the time, according to the Web site CinemaTreasures.com, downtown Oakland was home to at least a dozen theaters — most of which are now closed.
The Paramount’s financial troubles began even before it was finished. Mid-construction, its owner, Paramount Publix Corporation, sold the building to rival Fox–West Coast Theatres, the owner of its nearby competitor, the Fox, which had opened in 1928. Fox–West Coast had given management of its ailing theater chain to a group of East Coast theater businessmen, the Skouras brothers.
Shortly after opening its doors on December 16, 1931, the Paramount shuttered them, succumbing to the $27,000 per week operating expenses. In May 1933, it reopened under strict management. This time around, the Paramount and the Fox Oakland would divvy up available movies rather than compete for them. The tactic worked.
As the Depression’s grip eased, World War II brought an economic boom to Oakland, and the Paramount thrived. But by the late 1950s, the era of television began eroding movie audiences. The Paramount closed in September 1970.
Hope surfaced in 1972 when the Oakland Symphony, in need of a new home, purchased the Paramount for $1 million. Although many such theaters were being demolished at the time (including San Francisco’s Fox), the Paramount underwent a speedy restoration financed for less than $1 million. New, wider seats were installed, as was a replica of the original carpet. Two bars and a new box office were added. It reopened on September 22, 1973 in its original 1931 splendor.
Again, the glory didn’t last long. Two years later, the orchestra went bankrupt and gave the Paramount to the City of Oakland for $1, with the stipulation of guaranteed bookings for the next forty years.
Seeing an opportunity, a group of seven private citizens banded together and approached city officials with the idea of managing and operating the Paramount on behalf of the city as a nonprofit organization. They agreed, and the structure has remained to this day.
But despite the nonprofit board’s good intentions, the Paramount ran at a deficit and required a city subsidy. According to The Oakland Paramount, the theater’s revenues equaled about 65 percent of its expenses, and the city picked up the tab for hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
If there’s one thing the city’s track record shows, it’s that its arts and entertainment projects aren’t always well thought out. “The zoo loses $2.3 million dollars a year,” observes developer Phil Tagami. “Fairyland loses money. The Coliseum loses $16 million a year. The Henry J. Kaiser, they closed it.”
Board member Boisvert takes a similar view. Back in 1995, he criticized the optimistic prediction that the Oakland Ice Center would generate 500,000 customers per year. “This ice rink project will not even come close to meeting the City of Oakland’s hopes nor the developers’ projections,” he wrote the City Council. Sure enough, center developers defaulted on their city loans after the rink had been open just three months. Since then, the center has struggled to make a profit.
Then in 1996, Boisvert, who had owned a minor league baseball franchise from 1990 to 1995 and was working as a consultant for the Oakland Football Marketing Association, criticized the association’s meager sales of personal seat licenses in an anonymous commentary in the Montclarion newspaper. The licenses were supposed to help pay for the renovation of the Raiders’ stadium after the team moved back to Oakland, and the association had claimed the seat licenses would sell out. The failure resulted in a settlement, which included the eventual abolishment of the licenses.
In 1997, the city council approached Boisvert to do an operational study of the Paramount. As a promoter in the early- to mid-1980s, he had booked half a dozen shows there. “They were going through a budget cycle and they wanted to know if the Paramount still deserved to be subsidized,” Boisvert recalled. The report, which he did for free, found that the facility not only could be self-sufficient, but also that it had more potential if it chose to emulate other successful facilities around the country.
By July 1999, the City of Oakland cut off its subsidy to the Paramount for good. “It didn’t come as a surprise,” recalls Paramount general manager Leslee Stewart, who had just been hired a couple of months earlier. “It was something the city had wanted — to be able to untie the apron strings.”
