Brooklyn has in recent decades been home to one of the world’s most beautiful basketball courts. The 1928 Paramount Theatre at the corner of the Flatbush Avenue Extension and Dekalb Avenue was acquired by Long Island University (LIU) in the 1950s, and in the 1960s a court was built beneath the soaring rococo-style ceiling of the former movie palace. Backboards hang below gilded mermaids and ornate animals, and a scoreboard hovers up near the towering proscenium. It’s surreal to see the humble bleachers and Coca-Cola-branded game timers in this opulent interior, and it’s a juxtaposition that will soon be a memory in the theater’s history. In 2015, it was announced that LIU had approved a partnership with Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner to return the gymnasium to a performing arts space.
Before that two-year restoration, slated to begin this fall, the New York Theatre Organ Society (NYTOS) hosted a concert on October 8 to give the grand Wurlitzer theater organ a send-off. The organ is planned to be preserved as part of the overhaul, yet it will never sound the same again. In the 1920s, more than 4,000 plush theater seats and velvet drapery muffled some of the swell from its 1,838 pipes, but with just the wooden floor and bleacher seats, it reverberates like a full orchestra.
And that’s how it was meant to sound when it made its debut in 1928, its percussive features and four levels of keys adding atmosphere, music, and sound effects to silent films and vaudeville shows. The theater was lavishly designed by Rapp and Rapp, who were also architects for Kings Theatre in Flatbush (reopened in 2015) and Times Square’s Paramount Theatre, which was shuttered in 1964 and turned into offices and retail. Although the Brooklyn Paramount has been greatly changed, its floor flattened, its heavy stage curtain taken down, the organ sonically transports listeners to its heyday.
“This is a sound like no other,” remarked Los Angeles-based organist Mark Herman before he started a program that featured Tin Pan Alley melodies, Broadway songs, and other early 20th-century tunes. In a medley from Show Boat, he noted that “you might think you’re seeing the second coming of God” when the organ was going “full tilt” on “Ol’ Man River,” and it indeed boomed like some divine apocalypse with all the pipes blaring and the low notes vibrating. However, “it has gorgeous soft sounds as well,” Herman said of the 90-year-old organ, and demonstrated its sonorous concert flute on Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.”
The music heritage of the Brooklyn Paramount stretches beyond the silent film era to jazz performances by Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, and a 1950s and ’60s rock and roll show emceed by Alan Freed. That the Wurlitzer survives is thanks to the work of NYTOS. Similar instruments have been altered or dismantled, such as one at the Metropolitan Theatre in Boston that was broken up for parts in the 1970s, but over the years NYTOS has maintained the Wurlitzer’s bells and pipes. You can get a tour through its incredible musical architecture in this video from Joe Amato, who leads the Paramount volunteer organ crew.
As an encore, Herman chased “When the Saints Go Marching In” with “Danny Boy,” to gently “put it to sleep” for the organ’s silent years during the revitalization. There’s nothing quite like hearing the Wurlitzer consuming the Brooklyn Paramount with its noise, but until it makes its return in the revamped theater, here’s a taste of its bombastic sound in a NYTOS recording of “Give my Regards to Broadway”: