Located at the corner of First and Workman Streets in Old Town La Puente, the Star Theatre is notable as the only surviving lamella roof theater designed by master architect S. Charles Lee in Los Angeles County.
Constructed between 1947-48 and opened as the Puente Theatre, it is a rare and significant example of Lee’s postwar theater designs, designed and built during the final years of his career and showcasing his continued experimentation with new forms and technology to respond to changing needs.
Utilizing wood lamella construction for its roof and featuring monumentally scaled, freestanding signage that rises twice the height of the theater building, Lee’s design for the Star Theatre is directly influenced by two important postwar-era trends: lingering wartime restrictions on building materials and the growing prominence of the automobile.
Lee designed a total of five lamella roof theaters in California during the late 1940s, two each in Los Angeles and San Diego Counties and one in Tulare County. Two have been demolished, with one remaining in each of the three counties.
The Star Theatre is profiled in the 1994 S. Charles Lee monograph The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater by Maggie Valentine, Ph.D, architecture professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The University of California, Los Angeles holds the S. Charles Lee Collection, which contains numerous historic photographs of the Star Theatre under construction and following completion.
The Star Theatre’s programming changed with the times, screening adult films in the late 1970s and '80s and switching to first-run family films with Spanish subtitles in the early 2000s. It most recently operated as a first-run cinema prior to closing in 2007.
Lamella construction, introduced to the United States in 1925 and used primarily for industrial structures and building types such as auto showrooms and grocery markets, is comprised of diamond-shaped bracing formed of short lengths of lumber that can span great distances without view-obstructing columns or trusses. Lee embraced another benefit afforded by lamella construction, as it required no steel and wood was an unrestricted material. While the lower curved walls of the auditorium’s interior are plastered, the distinctive diamond-shaped bracing of the lamella roof is left exposed to form the ceiling.
The Star Theatre is unique among Lee’s five lamella roof theaters as the only one in which the half-cylinder shape of the roof also forms the design of the façade. The other four were designed with rectangular facades that concealed the shape of the auditorium from the street. As such, only the Star Theatre conveys its iconic form from the exterior. The distinctive façade retains its original aluminum-framed windows and entry doors.
Another unusual feature of the Star Theatre is the monumentally scaled signage, situated directly adjacent to the front right corner of the theater. While Lee was a major innovator of integrated signage for his theater designs, several examples of which reached lofty heights aimed at attracting patrons traveling in their automobiles, the signage he designed for the Star Theatre is unique among theater buildings for its size and scale as a freestanding sign and its dual function as a giant flagpole, rising twice the height of the theater building. The sign structure is comprised of five alternating pairs of slim metal poles evenly braced by horizontal members, which lends a striking grid-like appearance. A large, neon-illuminated star is perched atop the structure, next to a flagpole rising above the outermost pole.