When Oklahoma became a state back in 1907, the film industry moved into the area now known as the Film Exchange District, or Film Row. In those days of early cinema, studios set up screening houses across the country for theater owners to preview movies and decide which ones they would carry.
Of the four original screening houses in Oklahoma City, only one continues to promote cinema in the building where it all began: The Paramount.
Three film lovers in Oklahoma City came up with the idea to open a deli and coffee house and screen movies for their patrons. When they came across the old Paramount screening house in 2012, they found everything they were looking for and more.
“We accidentally came across this spot and told the guy who owned the building what we wanted to do,” said Melodie Garneau, one of the owners of The Paramount OKC, 701 W. Sheridan. “He said, ‘Then you’ll want the theater.’ We were always going to have movies. We just didn’t know the theater was there.”
The way the classic screening houses worked is the actual film prints were kept there, safe in a vault because they were highly flammable. When visiting The Paramount’s theater, the seating may be new, but the projection room — with the giant projection window and the tunnel leading to the vault in the basement — remains as it was in the early days.
“There were 37 cities, as I understand the story, and they were called film exchanges,” Garneau said. “This is the only original screening room left in Oklahoma City, and I think we are the only city of the exchanges that is actually revitalizing any part of their film district. We are certainly the only original screening house doing anything movie-related.”
It is this loyalty to film history that Garneau and her partners, Helen Goulden and Becky Kephart, want to uphold as they help raise awareness of the revitalization of the Film Row district.
It was 2006 when Oklahoma City began to transform Film Row from a boarded-up street with transients sleeping on the curbs into an area of the city in which families can feel safe. Tax credits helped developer Chip Fudge renovate and restore buildings along Film Row, and corporations like Individual Arts of Oklahoma (IAO) and deadCENTER Film Festival moved their offices to the area to help give it an artistic purpose. The city fixed the streets, and with other renovations such as the Myriad Botanical Gardens, the area has transformed from a Skid Row into a thriving district.
People are invited to visit Film Row on the third Friday of every month for Premiere on Film Row — when all the local businesses hold film-themed events for families to attend. In December, the theme will be It’s a Wonderful Life; The Paramount, IAO, deadCENTER, law firm Dunlap Codding and others are offering music, movies and entertainment for adults and children of all ages.
“People don’t know that on Film Row there is anything to do,” Garneau said. “There are movies here and music over there, and it’s not just us; it is the IAO and other people. There is a lot of stuff going on down here.”
“Everyone goes to Bricktown before the ball games, and Bricktown is jam-packed,” co-owner Helen Goulden added. “This is a good place to come before a ball game too.”
The Paramount also wants young filmmakers to know that they are a hub at which like-minded artists can meet as well. During The 48-Hour Film Project in Oklahoma City this year, Garneau said there were three different groups of filmmakers working in The Paramount at one time.
“I had no idea that the film industry in Oklahoma City was so vibrant,” Garneau said. “There are so many independent filmmakers and young filmmakers working in the state. We want people to call and ask to use our business for what they need help with. That is what we are really hoping for.”
One of the most intriguing things about The Paramount is that they want to be open to everyone to enjoy classic and modern films. Garneau said they want to make it affordable as well, and all screenings are free to members, including an upcoming Alfred Hitchcock silent film series.
“It was Helen’s idea,” Garneau explained. “Our membership is ‘name your own price,’ and we want to make sure anyone can afford to watch movies here. There are some people who will pay $100 because they can and want to help us stay in business, and others can only afford to pay $5. It has kind of worked out because we are still in business.”
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