Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Afternooon in Downtown Brooklyn: The Giacomo Gates Quintet at the former Brooklyn Paramount at Long Island University

Today Long Island University hosted an all-day conference, "Magnet for the Masses: When Theatre was PARAMOUNT in Brooklyn," at the Arnold & Marie Schwartz Gymnasium in what was the conference's subject, the legendary and beloved Brooklyn Paramount Theatre on the corner of Flatbush and DeKalb Avenues.

Regrettably, business kept us away from the morning panels of the event, created by The Theatre Museum, about the history of the Paramount and its entertainment, panels featuring such notables as radio and television personality Joe Franklin (with whom we once had a wonderful talk in the late '70s) and Norman Steinberg, who helped write the screenplay for the Mel Brooks classic "Blazing Saddles"; Don K. Reed of WCBS FM’s “The Doo Wop Shop;” the official Brooklyn Historian, Ron Schweiger; vaudeville historian Travis Stuart; and others.

But we did get to downtown Brooklyn this afternoon in time to catch the end of the conference with a fine jazz performance by the Giacomo Gates Quintet,

featuring the velvet-voiced Giacomo Gates and Sam Newsome (soprano sax), Greg Lewis (keyboard), Carlo de Rosa (bass), Eric Wyatt (sax) and Shinnosuke Takahashi (drums).

The band was amazing, and Giacomo Gates sang a series of songs that brought back a lot of memories, even if they were mostly from our parents' generation: "Baby, You Should Know It," "Lady Be Good," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Summertime". . .

You haven't lived until you've heard Giacomo Gates doing his Irving Berlin/Theolonius Monk combo of "Blue Skies/In Walked Bud." He told some great stories about the musicians, too.

It's too bad we missed hearing an expert play "The Mighty Wurlitzer," one of the great theater organs on the planet. It supposedly plays as well now as it did in 1928.

We actually never went to the Brooklyn Paramount when it was still a theater, although we passed it constantly. Along with the Fox across Flatbush Avenue, it was one of the greatest theaters in New York. Cezar Del Valle, the knowledgeable theater historian, talked about it in a great Brooklyn Public Library lecture we attended a year ago.

Here's a good one-paragraph summary of Brooklyn Paramount history from the New York Theatre Organ Society:
For the true movie palace buff. . . [t]here's still enough of the original grandeur visible to see why audiences in 1928 considered it the most beautiful motion picture theatre in the world. It opened on November 23, 1928, with Nancy Carroll in Manhattan Cocktail as "Paramount-Publix's Gift to Brooklyn" and closed its doors to movie-goers on August 21, 1962, with John Wayne in Hatari. The Brooklyn Paramount was the capstone in the career of the noted architects, Rapp & Rapp, and for sheer opulence it outshone anything they ever designed.

The great latticed ceiling and arches along the side walls were originally festooned with artificial foliage; the arches concealed the lights of the Wilfred Color Organ, a lighting system that subtly changed the color of the whole theatre to suit the mood of the moment. Chorus girls pranced down the golden staircases from the organ grilles to the stage. The 4,500 seats (making it the second largest theatre in New York when it opened) were upholstered in random tones that ranged from plum to scarlet. Below the stupendous grand drapery of the proscenium arch hung a midnight-blue velvet curtain embroidered with pheasants in polychrome satin.

We have been in this theater space before, though, when it was -- for decades -- Long Island University's gymnasium. Our first college teaching job was in LIU's English Department, where we taught part-time from 1975 to 1978, and we came in here to see the Blackbirds play basketball.

Here's a Life Magazine photo from 55 years ago of the balcony audience at Alan Freed's Easter show in April 1956. Somehow we missed it, but then we still had a few months to go before starting kindergarten at P.S. 244.

We're always a little late, it seems. We're sorry we missed most of today's event but are looking forward to seeing and hearing more about it (someone was taping it). At the close of the conference, one of those listed on the program as "conference macher," LIU anthropology professor Michael Hittman, got a well-deserved round of applause.

The other conference "macher" listed was LIU history professor Joseph Dorinson, whom we're sure would not recall us -- but when we were in our early twenties, Joe was one of our models for what being a great college teacher was all about. It's always so nice to come home to this campus, which has such great memories for many, many people.

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