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The Many Lives of the Fremont Theater

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When San Luis Obispo's Fremont movie theater opened its doors on Memorial Day 1942, the star-studded premiere drew celebrities such as boxer Max Baer and comedic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- along with hundreds of servicemen stationed at nearby Camp San Luis Obispo and Camp Roberts.

Child star Jackie Cooper offered to kiss women who invested $100 in war bonds. And all ticket sales from the event -- which featured the West Coast premiere of "This Above All," starring Tyrone Power and Joan Fontaine -- benefited local chapters of the United Service Organizations.

Seventy years later, the Fremont remains a fully functioning theater, concert hall and event venue -- as well as one of the city's loveliest landmarks. "This is one of those theaters that we're proud to show off to visitors," said Wendy Eidson, executive director of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. "It's just a beautiful, beautiful theater with a lot of history. It's got such a great aura."

Known for its neon-lit façade, swirling coved ceiling, and 100-foot Art Deco murals depicting sprays of flowers, charging steeds and serene women draped in elegant gowns, the Fremont belongs to an era when elaborate movie palaces -- not multiplexes -- drew crowds, San Luis Obispo muralist Doug Bouman said.

The building was designed in the Streamline Moderne style by prolific movie theater architect S. Charles Lee, whose Southern California projects included the Los Angeles Theatre, the Max Factor Building and the Hollywood & Western Building.

According to Bouman, the Fremont and its peers were meant to mimic the stately concert halls and opera houses of Europe. Skilled craftsman including his late father, Frank Bouman, who worked on the Fremont under the direction of the Heinsbergen Decorating Company of Los Angeles, added the finishing touches.

"When you go to these places, you can tell it was all done the old-fashioned way. You look at the workmanship and you're in awe," Bouman said, noting that many of the methods used by those craftsmen would be far too costly and time-consuming today. His father, for instance, spent his first two years at Heinsbergen cleaning hog-hair paint brushes before graduating to the next step: mixing pigment with linseed oil to make paint.

"With new theaters, it's almost all about money -- 'Let's get them in and out as fast as we can,'" said Bouman, West Coast representative and project manager for EverGreene Architectural Arts in New York City. "It's not about the aesthetic."

Meanwhile, he added, many of those magnificent movie palaces "have been torn down or boarded up." In downtown San Luis Obispo, the Obispo fell prey to an arson fire in 1975. The Elks Theatre, also known as the Elmo, was demolished after World War II to make way for a bank. And the former Central Coast Theatre in downtown Pismo Beach has been home to a pool hall since the early 1990s. (The county's sole remaining drive-in movie theater, San Luis Obispo's Sunset Drive-In, is still going strong after 62 years.)

The Fremont, meanwhile, has seen multiple changes in ownership over the decades. Local developers Rob Rossi and John King purchased the building and the adjacent Mission Cinemas in the mid-1980s. "The idea was to create a theater complex downtown," Rossi said.

"At the time (the Fremont) was constructed, those big theaters were the rage. Since then, it's fallen on hard times a couple of times, "Rossi explained, adding that a previous owner once considered splitting the Fremont into two screens. "What you see is a continual evolution (toward smaller theaters) because the audiences are smaller."

Although the single-screen Fremont once boasted 1,060 seats, it currently has about 850. (The three-screen Mission, built in a converted bus garage, seats 520.)

It's proving more and more difficult to fill those seats, said Bruce Sanborn, chief executive officer of The Movie Experience, aka Sanborn Theatres, Inc. The oldest existing movie theater company in Southern California, the Newport Beach company has operated the Fremont and Mission Cinemas for about a decade; it also runs Downtown Centre Cinemas in San Luis Obispo.

"If you've been in the business as long as us, you value these old things," said Sanborn, whose grandfather built his first theater in 1918. "The people who go to the movies now, I don't know if they appreciate (old theaters) enough to go to ones without all the bells and whistles."

In order for the Fremont to survive, he said, it has to change with the times -- either by transforming into an event center, as theaters throughout Southern California have done, or becoming part of a larger complex.

In the past, 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, reuniting its classic lineup for the first time in 15 years. Former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham performed a solo acoustic show at the Fremont this May. (Local music hall SLO Brewing Co. plans to book more shows there in the future.)

The theater is also a crucial venue for the San Luis Obispo film festival, which has been holding events there since the early 1990s.

More than a dozen filmmaking greats, including Morgan Freeman, Malcolm McDowell and Alan Arkin, have accepted the festival's highest honor -- the King Vidor Career Achievement Award - while standing on the Fremont stage. (One past King Vidor honoree, Peter Fonda, even dubbed the theater "groovy," Eidson said.)

With the Fremont's future in mind, Rossi and King propose to reinvent the downtown property as the Fremont Square Entertainment Complex, which would combine the Fremont and Mission Cinemas with a new 300-seat IMAX theater. Currently, the closest IMAX-style screen is located at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center in San Simeon.

The proposed complex, which would replace a small parking lot behind the Fremont, would feature a an acoustics-enhancing sawtooth roof, photovoltaic solar panels and a neon 1942 Warner Bros. marquee that previously graced Santa Barbara's Granada Theatre.

" We see it as being a continuation of the evolution of entertainment," said Rossi, who hopes to complete construction as early as next summer if all goes according to plan. "(The Fremont) is an important landmark. It represents the character of San Luis Obispo."

"Not seeing the Fremont (there) would be a completely different look for downtown," Bouman said. "It's iconic, especially in San Luis Obispo, where they really want to keep that small-town nostalgic feel."

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