The Paramount Today
It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday in mid-May and members of the Paramount board are trickling into the cloistered music library in the theater’s basement for their bi-monthly meeting. The members — some of whom have been on the board for decades — take their seats around a large work table bearing plates of chocolate and glazed doughnuts. Stewart, dressed in a white pinstriped blazer, sleek glasses, and blond streaks in her layered, chin-length hair, busily offers tea, hot cocoa, and coffee. Judging by the members’ reactions, strangers — and especially reporters — don’t often attend these meetings.
When it starts, seven of the eleven members are present, but absent are the president, vice president, and treasurer — the lattermost due to foot surgery. The meeting begins with a financial report examining the recent ten-month period. Stewart happily notes they have a surplus of more than $75,000, even though the number of performances was down slightly from the year prior. Back then, they had a surplus of more than $327,000.
“Why was attendance down?” asks Ed Thomas, an attorney. “Crappy concerts?”
“We had star power with other concerts last year,” Stewart explains, referring to acts like Robert Plant, David Gilmour, and R. Kelly. “I think that has an effect.”
“Are we losing headline concerts to someone else?” Thomas asks.
“Definitely not,” says Stewart. “We’re not missing out on anything, I can tell you that.” Some acts move to arenas, she explains. “The whole Bay Area has so many options here. They can be picky and choosy.”
Stewart adds that she’s in “constant conversation” with booking agents and promoters. “It’s not like they don’t know us,” she says. Jam band Widespread Panic is booked for three dates this fall. And for this show, Stewart has made the decision to allow drinks in the theater.
“Is that why we got them?” queries board member David Johnson.
“Yes,” she replies. “We tried it before. It hasn’t been an issue.”
Since the Paramount reopened in 1973, the board has strictly forbidden drinks in the theater for fear that spills would ruin the upholstered seats. With the theater’s high labor costs, cleanup could outweigh any potential revenue. Of course, sometimes the artists themselves don’t want drinks allowed inside, as in the case of a recent performance by Morrissey. “He’s had stuff used as projectiles,” Stewart explains.
The board looks over a preliminary profit and loss statement. PG&E costs are going up, says Stewart. And there’s bad news about the orchestra pit. Operations manager Jeff Ewald explains later that, during the Morrissey concert, the orchestra pit’s old hydraulic system suffered a catastrophic failure and slowly dropped three feet. Stagehands had to build stairs to get people out. The repair will cost $75,000.
The group votes to approve the financial reports, then moves on to the general manager’s report. Stewart says they have more high school graduation ceremonies lined up, and they’re holding off on their classic movie series this summer because the city’s free outdoor movie shows are cutting into their audience. She discusses reviews of the Morrissey show, bemused by his popularity. “He’s no spring chicken,” she says. “I don’t see what the attraction is.” And they received a donation of a spam filter worth $3,000 because theirs died. “Isn’t that nice?” she coos. “I was absolutely overwhelmed.”
Board member Lorenzo “Ren” Hoopes, who’s 93, follows with an update on the Paramount’s finances. Last summer, the board spent more than $600,000 from its endowment on a new carpet and sound system. The Paramount’s endowment became the theater’s safety net, funding capital costs and covering operational deficits since 1999, when the city cut off its subsidy. The endowment used to be funded largely from donations, but in the 1990s, the city agreed to let managers start earmarking certain facility revenues for the endowment. According to the Paramount’s financial records, the theater has made money in seven of those eight years: By the end of the 2006—07 fiscal year, the endowment totaled more than $3.8 million, up from about $2.4 million in 1999.
While Hoopes says the theater’s financial position is “very healthy and strong,” he cautions that the board should lean toward more conservative investments as it “head[s] toward an uncertain future.”
That “uncertain future” is a reference to coexistence with the Fox. City project manager Jeff Chew then gives the board an update on the theater, which is scheduled to open on October 27, 2008. Construction started in January, and seismic and structural work is being done. He says the theater’s capacity will range from as small as 600 to as large as 2,500, depending on the setup. There will be two bars — one in the upper lobby and another inside the theater. Chew tries to reassure the board that the new theater will be good for the Paramount’s business.
