Leslee Stewart, General Manager and CEO of the historic Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California – built in 1930 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1972- announced her retirement, effective June 30, 2022. During her tenure, the Theatre went from just a few shows a year to being the eighth busiest venue of its size in the country. Leslee spearheaded renovations and improvements including working with the original tile manufacturer, Gladding McBean, (established in 1875) on full restoration of the exterior terracotta and mosaic tile. She also oversaw the installation of a new roof, exterior painting and waterproofing and carpet replacement, all while adhering to the 1930-1931 specifications and added the purchase and installation of the custom Meyer Sound System and Grand Lobby Bar.
Leslee grew up in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. She began her career in public assembly management in 1985 with Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities, Inc. In August 1997, Leslee accepted a position of Assistant Director of North American Touring and Routing with Feld Entertainment headquartered in Northern Virginia.
“As much as I loved working and learning the business from the producing side, I realized that I missed working in a venue and I wanted to get back to facility management, especially a performing arts venue. In January 1999, I saw an ad in a trade publications for the General Manager and CEO position at the Paramount Theatre. The Theatre is a national historic landmark, I was immediately intrigued and believed that my facility management experience along with my love of history (being a history major) made me a possible candidate,” Leslee noted.
Following telephone interviews and an in-person meeting with the full board of directors, Leslee was offered the position. “It not only felt like a good fit, but it seemed as though it was meant to be.”
The previous general manager of the Paramount Theatre, Peter Botto was retiring after 26 years. Peter had led the Paramount Theatre through a full and authentic restoration of the Paramount Theatre in 1972-1973. “I knew I had big shoes to fill. I spent my first week working alongside with Peter – he gave me “behind the walls” tours and showed me how to change every lightbulb in the building – that in itself took two days!”
The Paramount Theatre is owned by the City of Oakland and managed and operated by the Paramount Theatre of the Arts, Inc., a nonprofit 501c3 organization. The Theatre is totally self-supporting as the city subsidy was eliminated in June 1999, when Leslee took over leadership. For the next 23 years, the Paramount Theatre not only survived but also thrived.
“Before we hired Leslee, the Paramount operated on the city subsidy and shows were essentially limited to the Oakland ballet and symphony. Leslee was like a jolt of electricity,” said Clinton Killian, former Board President and current Director of the Paramount Theatre of the Arts, Inc. “She immediately increased our bookings and solicited promoters to bring shows to the Paramount. Leslee’s leadership bought a dedication and commitment that energized the Paramount and made us the premier performance venue in the Bay Area.”
The Paramount Theatre is a perfect venue for its resident companies – the Oakland Ballet Company and Oakland Symphony and it also has attracted major, world-wide performers. In 2001, Icelandic singer and songwriter, Björk, performed in only five U.S. cities – New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland– all venues chosen by the artist and her team. One of Leslee’s favorite performers is Don Henley and although she rarely went back stage, she made and exception when he performed at the Paramount in 2001. She was almost speechless when he offered to take a picture with her even though his manager had said it wasn’t allowed! Other favorite performers include Leonard Cohen – also a Canadian – Diana Ross, Prince, Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band, John Legend, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, BB King, Luther Vandross and many others. Leslee also said that Carol Burnett was one of the nicest performers who introduced herself to every staff member she met back stage.
The Paramount Theatre was also successful in bidding with the Department of Homeland Security for hosting the Naturalization Ceremonies and awarded two separate five-year contracts. “It has been an honor to have people from all over the world come to the Paramount Theatre to become citizens of the United States.”
Leslee also treasured the Oakland Speaker Series which brings in distinguished and influential people to entertain and educate. Guests have included Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, the late Madeline Albright, Colin Powell, James Comey, Anderson Cooper, Mark Kelly and Gabriel Giffords, the late Bob Newhart, James Armstrong, and Robert Redford.
“Speaking of Robert Redford, as many know, the Paramount has presented a classic movie series and one of the films we could not secure was The Candidate. The reason we were interested in showing The Candidate was that in late 1971, the Paramount Theatre was used as a location for Robert Redford’s character’s campaign headquarters. One evening when I was working late, I read in the local newspaper that Robert Redford was in town for the opening of his wife’s (then partner’s) art exhibition. I decided to drive over to the art gallery to find Mr. Redford and ask if he could help me get me a copy of The Candidate. Inside the art gallery, I found him but he was surrounded by people and I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I waited until he was alone and went over and introduced myself as the general manager of the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Before I could say anything else, he told me that he filmed inside the Paramount Theatre for his film The Candidate. I said, I know – that’s why I’m here. I then explained that we have a classic movie series at the Paramount and that I was unable to get a copy of The Candidate and wondered if he could help me. He said that he had a copy in is private collection and would have someone call me. I gave him my card. A week or so later, I received a letter from his attorney advising that regretfully, Mr. Redford could not lend his only copy of the movie, however, he provided a contact to a private individual who might be able to help us. In contacting the person, we were able to get a copy of The Candidate and we showed the movie to a sold-out crowd.
“ Being the General Manager and CEO of the Paramount Theatre has been the best 23 years of more than 30 years in facility management,” said Leslee.