San Luis Obispo’s Fremont Theater and Ancient Greek Eye Candy
In 1942 S. Charles Lee made one of the most outrageous experiments in architectural history, the Fremont Theater. Instead of recreating a Greek theater with dignified columns, friezes, and pediments around a live stage—like the open-air Greek Theatres of Berkeley (1903) and LA (1930)—he took ancient architectural details and blew them up into neon, backlit ceiling sculptures, and fluorescent carpets, all to pull people in to watch a big movie screen. Lee’s Fremont, a unique Greek Revival Streamline Moderne building, became one of the finest designs of the movie palace era.
Lee was born Simeon Charles Levi in Chicago, trained as an architect there, and opened an office in Los Angeles in 1922. By 1927 he had designed his first movie palace, the Spanish-Moorish Tower Theatre, still in downtown LA. Cinema towers became his signature in two decades of work.
According to Lee’s daughter in his 1990 LA Times obituary, he designed four hundred movie theaters—but that would be one every two and a half weeks. His papers at UCLA document 126 cinema designs, some of them unbuilt.
Lee was an enthusiastic revivalist, designing Babylonian, Gothic, Mission, and Spanish Baroque theaters. He even created a fake barn and windmill to house the Tumbleweed Theatre in El Monte. His greatest work, in the signature style of the 1930s and ’40s, was the sweeping lines of the Streamline Moderne, but even in its spare decoration he found room for historic reference.
The central motif of the Fremont is the acanthus leaf, which curls around the box office, in the marquee neon, on the terrazzo pavement, in the etched glass doors, on floors and ceilings, and was woven into the original carpet in a thread that would pick up black light after the main lights went down. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s De architectura, the only treatise on architecture surviving from classical antiquity, gives the legend of this Greek decorative motif. A maiden died, and her old nurse put a basket of offerings on her grave. When she returned, an acanthus had grown through it, so the leaf came to symbolize rebirth.
Another ancient symbol of rebirth is the lotus, which rises from the water to bloom. It’s depicted in red neon at the corners of the Fremont marquee. Between the neon acanthus leaves, Lee stylizes the spikes of a palmette: five sets of leaves and a central spear. This combo of palmettes and lotuses above acanthus leaves was a common pattern in the friezes of Greek architecture.
The narrow frieze of waves at the top and bottom of the Fremont sign is another one common on Greek Revival buildings: the Vitruvian wave, named after Marcus Vitruvius. The angular variation of the Vitruvian wave is the Greek key, still another common frieze motif, and Lee spreads four keys in white neon high along the building’s pink façade, below a line of white sculptural and multicolored neon fluting.
Topping everything in this confection is the Fremont’s tower, a sail type that Lee used for San Diego’s Tower Bowl a year earlier in 1941. But where the Tower Bowl’s sail is plain, the Fremont’s is fluted, suggesting the strings on a psalterion or Ancient Greek harp.
Ancient Greeks might have been surprised by the size of the Fremont’s motifs but not by the colors. The pediments, friezes, and columns of Greek temples—which later ages reproduced in pure white—were originally brightly painted, a fact well publicized by the early twentieth century. By remaking Greek classicism in fluorescence and neon, Lee transformed it from a long dead language to the vibrancy of its birth.
The Online Archive of California has hundreds of eye-popping photographs and drawings of S. Charles Lee’s movie palaces, which you can search for at oac.cdlib.org.
—James Papp, Secret SLO