But Stewart isn’t so optimistic. “Our budget for ’08-’09 won’t be good,” she demurs. “We’ll be at a loss. That’s direct competition. We’re going to lose seats.”
“It’s going to change Uptown a lot,” Chew counters. “The whole neighborhood is changing — for the better. It is competition, but it’s what this country is built on.”
Chew says the city is working on strengthening the link between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, between the Fox and the Paramount. “You’ll see interaction,” he promises.
“Is the operator free from the city?” asks Hoopes.
“We do get rent,” Chew replies. He notes, for instance, that the Oakland School for the Arts, the tenant in the outer wing surrounding the theater, will be able to stage ten rent-free events in the theater per year.
“We’ve run into a stone wall with the city in talking about capital improvements,” says board member and attorney Clinton Killian.
“If there are capital costs at the Fox, where will the money come from?” asks Johnson.
“The Fox is essentially a brand-new theater,” says Chew. “I don’t know. Certain maintenance will be taken care of by the public entity.”
“The City of Oakland?” Johnson queries.
“I don’t know,” Chew responds. “I can’t answer that question.”
“The problem is our needs are more immediate,” Killian says. “We can’t even get on the radar.”
Chew asks whether they’ve put their concerns in writing. They have.
“The city does not have general fund money for capital improvements,” says Johnson. “It’s surprising for a city the size of Oakland.”
“The Fox gets $2; why did we have to beg for … $1?” Killian asks, referring to the Paramount’s recently increased facility fee. “We get treated like we’re beyond orphans.”
Stewart points out that the city used to put $150,000 a year into the Paramount.
“The city thinks you’re doing okay,” says Chew. “Your investments seem to be doing pretty well.”
“This is not a one-off,” says Johnson. “This is a partnership. The Paramount has been run thoughtfully by volunteers. We need to make sure the partnership continues.”
Chew promises to meet with the city manager’s office to express their needs. “I’m a big fan of the Paramount,” he says.
The Not-So-New Kid on the Block
For years, the Fox Theater was a decrepit, inactive hulk blighting Oakland’s Uptown district. Once the city decided to redevelop the neighborhood, momentum began building to restore the historic site. To finance the costly project, all signs pointed to a for-profit operator.
According to FoxOakland.org, the Friends of the Oakland Fox Web site, the North Indian–inspired theater opened in 1928, and it too dodged the wrecking ball on more than one occasion. By 1965, it had stopped showing first-run movies, and was only open sporadically until it caught fire in 1973. The city considered demolishing it to build a parking garage. But a few years later, a grassroots movement helped proclaim the Fox a city landmark worth saving.
The City of Oakland purchased the building for $3 million in 1996. By then, it was badly damaged from a leaking roof and a homeless encampment. But because the property was on the National Register of Historic Places, tearing it down was no longer an option. So in 1999, after relocating the homeless occupants, the city patched up the roof. Members of the Oakland Heritage Alliance formed Friends of the Oakland Fox. “There was such an interest,” recalls Dedekian, one of the founding members. In 2001, the city completed restoration of the Fox’s marquee and sign.
That same year, the city hired architectural consultants Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates to produce the Fox Theater Master Plan — a series of studies on the need and market for an arts and entertainment facility in Oakland. The studies offered possible configurations and cost estimates for the Fox — ranging from a minimal investment of $19 million for a venue with 600 seats, to a $69 million investment for a 2,550-seat facility.
The studies also revealed potential pitfalls. A needs assessment expressed concerns about “lack of daytime traffic, the dependence on a supply of product, cultural relevance, and the relationship to the Paramount.” Interviews with four promoters — BGP, Cal Performances, SF Performances, and Jam Productions — cited the need for a “bigger, cheaper, better Paramount,” and “more progressive/music programs.” However, the study’s authors concluded that the Bay Area is well supplied with facilities with several thousand seats, but that Oakland lacked small and midsize community arts facilities. The problem is, serving community arts just isn’t economically viable.
