(AP) — For years, Long Island University’s basketball team played in a French Baroque movie palace in downtown Brooklyn.
The gilded wall fountains, plastered statuettes and towering, one-of-a-kind Wurlitzer organ pipes of the historic Paramount Theater were preserved by the university when it converted the big hall into a gym in the 1960s.
Now, a partnership of New York developers is returning the theater, which once hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Chuck Berry, to its former musical glory. They ceremonially kicked off the plan this past week by lowering the scoreboard from the ornately plastered ceilings while the thundering organ vibrated the floorboards.
“It has great bones,” said John Fontillas, whose architecture firm is involved in the project. “We’re trying to bring it back to what it was originally designed to do.”
A partnership of Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner, BSE Global and Onexim Sports and Entertainment will transform the theater into a venue for up-and-coming musicians, as well as performances, comedy and sporting events.
They will remove the basketball court and bleachers to create space for 3,000 seats. Plans also include an “iconic” theater entrance with a lighted marquee, an LED system for mood lighting and a state-of-the-art sound system.
BSE Global, which is leading the renovation project, first announced it in 2015 and planned construction for last fall. But it was delayed it until the end of this school year to minimize disruptions to students. Acts could begin playing in the theater as early as mid-2019.
The Paramount opened in 1928 with the silent film “Manhattan Cocktail” and a live variety show. At the time, it seated over 4,000 people and was one of the largest theaters in New York.
While the exterior was a drab art deco office building, the interior was opulent. Fountains with goldfish greeted dressed-up theatergoers. The wall fountains, plaster decorations, and velvet draperies transported visitors into a French Baroque fantasyland. It also featured cutting-edge technology of the time, including a basement cooling system that was a precursor to air conditioning and a color organ that cast light onto the walls to match the mood of the performances.
The architects overseeing the renovation said they are taking inspiration from the combination of technology with classic architecture. Fontillas, a partner with H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, said it will “have a little bit of that razzle dazzle that was back in the day, but with a contemporary feel.”
But the most inspiring feature may be the legacy of the performances that have echoed through these halls. The theater was instrumental in introducing jazz to Brooklyn, hosting Duke Ellington and his orchestra in 1931. Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker and Jackie Wilson all played here as jazz evolved into rhythm and blues and rhythm and blues evolved into rock and roll.
After the theater closed in the early 1960s, it was turned over to Long Island University, which owns the building. When the school decided to use the theater as its home basketball gym, floor seats were leveled to install the court. But the university took pains to preserve the twin-console Wurlitzer organ and put up drywall to protect the original decor.
In 2005, the basketball team moved to a new athletic center, and the theater was relegated to intramural sports and a few other student events. In 2015, the university signed a 49-year lease to the partners to create the Paramount Events Center. They are spending nearly $50 million to reopen the venue.
The renovation is not the first of its kind in Brooklyn. In 2015, a public-private partnership reopened the Kings Theater a few miles to the south. The theater has a similar history to the Paramount: it opened in 1929, closed in the 1970s, fell into neglect, and reopened as a music venue.
“This is a renaissance that is happening in Brooklyn now,” said Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger. “It is the hottest thing happening now.”