Projects 1925-1950


De Anza Theatre

Disney Theatre

Drive-in Theatres

Egyptian Theatre
(Long Beach)

Follies Theatre

Fox Theatre
(Long Beach)

Fox Theatre

Fox Theatre
(Redondo Beach)

Fox Theatre

Fox Wilshire Theatre
(Beverley Hills)

Garmar Theatre

Grand Theatre
(Clarkdale, AZ)

Helix Theatre
(La Mesa)

Hollywood Theatre

Hopkins Theatre

Huntridge Theatre
(Las Vegas)

La Tijera Theatre
(Los Angeles)

Lakewood Theatre
(Los Angeles)

Loma Theatre
(San Diego)

Mayfair Theatre

Mexico City Theatres

Linda Vista Theatre
(Mexico City)


De Anza Theatre

Riverside (1937-1939)

The De Anza is a modest, simplified Streamline Moderne style theatre appropriate for a small city. Differences between the rendering and the exterior of the finished building show that much of the streamlining was eliminated, with the exception of the curved façade at the corner and the curved form of the pylon.

The photographer, Julius Shulman, captured the new theatre in full sunlight with deep shadows; his image accentuates the dramatic black and white contrasts and the sculptural forms of the building. The gently curved blond wood-paneled walls of the auditorium, and the flowing figures executed in bas relief flanking the screen, carry out the Streamline Moderne theme. The curving, wood-paneled foyer displays a bas relief wood-on-wood mural depicting the arrival of Spanish explorer De Anza in California. An extravagantly curved couch, streamlined settees with curved arms and backs, and a table with curving legs furnish the ladies’ lounge. The boxed chandelier suspended from the ceiling is typical of the Moderne taste for soft, indirect lighting. Shulman’s photograph takes advantage of the strong natural light from the windows to create a study in light and shadow.


Disney Theatre

Burbank (1939-1941)

The Disney Theatre was used for private screenings on the Disney lot. Lee’s concept shows a glistening exterior of shiny materials, perhaps glass or ceramic tiles. To add height and presence to the building, Lee set the entrance up on a podium and accented the semicircular Streamline Moderne façade with vertical tower forms. A broad overhanging marquee echoes the circular form of the façade; its recessed lights illuminate the glass-walled foyer and the area around the entrance.


Drive-in Theatres

The drive-in theatre concept was first tried in the mid-1930s but only after World War II did the idea gain widespread acceptance. Lee designed several drive-in theatres, a type especially suited to the mild climate and car-dependent economy of Southern California. The drive-in allowed the whole family to go to the movies in the family car, with no need for a baby-sitter. It also proved especially popular with dating teenagers, who found drive-ins the ideal refuge from watchful adult eyes. The drive-in was also cheap to build. A large piece of land, a structure to display the screen and smaller buildings for tickets, refreshments and the projector were all that was needed. The parking lot was usually graded to provide the parked cars with a good angle for viewing the screen, and each space was equipped with a speaker that could be hooked to the dashboard to bring the sound into the car.

Drive-in Theatre

Arcadia (1948) Still in operation in 1994.

Lee’s renderings show both an overall perspective plan and a perspective as seen from the road. The theatre was planned in conjunction with Arcadia’s Royal Oaks subdivision, hence the image of the oak and the reference to oaks in the original scheme.

A monumental Streamline Moderne sign perpendicular to the screen structure attracted customers, but the screen structure itself is almost completely utilitarian.To give the screen structure a more substantial-looking base, Lee designed a series of tall ladder-like structures that he covered with translucent corrugated plastic panels. This structure may have been illuminated from within at night. The view of the screen from the parking lot shows the angled parking bays and speaker posts.

 A series of snapshots taken at the construction site shows how the screen structure was framed on the ground and then tilted up using wooden wheels as fulcrums. This innovative construction technique was borrowed from concrete tilt-slab construction pioneered in Southern California in the early part of the century by Irving Gill and later used by other Southern California modernists.

Drive-in Theatre

San Diego (1948) Demolished.

The El Rancho was built in the same year as the Edwards Drive-in Theatre in Arcadia. Although no construction photos survive, the construction technique was presumably similar. In this example, Lee used the street side of the screen structure to feature a colorful mural-like scene of the Mexican landscape illuminated from behind, a cultural reference appropriate to the border city of San Diego.