The next study, released in January 2001, described improving the Paramount as “critical” to any plan concerning the Fox. “The theater is an underused asset,” the report stated. The consultants suggested expanding its stage house and improving its acoustics, but noted the following challenges. “The building suffers from a legacy of resisting use and users,” the report said. “Additionally, it is a very expensive building to use. Failure to address the Paramount issues while the Fox is being renovated will have severe impact on the theater. Including Paramount improvements in this project will make the fund-raising easier and heighten the complementary relationship of the two theaters.”
The theater’s possibilities were outlined in a May 2001 report that considered everything from a basic, 600- to 1,000-seat capacity theater to an expanded, 2,550-seat design. The city shopped the plan to various developers. But Chew said there wasn’t a lot of interest because the developers “knew that it was going to lose money for them.”
One developer was interested, however. Many years before, an ambitious young developer named Phil Tagami had pledged to buy and renovate buildings in an area bounded by 14th, 27th, and Webster streets and the freeway. “That was kind of my little mission,” he recalled recently, sitting in a plush leather chair in his office in downtown Oakland’s historic Rotunda building.
Tagami was involved with a dozen buildings downtown before renovating the Rotunda. Later, he helped bring in several nightlife establishments, including Cafe Van Kleef, @Seventeenth, Luka’s Taproom, and the Uptown Nightclub. But all the while, he had his eye on the long-dormant Fox.
In 1997, during renovation of the Rotunda building, Tagami says he gave the city a proposal for the Fox. Officials shot him down, suggesting he finish the Rotunda first.
So after he finished the Rotunda, Tagami organized a volunteer development team of architects, engineers, and supporters to analyze the costs of renovating the theater into a 600-seat cabaret-style venue. Then, the city called upon Tagami to solve the problem of then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s Oakland School for the Arts in 2003. As Tagami recalls, Brown was having trouble with complaints from neighbors who lived near the Alice Arts Center, which then housed the school. Tagami suggested moving the school into the Fox.
After getting the green light from the city, Tagami began pulling together funding. A deal with the Port of Oakland and CBS harnessed $22 million in revenue over the next twenty years from a billboard near the Bay Bridge that guaranteed the School for the Arts’ rent for the next seven and a half years. Today, the Fox has sixteen funding sources, including loans, philanthropic grants, government grants, and three equity investors — the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Charter School Development Corporation, and Bank of America Historic Ventures. Of the $58 million total project cost, the city’s redevelopment agency provided $25.5 million via a 30-year loan at 8 percent interest.
When it came time to find an operator, Tagami’s company considered the Paramount. But as the studies made clear, such a relationship could have been a costly mistake.
In September 2003, Tagami’s company entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Paramount and the Oakland School for the Arts to work out a strategy for renovating and operating the Fox. How that relationship degenerated depends on whom you ask. According to Tagami, he spent years trying to encourage a relationship between the Paramount board and the Fox, but was “unable to bring that to closure.” On the other hand, former Paramount board president Clinton Killian accused Tagami’s company of intentionally stonewalling the Paramount to prevent the board from submitting a formal management proposal. Tagami says the Paramount was not only invited to bid but was also given an extension on the deadline.
What the Paramount submitted was a four-page letter expressing its interest in running the Fox as a 500- to 600-seat capacity cabaret that would require a city subsidy. The facility would have been run just like the Paramount, meaning it would have been rented to promoters without producing its own shows.
But the Paramount board was split over the decision to run the Fox. “There was never a consensus among the Paramount board that they wanted to actually operate the Fox Theater,” Chew recalls. Some board members say their interest was tempered once they learned the project had changed from its original, smaller conception.
“They really did have an opportunity way back when this project was first coming together to be the ones to run the Fox,” agrees Patricia Dedekian of Friends of the Oakland Fox. “And they were as a board very reluctant to take it on. … They never really embraced it.”
Throughout the course of the Fox project, the size of the theater fluctuated based on available funding. Although initially a minimal investment and smaller theater size was considered, the size gradually expanded beyond 600 seats once California Capital Group secured more funds and realized that a larger facility would bring in more dollars. Ultimately, in early 2006, it was agreed that the size of the theater would remain flexible depending on the nature of each show. The floor will have an option of seats, tables and chairs, or standing room, while the balcony will have fixed seats with the option of adding tables and chairs. The maximum capacity will exceed 3,000 seats.
“We were interested in managing but not obligating the Paramount to additional financial exposure through a lease or other contract,” said current Paramount president Tom Hart. “We urged the conceivers of the Fox renovation to establish a facility that was less competitive or non-competitive to that of the Paramount.”
But during the process, Tagami’s company commissioned another market study that was released right before the Paramount submitted its proposal. It recommended that the only way to make the project fly would be to pair the Fox with a for-profit operator.
“A strategy with more likelihood of dramatically increasing the volume of new business would be to enter into a long-term agreement with an experienced entity combining both promoter and operator functions to take control of just the Fox Theater,” the report said. “This will create a strong profit motive for this experienced promoter to fill the Fox with as many revenue-producing events as possible.”
Sure enough, Another Planet Entertainment’s 48-page proposal — including letters of reference from the likes of Carlos Santana, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and Grateful Dead Productions — stated that it could run the facility without a city subsidy. Eventually, the proposal claimed, the theater would even produce revenue for Oakland.
A panel of five judges — which included Chew, Dedekian, and three other city employees — eventually chose Another Planet. “I wanted to deliver for the city an operator that wouldn’t be looking to the city for a subsidy,” Tagami said.
But Tagami’s consultants also revealed the potential dangers of his choice for the Paramount. “The downside of this strategy for the Paramount is that whichever promoter is selected to operate the Fox, the shows they formerly promoted in the Paramount will in all likelihood be moved to the Fox,” the report said.
“Given that the City also owns the Paramount Theatre on the next block, the City has a strong interest in minimizing any potential destructive competition between these two facilities,” the authors cautioned.
The potential for destruction is made greater by the disparity in the two theaters’ costs. The Fox Theater isn’t required to be union. The Paramount’s three in-house unions not only increase the theater’s operational costs, but also hurt profits for the promoters. With cheaper labor, it’s likely that Another Planet Entertainment will be able to outbid other promoters to draw shows to the Fox. Stewart says the average labor cost for a concert at the Paramount is about $15,000, while the same concert with nonunion labor would only cost $7,500.
The Fox also benefits from the billboard revenues earmarked for the School for the Arts. The billboard money essentially subsidizes costs for the for-profit operator, Another Planet Entertainment. The nonprofit Paramount, which offers more community-oriented programming, such as high school graduations, it does not get such a benefit.
In addition, the Fox will earn twice as much as the Paramount for every ticket sold — $2, versus the Paramount’s $1. Although this facility fee is passed on to consumers through ticket prices, Another Planet’s lower labor costs should enable it to make more money per show.
Paramount board member Killian says these advantages are not fair. “On the one hand, the Paramount is supposed to be self-sufficient and has to compete in the marketplace, whereas the Fox will receive a huge subsidy that will alleviate any concerns relating to operating costs, and the only one who will benefit will be the hired promoter. What we’ve said to the city is just treat us the same as you treat the Fox.”
It’s About the Patrons
Programming is one area in which the two facilities are likely to differ. Another Planet Entertainment was formed in 2003 when then-president and CEO of Bill Graham Presents, Gregg Perloff, left to form his own company. With years of experience in the business, Perloff has booked some of the world’s biggest acts, including Bob Dylan, the Dave Matthews Band, and Bruce Springsteen. Today, the Berkeley company promotes the Greek Theatre in Berkeley and the Independent nightclub in San Francisco.
According to the study by Economics Research Associates, Bay Area venues with exclusive promoters, such as the Fillmore and the Warfield, far outbook places that lack such a relationship, such as the Berkeley Community Theatre or the Nob Hill Masonic Center.
