There are a lot of unique places in SLO, but one of the most recognizable places has got to be The Big Fremont Theatre. We’ve all seen it. It’s hard to miss if you live here.
And like most of the places I’ve looked at for my column, it’s even cooler when you actually check it out. I especially love these kind of old buildings that are a reminder of what things used to be like — the Fremont is a great example. I’ve always loved the look and feel of the Fremont, but for this column, I found out some really cool facts about the place that you probably didn’t know.
The Fremont opened in 1942 and was built by the Fox Theatre Entertainment group, general manager Mark Scaccianoce said. Theaters built by this company had the Art Deco style that can be seen in the Fremont. When it opened, the theater “probably sold out almost all the time,” Scaccianoce said.
“The heyday when they used to have real ushers with flashlights and caps that sat you at your seat — it’s sad that those days are gone,” he said.
The Fremont had a “much grander feel in the ’40s and ’50s,” according to Scaccianoce, but some aspects have since been altered. There used to be chandeliers in the lobby and the art on the ceiling is different, he said. The main screen room has otherwise been kept as original as possible, except for restorations.
The neon sign that’s out front has been there since day one, Scaccianoce said, but some of the neon has been removed. He also said the theater’s original carpeting had blacklight threads, and the blacklight neon that stays on in the screen room made the floor sparkle like stars. How cool would that be?
Sanborn Theatres Inc. has operated the Fremont for approximately 10 years when they were asked by the building’s owners to step in, according to majority owner Bruce Sanborn. The family company also operates the downtown multiplex cinema and have been running theatres since 1918. Back at the time that the Fremont opened, people went to movies to see news reels as well as the movies, Sanborn said.
“That’s probably what happened at the Fremont,” Sanborn said.
It’s hard to stay open by just showing today’s movies, Scaccianoce said, and so what helps keep the theater going are their classic and rewind movie series. The classic series, “Screening Room Classics,” features movies from between the 1930s and 1950s, and some later movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “A Clockwork Orange” are also featured.
The rewind movie series, “SLO Rewind,” feature movies like “Back to the Future” that college students will recognize. The Fremont’s rewind series started approximately seven years ago, Scaccianoce said, and they have trivia questions and prizes for audiences and encourage people to dress up. The classic and the rewind movies are shown two or three times a month, he said.
The Fremont only has one screen, but it’s huge. It’s pretty awesome. And the sound is great too — “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” was playing while I was interviewing Scaccianoce, and the music was totally clear outside in the lobby. Sanborn said the larger screen was installed and a sound upgrade was done once his company took it over. However, Scaccianoce said there’s more to what draws people that the sound or visual quality.
“For people my age … it’s the nostalgic feeling of the theater that draws people here,” he said. “For people that are younger, it is seeing something that a lot of them have never even seen.”
Seeing the younger generation’s reactions to the theater’s singular screen is “part of my joy,” he added.
“When they come in … and go ‘What theater is it in?’ … and then they walk and they go through that door and what I hear is ‘Ohhh!’ or ‘Oh my God!’ — whatever exclamation comes out of the theater, I smile from ear to ear,” he said.
The Fremont gets as many people just coming to see the Theatre itself as the downtown multiplex theater gets to see movies, Scaccianoce said. His relationships with customers are also much more personal.
“Even if we did poor business and they shut the Theatre down, I’m sure there would be a community outcry to get the Theatre reopened — whoever opened it, they didn’t care as long as there were movies being shown,” he said.
He’d personally like to have more money to keep up the Theater, but they do the best they can, Scaccianoce said. It’s now in better condition than when he became general manager five years ago, he added.
Sanborn said it’s “very unique” that SLO still has a theater like the Fremont, and that his company is hoping to make more improvements in the future.
People should come to the Fremont because of the great customer service, according to Scaccianoce — things like greeting and saying goodbye to customers and getting to know the regulars. Everyone was really nice when I went to check out the theater — and I wasn’t even a paying customer.
The Fremont is a great place to see movies, there’s no doubt about that. But it really is unique in its atmosphere as well, and harkens back to a different era of cinema. If you’ve been there, go back. If you haven’t, you’re definitely in for a treat.