This view of the screen shows the typical drive-in parking lot and speaker stanchions. The wings flanking the projection screen were built to deflect light from passing cars and also to obstruct the view of the screen from non-paying viewers outside the parking lot.

Drive-in Theatre

Ventura (1936) Unknown whether executed to Lee's design.

This earliest-known concept for a drive-in theatre by Lee shows a sophisticated use of illuminated triangular forms massed alongside the large illuminated screen structure and along the edges of the parking lot, creating an advertising sign for the theatre out of the drive-in form itself. The sharp-edged forms are clearly Art Deco in character, a style that is sometimes called Zig-Zag Moderne. The design vocabulary was adapted from usage current in theatre design at the time.

Drive-in Theatre

El Monte

This aerial view shows the typical configuration of the drive-in form. Drivers entered a road leading to the rear of the lot where they turned into the parking lot and then found a space in one of the semicircular rows of stalls. The projection room and perhaps a refreshment counter were located in the center of the lot or alternatively at the rear. A ticket seller was stationed in a ticket booth at some point along the entrance road.


Egyptian Theatre

Long Beach (1936) Unknown whether executed to Lee’s design.

Lee’s concept drawing for a storefront theatre in the ever-popular Egyptian theme betrays little attention on the façade to Egyptian-derived elements. The tall pylon sign, the illuminated marquee extended out over the sidewalk, the use of neon above the marquee, and the dramatically curved forms all serve to advertise the product to the audience on the street.


Follies Theatre

Location and date unknown

The S. Charles Lee archive contains a number of photographs of theatres that Lee was charged with remodeling. This series of photos of a turn-of-the-century vaudeville theatre illustrates by contrast the innovations developed by Lee and his contemporaries for movie theatres. The entry to the older theatres was usually off the street down a long hallway. Advertising displays were merely cardboard signs, and the foyer was a small cramped space, used only for collecting tickets. All design attention and expense were focussed on the elaborate Beaux Arts-style auditorium, which featured a proscenium flanked by protruding boxes. Traditional chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Box seats were also available at the sides of the main or orchestra levels.


Fox Theatre

Long Beach (1931) Demolished 1980s

Lee designed an elegant Beaux Arts style theatre to be used for both stage shows and motion pictures for the city of Long Beach. The massive poured-concrete building with its monumental cornice centered by a giant cartouche dominated the urban landscape of downtown Long Beach. The retail shop fronts at street level give a sense of the scale of the building.

The foyer was low-ceilinged and relatively narrow, serving primarily as access to the balcony. The pylons atop the newel posts echoed the giant pylons on the façade. The coffered and stenciled ceiling was a scaled-down version of the auditorium ceiling. The vaulted ceiling had stenciled beams with some arches filled in with stenciled garlands reminiscent of designs by Adams. Settees and chairs reflect the scale of the building.

The Beaux Arts style interior featured a proscenium arch framed by pseudo quoins and flanked by giant compositions of paired columns centered by oversize sculptures and cartouches There was clearly a stage behind the curtain and the organ used to accompany silent motion pictures is seen at the lower left. The perforated panel in the center of the ceiling is a ventilation vent. This view shows the lower and upper balconies.

The side walls were painted to simulate masonry with superimposed pilasters. Lee designed unusual indirect lighting fixtures and shades for the ceiling, side walls and under the balcony. Larger-than-life sculptures of women representing comedy and tragedy flank the stage; such representations are common motifs in theatre design. Both the statues and the surrounding columns are of cast stone. The columns are painted to simulate marble. Lee’s design for the ceiling lanterns incorporates traditional motifs such as fleurs-de-lys and sunbursts, while using sharp-edged geometry borrowed from Art Deco motifs.


Fox Theatre

Phoenix, Arizona (1930-1931) Demolished 1975

The Fox in Phoenix was one of Lee’s largest and most elaborate creations. Designed in the sharp-edged, abstract Zig-Zag Moderne style, the building covered half of one giant city block and had retail shop fronts at the sidewalk. Colored translucent glass in an Art Deco design decorated the transoms above the display windows. Behind the symmetrical façade the auditorium is offset to the left. The foyer is in the interior of the building. A vertical neon sign mounted on the central pylon above the marquee advertises the theatre, while a temporary sign on the marquee advertises a cool interior, an important advantage in Phoenix’s desert climate.