In recent years, the Paramount has been an exception to this rule. Stewart is largely responsible for boosting the Paramount’s concert count over the years, but she views the Paramount as a community asset rather than just a concert hall. The theater books some of the most diverse programming in the East Bay — including a lecture series, symphony performances, high school graduations, films, plays, and musical acts from a range of genres.
Still, concerts at the Paramount — which are responsible for the bulk of the theater’s revenue — tend to serve an older clientele. For every young act, such as Nelly Furtado, there are many older acts, such as Al Green, Jeff Beck, Lionel Richie, Anita Baker, Brian Wilson, Gladys Knight, or Lucinda Williams. In the last three years, Another Planet Entertainment has booked five concerts on average per year. Those shows tend to be among the Paramount’s more lucrative events.
“The Fox will have more bands that appeal to a younger demographic, a more active crowd,” said Perloff. “While there’s some bands that will be able to play both buildings, the Fox is being set up much more as a club-like atmosphere. The Paramount is a formal theater.”
Perloff has told Stewart that he “absolutely intends” to continue to book shows at the Paramount, although some board members are dubious about that claim. After all, Another Planet would only get a portion of the ticket sales at the Paramount, versus all the food and beverage sales at the Fox. Perloff sees the Fox’s main competition as the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, which is run by rival promoter Live Nation, formerly Bill Graham Presents. The Warfield’s upcoming calendar features decidedly popular acts like the Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse, Rilo Kiley, and the Bravery that draw younger, drinking crowds.
Many of the Paramount’s shortcomings, as with its charms, are inherent. Today’s music patrons want the freedom to walk around instead of being tied to a seat. “People want that open-floor experience,” agreed John Anagnostou, co-owner of the Fox Theater in Redwood City, once part of the same chain as Oakland’s Fox. “People like to participate more than spectate.”
Even given the Paramount’s fixed seats, board member Boisvert believes there are other ways the Paramount could make itself more attractive to fans and promoters. The theater only has two bars and neither is very accessible; one is on the mezzanine and one is in the lower level. Even when concertgoers find the bars, they have to chug their drinks before returning to their seats. Considering that most successful theaters rely heavily on ancillary products for revenue, this is a huge missed opportunity, says Boisvert.
Anagnostou says allowing drinks in his theater “at least doubles, if not more” his revenue. The Redwood City Fox Theater is in the process of upgrading its concession stands to allow alcohol throughout the theater, after witnessing the success in his adjacent Little Fox nightclub.
Even Paramount manager Stewart realized this when she first arrived at the Paramount. “I noticed we didn’t sell bottled water,” she said. “People would come in either with their own water bottles or they would go to the water fountain. And I thought to myself, well, why aren’t we selling it?”
So when Britney Spears played there in 1999, Stewart drove her husband’s Jeep to Smart & Final and bought 21 cases of bottled water. She also decided to allow the fans to bring the bottles inside the theater. Originally bought for 25 cents per bottle and sold for $2.50, the water sold out.
“It was funny because one of the board members says, ‘Leslee, you’re brilliant,’ Stewart remembered. “Of course, I was brand-new. And I said, ‘Well, thank you. Well, I have to tell you everyone else is doing it, so I’m not all that brilliant. It’s just something we haven’t done.'”
In 2002, Boisvert convinced the Paramount board to pay for a study on possible sponsorships at the theater. According to the report, the opportunities were worth more than $400,000 per year. But board president Tom Hart says the findings weren’t sufficient.
While the Paramount board may not have considered Boisvert’s suggestions in the past, future competition with the Fox may force them to. The board is slowly starting to look into ways to strengthen its financial base. For example, they’re currently looking into adding another bar in the main lobby.
Too bad Boisvert won’t be around to help. Last September, five out of nine members voted against renewing him to another four-year term. Boisvert informed them that they weren’t following bylaws, and continues to show up at bimonthly meetings. But according to Ren Hoopes, they’re simply waiting for city approval of his replacement.