Times Past

When Fremont Theatre’s grand opening became a WWII bond drive — and a red-carpet event

Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo in 1942.
Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo in 1942.

“Good morning, Breakfast Clubbers! … Good morning from San Luis Obispo, California.”

It was Memorial Day, May 29, 1942, during a war that most Americans understood would be very long and costly in terms of human life. The Breakfast Club radio show was a perfect voice of America for the duration.

Host Don McNeill’s cheery voice opened “The Breakfast Club” from 1933 to 1968. Originally on the NBC “Blue Network,” broadcasting from Chicago’s famed Merchandise Mart, it was among the most popular shows on radio during the 1930s and ’40s.

In many ways, it was the radio era predecessor of the “Today” show, “Good Morning America” and the “CBS This Morning Show,” featuring visits from popular entertainers, advice on how to manage your household better and lots of corn like when a young Jerry Lewis set fire to McNeill’s commercial script as he was reading it.

The “Memory Time” segment featured letters from listeners with poetry and essays on a variety of homey topics. This became a “letters home” segment during World War II when McNeill traveled to towns near one of the many military bases throughout America. The military trainees would get a chance to go on the air and say hello to “Mom and Pop in Poughkeepsie.”

In San Luis Obispo, NBC set up an outdoor studio for McNeill in newly created Victory Square on the new courthouse lawn across from the Greyhound Bus Depot and the new Fremont Theatre.

The Fremont’s grand opening, much delayed by wartime shortages of construction, plumbing and electrical materials, brought a large contingent of Hollywood stars to San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispans engulfed Monterey Street, awaiting two buses carrying Hollywood celebrities who were coming to a new cinema and to encourage the sale of war bonds.

Boxing great Max Baer got off the chartered bus. So did Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Constance Bennett, John Carroll, Nat Pendleton, Carole Bruce, Harry Davenport, Jackie Cooper, Charlie Ruggles, James Craig and Carole Landis.

First there was a bond rally in Victory Square. Then the rally moved over to the theater, where attractive, uniformed usherettes showed everyone to their seats.

“As quiet settled over the crowd, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’s’ stirring measures brought them to their feet,” remembered W. Young Louis, the proud chief projectionist.

“Then the ‘Voice of the Fremont Theatre’ came from behind the curtain to welcome the people to the grand opening of the ‘theater of tomorrow,’ stating that although it was ‘built of steel and stone it had a heart and soul’ and would strive to provide entertainment for all who came within its doors,” Young added.

“Lou Rosenberg, manager of the Fremont, said ‘hello’ to everyone in his own friendly fashion,” he continued.

The beautiful Fremont presented striking classic art deco features, including a swirling, duo-cove ceiling lit with ultraviolet bulbs and 100-foot-long murals and chambers to embellish the soundtrack of the films. According to Young, it had been a dream of Rosenberg’s for many years. He was a partner in the Fox West Coast Theaters Inc., and the Fremont was the last movie house that organization would build during the war.

Then all the celebrities assembled on the stage and led the crowd in the oath of allegiance to the American flag. After this, the curtain rose for the premier showing of “This Above All,” starring Tyrone Power and Joan Fontaine. The teary film was set in wartime England and had a desired effect.

That day’s events produced an amazing $778,000 in war bond pledges.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.