Lee’s design for the lobby, with the sunburst design on the terrazzo floor (repeated in the ceiling lights), the gilded zig-zag chevron motifs over the doors, and the heavy gilded ornament of the box office illustrates his motto: "The show started on the sidewalk."

The most striking feature of the foyer is the dramatic curving staircase to the lounge and balcony. Slender metal poles topped with glass disks and globes accentuate the curving form that appears to float in the space, outlined by the delicate filigree of the metal railing.

The foyer ceiling is decorated with large-scale Art Deco designs abstracted from leaf, flower, sun and wave forms. The arched ceiling is squared-off and accentuated by wooden moldings forming broad ribs. Furniture, mirror and lights are all squared off with cut corners, contrasting with the curving forms painted on the ceiling. Even the carpet design exhibits angular diagonals.

In the commodious upstairs lounge, Lee repeated the sunburst motif in the doors to the men’s and ladies’ rooms. A drinking fountain set into a marble niche was framed by an abstract fountain design painted on the wall. Sculptures of rearing horses set on the tables introduce a Western theme. The large-scale furnishings with their angular forms are similar to those in the foyer.

In the ladies’ lounge Lee scaled down the furniture and used curves and rounded edges. Individual vanities with shelves, seats and mirrors were typical of large motion picture theatres of the period. The bouquet of flowers on the table indicates that the photograph was taken at the time of the opening.

The walls and ceiling are decorated with swirling Art Deco and Zig-Zag Moderne motifs, accented by a pair of leaping mythical gazelles above the proscenium. Above them a gilded sunburst spreads out over the ceiling, an ornament incorporating the air intake grille of the ventilation system. The fire curtain displays an abstracted version of the Arizona desert landscape. Gilded grilles echoing the design of the box office and topped by sunbursts flank the proscenium above the front exits. The theatre organ to accompany silent motion pictures is at the front of the auditorium.

Mythical gazelle-like creatures romp in the abstract landscape decorating the auditorium walls. Sunbursts top the scalloped border of the scene at the top of the wall. Angular pilasters interrupt the wall surface; they probably house ventilation or sound ducts. On one wall an archer takes aim at a gazelle, while birds fly overhead. Jewel-like lanterns composed of geometrically shaped glass panes hang from the ceiling.

Photographs of the construction site show the extent of the theatre in relationship to nearby buildings and the surrounding low-rise urban context. A photograph of the theatre under construction shows the auditorium space offset to the left, belying the symmetry of the façade. Another shows the base of one of the cast stone auditorium pilasters before installation.


Fox Theatre

Redondo Beach. Remodeled (1937-1939) Unknown whether executed to Lee’s design.


Lee presented two concepts for remodeling the old theatre, which had a Spanish Colonial Revival facade. Both concepts present Streamline Moderne designs that were current in the late 1930s.


Fox Theatre

Bakersfield (1929-1930)

Lee’s concept for the Fox Theatre in Bakersfield, which had opened December 25, 1930) envisioned a major retail center anchored by the theatre on the corner and advertised by a multi-story tower. Designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the building featured a series of arcades at street level, mission tile on the roof, white stucco walls, and elaborate Churrigueresque detailing in cast stone on the tower, especially around the tower windows.

Considerably simplified and scaled down, the finished theatre retained its tower and some of the Churrigueresque detailing around the two lower tower windows. The square tower features a clock at the top. The stark poured concrete building maximizes the square footage of the lot. The marquee and arcade at street level and the curvilinear gable and balcony on the left wall relieve the severity of the design.

The foyer is enlivened by dramatic sloping beams (in poured concrete) stenciled in geometric designs. Tapestries depicting a map (right) and the Conquistadors encountering Native Americans decorate the foyer walls.

The auditorium is a so-called "atmosphere theatre", a popular design type which created a stage set surrounding the audience. In this example, the auditorium simulates a Spanish Colonial Revival village that the audience enters to see the show. Simulated buildings project from the walls, ivy hangs from their balconies and windows, trees painted on the wall behind provide a natural setting, and the whole is illuminated to create a realistic effect. Above is the dark sky, painted with clouds and featuring twinkling lights simulating the stars. Massive arches and stenciled decoration on the staircase walls carry out the Spanish Colonial Revival theme.


