Here’s what architect, professor, planning commissioner and former San Luis Obispo Mayor, the late Ken Schwartz, had to say about landmarks. He’d been to a conference back east and was impressed by the value and importance city planners placed on creating and preserving landmark buildings.
“Kevin Lynch, an MIT professor, had mounted a research project using Boston as his laboratory. He wanted to learn how people directed other people to get from one place to another place several blocks distant. Lynch placed research assistants on corners to ask passersby for directions to get to point A or B or C. In tabulating the results, it became clear that the key ingredient in the directions given were landmarks. “The church with the pointed steeple,” “the brownstone building with the white trim,” “the tree with the missing limb,” “the theater with the large marquee …” Using this material, Professor Lynch deduced that in designing cities it is extremely important to create points/objects that give identity to places. All cities should pay more attention to the creation of landmarks.”
On May 29, 1942, one of our best-known city landmarks, The Fremont Theater, opened its doors. Late in 1941, building permits were pulled to construct the design of architect S. Charles Lee, who had established a reputation for building grand movie palaces. From its opening, the majestic art-deco theater, with its soaring sail-shaped tower, has played an unforgettable part in the life of our city.
“In May of 1942, S. Charles Lee made one of the most outrageous experiments in architectural history,” writes architectural historian James Papp in an article he wrote for the website, Secretslo.com. “Instead of recreating a Greek theater with dignified columns, friezes, and pediments around a live stage… he took ancient architectural details and blew them up into neon, backlit ceiling sculptures, and fluorescent carpets. … Lee’s Fremont, a unique Greek Revival Streamline Moderne building, became one of the finest designs of the movie palace era.” (Visit secretslo.com to read the article in its entirety.)
A parade of celebrities, including film stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Constance Bennett, Jackie Cooper, and boxer Max Baer showed up to attend the gala grand opening and to watch the West Coast premiere of the movie, This Above All, starring Tyron Power and Joan Fontaine.
“Actors and actresses arrived by bus to sell war bonds at a rally that began in front of the courthouse across the street from the Fremont Theater … raising $778,000 in bond pledges,” said Janet Penn Franks in her book San Luis Obispo, a History in Architecture. “Uniformed usherettes wearing wide-legged trousers and brass-buttoned jackets showed guests to their seats.”
“The ceiling held ultraviolet bulbs that created a ‘black light’ effect on the patterned carpet, which was woven with fluorescent thread,” Franks continues. “When the house lights dimmed and the ultraviolet lights were turned on, the carpet looked like a painting on glass, drawing oohs and ahs from delighted moviegoers.” Hundreds of servicemen from two nearby army bases, Camp San Luis Obispo and Camp Roberts, became regular attendees.
Over the next nearly eight decades, the building would pass through a handful of owners, endure periods of neglect, and survive plans to either diminish or demolish it. Thanks to the tenacity of the townsfolk who would not hear of it being torn down, the entrance of The SLO International Film Festival in the 1990s, and the imaginative efforts of its new-ish managers, The Fremont Theater is primed to flourish well into the 21st century and beyond.
According to an article titled “The Many Lives of the Fremont Theater,” by Sarah Linn from 2012, “The Fremont has hosted concerts by the likes of Los Lobos, John Hiatt, and Toots and the Maytals. Progressive rock band Yes staged three memorable concerts there in 1996.” And “More than a dozen filmmaking guests, including Morgan Freeman, Malcolm McDowell, and Alan Arkin, have accepted the SLO Film Festival’s highest honor, the King Vidor Career Achievement Award, while standing on the Fremont Stage.”
In an excellent article by Glen Starkey, (which you can read in its entirety by Googling Fremont Theater History and then clicking on Resurrection! A new partnership saves the Fremont Theater from obsolescence), the evolution from movies to live music is chronicled in detail. “Since hosting their first event on September 1, 2017, they’ve collectively brought in dozens of great acts in a variety of genres, serving beer and wine and great entertainment to thousands of people, with much more on the horizon. … the partners are energized and committed to making the Fremont a crown jewel of our community.”
Everyone has a favorite Fremont memory. Some recall their first dates, their first kisses there. Others the impact a certain movie made; still others their first jobs taking tickets or selling popcorn. Among those of us who were elementary school students in the ‘50s and ‘60s there is one universally shared memory: the double feature matinees on Saturday afternoons, complete with raffles, games, and cartoons. For a few blissful hours every Saturday during June, July, and August, parents could drop their summer-crazed children off at the famous downtown theater and get a reprieve from entertaining them. Here are a few shared memories contributed by friends and colleagues and sent into the Fremont SLO Facebook page.
“I remember how the elegance of that theater struck me the first time I went there at 10 years of age … and every time after. I was fascinated by the swirls on the ceiling, the art deco ladies with their flowing dresses. This was the best part of waiting for the movie to start, gazing at the ceiling.”
“The excitement of buying a Charms sucker, hoping for the sticker that got you a free one.”
“The sucked-on, half-chewed jujubes being thrown into girls’ hair by disgusting boys during the matinees.”
“I remember once the San Luis Garbage Company parked in front. We brought a bag of trash to get into the movie.”
“Kids making out in the rows down in front and us throwing popcorn at them and giggling … Later, being one of those couples with a boy who had braces like me, and getting our braces stuck together for one panicked minute.”
“Emerging bleary-eyed and disoriented into the bright summer sun after a matinee double feature.”
“Waiting in line with my teenage boyfriend in a line that wrapped around the block twice to see The Graduate.”
“Seeing the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with my daughters at one of the SLO Film Festivals. Getting to meet the lead actor, Howard Keihl.”
“My Dad was PTA President at Quintana School and he had books of Fremont Theater tickets that he sold as a fundraiser.”
“The buffalo stampede in How the West Was Won in 1964 with the surround sound … I was 10 years old and I’ll never forget that day.”
“When I was 12 years old, I and every other adolescent girl in town, crammed the Fremont to watch the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night. It was the biggest event in town at the time.”
“I took my son to see his first concert at the Fremont. It was Chris Robinson Brotherhood in 2018.”
“Midnight movies in high school! Hanging out with my bestie who was doing her homework held hostage in the kiosk.”
“Three Stooges, Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo, The Moonspinners, Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur.”
“1962. First date with my now-wife.”
“I love The Fremont as a music venue. The acoustics are great, there’s not a bad seat in the house. I remember the Michael Franti concert especially. He had all the little kids up on stage and everyone was dancing. It felt like a family party.”
According to Fremont SLO’s marketing manager, Dana Greer, the idea for this year’s celebration—before the current health crisis hit—was to celebrate San Luis Obispo, to strengthen the roots of our downtown, to bring families together, that they might share their memories and honor the grand old theater’s role in their lives. Lance Burton, a world-famous magician, was booked to dazzle crowds and welcome families to share in the festivities. The event has been postponed—as have all of our social gatherings for now—but this may well be an ideal moment to remember our hometown traditions, to appreciate our common gathering places, to be grateful for the memories we made there, and to imagine the ones we’ll make again, in the post-COVID-19 world of tomorrow.