Enjoying the NBA Action at Portland’s Paramount Theater, 1980

[Long before Toronto’s Jurassic Park Raptor and Golden State’s Thrive City, there was Portland’s Paramount Theater. For five fun-filled years (1977 to 1982), Trail Blazer diehards who couldn’t get into the always sold-out Memorial Coliseum could gather, though for an entry fee, at the Paramount on Broadway and Main. 

The old theater, built in 1927 and now known as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, was a downtown architectural treasure, mixing a redbrick French Renaissance façade and an Italian Rococo interior with flourishes galore. But the focus was on hoops, and a then-impressive big screen . . . and beer. Lots of beer. So, let’s kick back with reporter Scott Ostler, who spent an evening at the Paramount reveling in the NBA action. Ostler’s story ran in the Los Angeles Times on March 22, 1980. Enjoy!]

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The Paramount

The house lights dim, and the theater patrons break off their conversations and turn their attention to the big screen. The first image is an 11-foot-tall forward for the Portland Trail Blazers streaking past a 12-foot-tall opponent on the way to a fastbreak layup. Then, there’s another larger-than-life Blazer break, and a voice booms out of the theater speakers:

“Live! From the Portland Coliseum to the Paramount Theatre, it’s NBA basketball!”

Suddenly, the fact that the game will actually be played three miles away, across the Williamette River, is strictly academic. You’re at the ballgame, baby. 

You cheer the pregame introductions, stand for the national anthem, scream at the officials, yell encouragement to your Blazers, and go whacko after big baskets—jump out of your seat, throw up your arms, slap your neighbor’s palm, all that stuff. 

It must have taken the filmland ghosts who haunt this theater’s ancient walls a season or two to become accustomed to this unusual behavior, which is just another form of this city’s Blazermania.

For three seasons now, ever since tickets to Blazer games dropped off the open market (the last 138 Blazer Games at 12,666-seat Memorial Coliseum have been sellouts), fans have flocked to the Paramount Theatre on the corner of Broadway and Main streets in downtown Portland.

Other teams have broadcast games on closed-circuit theater TV, but only during the playoffs. The Blazers are the only team in the NBA, probably the only sports team in the world, to pipe every regular-season home game to a closed-circuit location.

“It’s an avenue to expose the Blazers to fans who don’t get a chance to come to the Coliseum,” says Art Johnson, the team’s director of theatre operations.

It’s also an avenue to make a few bucks—more than $100,000 a season, over and above expenses, according to Johnson. Admission is $5 for adults and $3.50 for students. Season tickets are sold (492 this season) at $205.

Two seasons ago, just after the Blazer won the NBA championship and Blazermania was at its peak, attendance in the 2,965-seat theater averaged 2,709. For one playoff game, 13,329 fans watched the game from the Paramount and four other closed-circuit locations. This season, with the team struggling along well below .500, attendance is down to about 1,200 a game.

Still, the decibel level seems higher at the Paramount than at the Coliseum. Earplugs are sold at the snack bar in the lobby.

“Let’s face it,” says local radio disc jockey Jimmy Hollister, the onstage emcee for the broadcast, “this is really the crowd that couldn’t afford tickets to the Coliseum. They’re ready. There’s two bars in the lobby. They like to suck up beer and just watch their Blazers. They really are fans. They jump out of their seats and run down the aisles. I hide behind the curtain.”

Hollister limits his pregame patter to a brief welcome. “A friend of mine, another deejay who did this before me, tried coming out and doing about 10 minutes,” Hollister says. “He had some really funny stuff, but it bombed. They didn’t want to hear that. I just go out there and get the Blazers on. That’s all they want to see.”

They see the game on a 20-by-15-foot screen, the biggest in the history of sports TV, according to Johnson. The picture is beamed by a projector that cost the Blazers $55,000. They also bought a backup projector. On the theater stage, to the left of the screen, is a regulation NBA 24-second clock, operated within the building. To the right is a portable electronic scoreboard.

The theater alone is worth a visit. The Paramount is an architectural relic of the days before movie houses were stucco-and-cinderblock bunkers in shopping mall parking lots. The Paramount was built in 1927, when men did things on the grander scale—that’s the year Babe Ruth hit 60.

It’s an ornate shrine to Hollywood. The lobby has a fountain and a Greek statue, and square marble pillars rising to a 40-foot-high ceiling with dazzling crystal chandeliers. The main theater was built on the scale of an airplane hangar, with attention to style and detail that would rival a cathedral. 

The Paramount is a little seedy and threadbare now, but the basketball fans don’t mind. It’s still, in many ways, the best place in the world to watch an NBA game. Where else can you buy orange juice, squeezed when you order it, in the lobby? Or get a free program? The show features frequent instant replays and closeup visits to Blazer timeout huddles. The microphone frequently picks up four-letter words, but that only adds to the realism.

Paramount fans chuckled the season during a game against Milwaukee, when Blazer coach Jack Ramsay pleaded in the huddle, ‘Look, they have green uniforms. We have white uniforms. Would it be too much to ask for us to throw the ball to people in white uniforms?”

The picture is taken from the feed to the visiting team’s home television audience. Johnson, the director, sits in the balcony with a direct phone line to the TV director at the Coliseum. “I call the shots on replays,” Johnson says. “Normally, the director of a broadcast is isolated in a truck somewhere, but with me here, I can sense the audience and suggest certain shots and replays.”

The regular Portland radio play-by-play by Bill Schonely and Steve Jones, is broadcast over the theater sound system. Schonely has coined terms such as “the equator” for the midcourt line, “the cyclops” for the midcourt jump circle, and “Rip City!” for crucial Blazer baskets.

For the exclusive viewing of the Paramount fans, Jones host a pregame interview, and assistant coach Bucky Buckwalter delivers an informative chalk talk and scouting report. At halftime, a portable blackboard and hoop is rolled out to centerstage, and emcee Hollister conducts a hoop shot where kids can win cash and prizes. At the end of the season, there will be a drawing for two new cars and some cruises to the Caribbean.

The most-enthusiastic fans in the house are in the bar, which is a roped-off section of the balcony lobby. No drinks are allowed in the theater, so 40 to 50 fans sit and stand to watch the game on a blackboard-size screen.

The screen has several nicks and rips, evidently from objects hurled at incompetent referees and overly competent opponents. “They’ve replaced that screen seven times this season,” says one fan, sipping a beer. It’s hard to tell whether he’s kidding. However, theater security police say that rowdyism there’s never been a problem. 

If the Paramount fans feel they’re missing anything by not being at the Coliseum, they don’t let on. “It’s fun to go both places,” says one fan, “but I think I like it here better. You don’t have to walk four miles for a drink, and you get the replays.”

With that, the fan excused himself to get an instant replay of his gin and tonic. A guy can work up a thirst at the old ballgame.

[But all good things must come to an end. In April 1982, the Blazers halted their Nights at the Paramount, by order of the city of Portland. The city recently condemned the Paramount, though with the ulterior motive of later purchasing the theater from its Seattle-based owners for $4.1 million. The city, with a big hand from local real estate entrepreneurs Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, spent  $10 to return the  theater to its former glory. It’s known today as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.]

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