Fox Wilshire Theatre

Beverly Hills (1928-1930) Opened September 19 1930; renovated for live theatre, 1981.

The publication shows three of Lee’s many concepts for this lavish and important office tower and complex of movie theatre and retail shops in Beverly Hills. The building opened on September 19, 1930, only weeks before the stock market crash. Several sketches for the landmark tower survive in the S. Charles Lee archive.

The exterior view shows the Fox Wilshire on opening night illuminated by spotlights and draped with bunting. The exterior design was a much simplified version of Lee’s many concepts. The Fox sign became the most prominent attribute of the tower at night.

The interior design concept was lavish Art Deco, with contrasting light and dark (probably black and silver or gilt). The concept for the foyer proposed a domed ceiling, executed perhaps in stained glass or in paint on plaster. Curved staircases lead to the mezzanine above. The stage opening is set back deeply into a much larger proscenium arch. The sloping walls and ceiling surrounding the stage are heavily ornamented in gilt or silver plaster relief; the forms are the abstracted designs from nature and geometry typical of Art Deco design. The stage curtain, shown in various configurations, was designed in separate panels that could be raised individually, adjusting the space to stage productions or motion picture screenings and at the same time introducing a dramatic design element.

For the ladies’ lounge Lee used reflective black wall surfaces, angular mirrors, and white ceiling and zig-zag shaped vanity lights to create the glamorous sophisticated look associated with Hollywood in the 1920s.

Four photographs published at the time of the opening show the mezzanine, (top right), the exterior (center), the foyer (lower left), and the auditorium (lower right). Construction photos show the basement and the mass of wood framing used to make the forms for the poured concrete. Large derricks were used to lift the materials and equipment as the building rose.



Garmar Theatre

Montebello (1949-1950, opened March, 29 1950) Demolished.



Grand Theatre

Clarkdale, Arizona (1936)

Probably Lee’s simplest design and smallest commission was this 250-seat theatre for the United Verde Copper company in Clarkdale, Arizona. The crowd of people in front of the theatre, the handwritten note on the reverse of the photograph, and the letter from the manager all attest to the appreciation of this small theatre in a remote town in northern Arizona. Among the features added were two ceiling fans, some benches painted red, and a crying room.



Helix Theatre

La Mesa (1947-48)

One concept drawing, probably executed before World War II, uses simple curved forms of Streamline Moderne. A huge sign with a spiral or helix-shaped tower dominates the façade.

A later drawing shows a scaled-down design that is more conventional in massing. Streamline forms can still be seen in the sign area and in the porthole window on the right wall. However, the chief design elements have evolved from the smooth to the angular, with walls, marquee and canopies projecting out and up at angles.

The design evolved into a storefront remodel that uses every device to capture the attention of the passerby. The strong diamond pattern applied to the upper story, the series of vertical posts applied at street level, and the paneled entry doors draw attention to the centerpiece, the curving neon-outlined marquee. A curved box office at the sidewalk and poster cases framed in wavy-edged box frames are overwhelmed by the other design elements. Here the chief purpose of the design is to draw attention to the storefront, using a variety of cheap applied elements without regard for design integration.



Hollywood Theatre

Hollywood (1936, photo taken 1942)

This modest remodel of a storefront theatre replaced an earlier remodel of 1927 of a commercial building dating from 1919. The storefront tenants are all theatre-related: a restaurant where theatre patrons can eat before the show, a popcorn shop, a candy store for candy to take into the show, and a bookstore to browse in while waiting for the show to start. The neon-lit marquee and the tall neon sign attached to the parapet draw attention to the theatre entrance.



Hopkins Theatre

Oakland (1938-1941)

Douglas Dacre Stone, Associate Architect

This elaborate concept drawing shows a Streamline Moderne design using convex and concave curves, a prow-shaped pylon, and angular massing.

As built, the theatre was a much simplified Streamline Moderne façade overlaid on a basic brick commercial building. Strong contrasts between black and white and streams of neon outlining the marquee draw attention to the building.

The simple interior design illustrates the Streamline theme with the use of painted curves on the walls and semicircular ceiling panels that conceal lights, creating indirect lighting of the ceiling. Instead of a balcony, the rear of the auditorium is raked and separated from the main floor by a low partition and steps.



