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Fire destroyed Obispo Theater in 1975

Workmen prepare to lower the Obispo Theater marquee. It opened as the El Monterey in Dec. 26, 1911, and reopened as the Obispo on Dec. 31, 1928; the theater burned Dec. 28, 1975.
Workmen prepare to lower the Obispo Theater marquee. It opened as the El Monterey in Dec. 26, 1911, and reopened as the Obispo on Dec. 31, 1928; the theater burned Dec. 28, 1975. Telegram-Tribune

The Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” laments, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

An informal survey around the office of local businesses that have been lost includes Scrubby & Lloyd’s burgers, The World Famous Darkroom, Delite Bakery and Chong’s Candy.

Perhaps the most lamented loss in living memory is the Obispo Theater, located roughly where Pottery Barn is today at the corner of Osos and Monterey streets.

When it opened Dec. 26, 1911, as the El Monterey, a ticket cost 20 cents. A later owner remodeled and renamed the theater Obispo, updating it for talkies. When it reopened on the last day of 1928, it was the finest theater between Salinas and Santa Barbara, according to an Elliot Curry column on March 11, 1976.

The Daily Telegram advertised the opening film, “State Street Sadie” with Conrad Nagel and Myrna Loy as a “synchronized talking feature” along with a newsreel and two shorts.

The theater had a balcony, wrought iron chandeliers and a majestic painting above the screen of Morro Rock, which for many years had been hidden by dust and burned out light bulbs.

The theater’s shining moment came in 1932 when the Barrymore family came for the world premiere of “Rasputin.” Guests came from Hollywood and Hearst Castle, and they included the Barrymores (the stars of the film), Harpo Marx, Helen Hayes and director Irving Thalberg.

The Dec. 28, 1975, fire that ultimately destroyed the Obispo also damaged five other businesses: Sully’s Tavern, Cheap Thrills, Avatar Music, Down to Earth, Sal’s Shoe Shine Shop and Osos Street Records.

The Dec. 29, 1975, front page story by Telegram-Tribune reporter Pete Dunan describes the conflagration.

The alarm was sounded at 5:45 Sunday morning.

Battalion Chief Jack Wainscott said, “When I arrived, flames were jumping out of every window and the roof in the building.”

Four firemen were injured, though none hospitalized. Wainscott said he almost lost three firemen when part of the second floor collapsed.

Battalion Chief Elton Hall said, “It was incredible, one of the most spectacular fires I’ve ever seen. Flames were shooting out everywhere when I arrived; that parking lot (next to the Obispo) saved us from the flames spreading to the Anderson and God knows how many other buildings.”

Firefighters from Cal Poly and the California Department of Forestry were watching the nearby buildings, while 30 city firefighters worked the blaze, according to fire prevention Capt. Bradd Hopkins in a Dec. 26, 1983, story. He called it one of the largest fires in city history.

Arson or unsafe wiring were the initial focus of investigation, but the cause of the fire was eventually listed as undetermined. Damage was severe.

The last movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” had let out at 11:15 p.m. Saturday.

Opinion was initially mixed, but two days after the fire, San Luis Obispo’s chief building inspector Jack Kellerman ordered the owners, the Henry Dalessi estate and Sid Taylor, to demolish the unsafe building.

Quickly, the city was at odds with demolition contractor Lawrence Bordan.

Dunan wrote on Feb. 3, 1976, that Public Services Director David Romero complained, “We’ve had nothing but trouble with this outfit since they began work.”

Romero said Bordan did not have a city business license, blocked streets without permission and failed to water down debris. The state Contractors Licensing Board in Sacramento said Bordan’s contractor’s license had expired more than six months before.

Another story the same day by Kay Ready said a falling brick wall had crushed the unoccupied cab of a crane truck. Trees on Osos Street were also damaged, and the city issued a stop-work order the following day.

Bordan vowed to ignore the city: “I don’t work for them; I work for (property attorney) Shipsey and have a valid agreement with him.”

The second contractor hired to be the umbrella for Bordan was also found to be unlicensed and unbonded. A job foreman was arrested when Bordan continued work in the face of a stop-work order. Work resumed when Bordan reinstated his license, but the city continued to be upset when parking spaces were used to store salvaged bricks.

Bordan salvaged seats and the marquee, hoping to use it on a building he owned in Pismo Beach.

The fire department had to be called to extinguish seat cushions discovered still smoldering six weeks after the original fire.

The operator of Avatar Music told firefighters that he had canceled the store’s fire insurance and lost 3,000-year-old pre-Colombian statues being stored for a friend.

Eight years after the fire, Daniel David Frampton, a disgruntled ex-Cheap Thrills employee, confessed to setting the fire. The Telegram-Tribune carried stories on Dec. 16 and Dec. 23, 1983.

Frampton, then 37, was in a Napa jail on other charges when he confessed to lighting airplane glue at the top of the stairs next door to the theater. He said that he had set a fire at a Paso Robles chiropractor’s office later the same day.

San Luis Obispo authorities were concerned that the statute of limitations had run out on those crimes and wanted to confirm details in the report. The report from Napa police indicated that Frampton had been recently released from state prison.

Our clipping file runs out at this point.

The California Inmate Locator currently shows Daniel David Frampton, age 70, with an admission date of February 1984, at the California State Prison, Sacramento (next to Folsom prison).

For many years, the corner of Osos and Monterey was paved as a city parking lot; it was later replaced with the Court Street shopping center.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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