Huntridge Theatre

Las Vegas (1943) Still in operation in 1994.

Lee recycled his design for the Huntridge Theatre in Las Vegas in his proposed concept for the Lakewood Theatre in Lakewood, California.


La Tijera Theatre

Los Angeles (1948-49) Converted into an office building in 1994.

In the late 1940s and 1950s architects combined the fluid forms of the Streamline Moderne style with the square modules favored by International Style architects. In California a new form of modernism was developing that favored the use of natural materials, especially stone and wood, in architecture, foremost in residential building. These influences, however, were also felt in commercial buildings, especially in the suburbs. Hence La Tijera Theatre, on Sepulveda Boulevard in a growing suburban area near the airport. A streamlined automobile is entering the porte-cochere on the left.

Lee’s concept combines the flowing forms of Streamline Moderne, still considered the height of modernism, with the square modules and slim brick rectangular pylon borrowed from the International Style.

Lee designed his theatres to be most effective at night. The tall neon sign seems to hang in the air above the building. A grid of round lights underneath the canopy forms a high marquee and illuminates the entrance. Translucent panels on the lobby walls glow invitingly and the aluminum frames reflect the light. The poster cases are illuminated internally and outlined by neon strips.

The foyer is illuminated by two-story floor-to-ceiling windows. A mural on the slanting and curved wall of the foyer depicts a workman carrying a heavy basket (of sugar cane?) and a woman kneeling, both in a tropical setting. A curved banquette flanks the candy counter and popcorn machine. Bouquets of flowers on the shelf above the banquette indicate the photo was taken on opening night.

Round stools and round mirrors at the vanity counter and a curved banquette fitted to the curved wall of the ladies’ lounge reinforce the Streamline look. Even the wallpaper, printed with a pattern of round tents, echoes the theme.

The auditorium walls curve towards the screen, interrupted in each side a scalloped wall edge where the screen curtain, lit by indirect lighting begins. The effect is further enhanced by the continuation of a vine pattern on the walls in cut-out form over the front exit openings. Globes of light at the center of grilles concealing the ceiling fans neatly combine two functions. The ceiling is further decorated by a scalloped design painted around the light and ventilation fixtures.


Lakewood Theatre

Lakewood, Los Angeles (1944-45) Still operating in 1994.

Probably hoping to get a larger commission than just a theatre, Lee produced a rendering of his concept for a theatre integrated with a bank and retail store. The suburb of Lakewood was a postwar phenomenon, when thousands of houses were built in record time, creating an entirely new community. Lakewood needed everything for its shopping center, banks, stores, and of course a motion picture theatre.

A later rendering was far more streamlined than the earlier version, with curving walls, porthole openings and prow-like pylons. The airplane flying overhead reinforces the streamlined imagery.

Lakewood’s shopping center in the foreground is surrounded by vacant fields. The houses of the new community are going up in the background. An older village, Quincy, at lower left, will soon be surrounded by the new town. Two blocks at left center are marked as designated for a "City College."

Lee’s design was adapted to remodeling the old Town Hall on the site. The pylon with its scalloped sides and the marquee are the only design elements on the exterior.

The night photo of the marquee with its neon strips and interior illuminated sign was taken as a publicity photo for Bevelite, the manufacturer of the removable letters used to spell out the names of the show and the stars on the marquee. As the theatre was a reuse of an earlier building, Lee had little opportunity for interior structural changes. For the foyer, he chose modern, rectangular lines. Paneled auditorium doors and the simplified Greek key design painted on the upper wall add interest. Sleek banquettes upholstered in a striped fabric are set into the walls of the foyer. An overhanging cornice creates the opportunity to conceal indirect lighting and reduces the space to a human scale. A narrow screen pierced by square, framed cutouts is located at the end of the banquette, enhancing a sense of enclosure.

In the auditorium, the typical proscenium arch has been dispensed with, although it is still indicated by the swags of the valance and the curtain before the screen. Decoration is minimal, concentrated solely on the curved portion of the side walls flanking the screen. Abstract metal sculptures evoking a pineapple ornament the side walls. Their reflective surfaces and the wavy reflective stripes behind them give a touch of elegance of Regency Moderne to the otherwise utilitarian auditorium.

At opening night ceremonies Lee, at left, holds a bouquet of roses together with a woman, probably the client’s wife. The man at the right is unidentified.



Linda Vista

Mexico City (1941-1943)

Conceived as the Tepeyac Theatre, renamed Linda Vista.

Lee’s concept for a large theatre in Mexico City uses circular domed forms borrowed from the Arabic tradition in Spain and applies elaborate encrustations of Churrigueresque ornament typical of the Spanish Baroque around the monumental central entry, at the cornice line and to frame the windows. Elaborate finials top the parapets and the suggestion of a minaret can be seen on the right.

The night view emphasizes the illuminated tower and a round illuminated kiosk in Streamline Moderne style that would attract people to the theatre.

As built, the circular front kiosk and tower perform the function of advertising the theatre as a destination and display the posters for shows to passersby.

The ticket booth is housed in a round domed next to the entry. The buttresses on the wall at left are topped by pyramidal caps and crowned by finials.

The domed box office is at street level, but the entry itself is reached by a broad flight of stairs. Setting the building on a podium with an entrance set well back from the street differs from the usual motion picture theatre in the United States which is entered at street level. The theatre is made more imposing, reflecting the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Mexico City and the more formal Mexican custom of spending the whole evening out, eating and dancing in the restaurant and also seeing the movie. The large sunken patio next to the auditorium was an extension of the restaurant inside. Here people could eat, drink and socialize and also watch people on the street, a favorite pastime in Mexico.

The ticket booth window is framed by cast stone detailing suggesting a theatre curtain drawn open. Below the window is a small sign giving the name of the architect and the date, a detail usually omitted on buildings in the United States.

A grandiose Art Deco Baroque design frames the entrance to the auditorium. The center panel appears to be leather or fabric, with a design of three maidens flying through the air, bearing bouquets of flowers. The foyer walls are wood veneer, with the flitches laid on in a mirror pattern, making long vertical stripes on the walls.

Colorful murals set in fanciful round painted frames depict regional dances and garb of Old Mexico.

Simple curving lines and a sumptuously draped curtain suggest an understated elegance. The wall pilasters conceal indirect lights. Large round translucent glass discs in the ceiling diffuse the light over the space.

Construction photos reveal the immense effort involved in constructing this very large building. Unlike counterparts in the United States that were being built of poured concrete using derricks and heavy machinery, this building in Mexico City in the 1940s was painstakingly constructed of brick that was then surfaced with stucco. The dome of the box office was also constructed of brick, using a technique probably brought to Spain by the Arabs. An arcade and a sinuous curved wall form a courtyard beside the auditorium wall.


Loma Theatre

San Diego (1944-46) Still in operation in 1994.

Perhaps Lee’s most utilitarian design, the Loma is essentially a large box set in a parking lot. This is a utilitarian building constructed during wartime, probably to serve soldiers stationed in San Diego, one of the biggest military garrisons on the West Coast. There is almost no architectural detailing.

Lee’s design still puts the ticket booth and sign with its canvas marquee at the sidewalk. They are connected to the entrance by a canvas canopy on poles. The porthole window and the pylon jutting up from the corner of the building are the only references to the Streamline Moderne style.


Mayfair Theatre

Ventura (1939-40) Still in operation in 1994.

This sleek Streamline Moderne design with portholes and a swooping roof almost seems ready to take off from its site and hover over the ground like a flying saucer. The realized building is less dramatic, partially because it is sited on a prosaic small-town street. Nevertheless, it retains the portholes and swooping form of the roofline. The pylon sign and the curving marquee command the corner site.

Indirect lighting concealed in the ceiling cove, and over-scaled couches and a mirror, lend a spacious, elegant feeling to the simple space. The simple interior of the auditorium is enlivened by gently undulating walls that are abruptly interrupted by angular partitions that frame and enclose a pair of gigantic paintings of flowers flanking the proscenium.


Mexico City Theatres


Lee did a number of renderings for theatres to be built in Mexico City in the 1940s. At least two, perhaps three, were actually built. Because they included restaurants and other entertainment areas, they were grander than most of his designs in the United States. This rendering depicts a grand foyer with a mezzanine and gigantic pylons anchoring the staircases at both sides.