On October 7, 2009, workers install a sparkling new vertical marquee on the historic Paramount Theatre at 9th Avenue and Pine Street in Seattle. The marquee, fabricated by The Sign Factory of Kirkland, Washington, is a detailed reproduction of the one that has been in place since 1930, when the two-year-old Seattle Theatre was renamed the "Paramount" and the marquee relettered to reflect the change. After that, the six-story-high sign remained in place for another 79 years. Over that time, Seattle's weather took a slow but relentless toll on the marquee, the exterior of which was made of sheet metal. Paint chips and blisters, metal rusts, stopgap repairs did little but buy time, and by 2009 the accumulated damage proved too great to remedy. The Seattle Theatre Group, which owns the Paramount, raised money from government, foundations, and the public to finance a new marquee. The Sign Factory of Kirkland, which maintained the old sign for several years, was selected to fabricate the replica, which has an outer skin made almost entirely of aluminum, and electrical and lighting upgrades to provide increased brilliance with a significant reduction in cost and energy consumption. Upon completion, the 65-foot-long sign is trucked to the Paramount site where, over just two days, the old marquee is removed and the new one is installed.
A Sign Through the Times
When the Seattle Theatre opened at 9th Avenue and Pine Street on March 1, 1928, it boasted that it was "the largest and most beautiful theatre west of Chicago" (Peltin, "Seattle's Paramount Theatre"). Local newspapers agreed, sparing no adjectives in singing its praises and comparing the ornate, Beaux-Arts venue to, among other things, "the ornate halls of the palace at Versailles" ("All Seattle Glories") and "the fabulous 'pleasure dome' of Kubla Khan" ("Thousands are Delighted With New Seattle Theatre").
Oddly, very few contemporary accounts make mention the theater's spectacular blue and gold vertical marquee, which was suspended on the western edge of the building, extended from the third floor to the ninth, and spelled out "Seattle" in glowing red letters arrayed vertically down its length. Photographs of the day do not reveal whether this original sign used neon for any of its illumination, but it seems highly unlikely; the first company in Seattle to offer neon lighting, the Electrical Products Corporation of Washington, did not do so until later in 1928.
The marquee was designed by Rapp & Rapp, the architects responsible for the design of the theater. It is less clear from available records who did the fabrication. Circumstantial evidence indicates that it may have been Seattle's J. C. Corey Sign Company, which, along with many others involved in the venue's design and construction, took out ads in the local papers congratulating the theater upon its 1928 grand opening.
The second part of the theater's original signage, the horizontal, three-sided readerboard that advertises current and coming attractions, has its own mysteries. This portion of the theater's outside display was originally rectangular in shape, with a long side facing Pine Street and two short sides perpendicular to the building's façade. The sign shows changes, both subtle and extreme, in photographs taken over the years. When the Seattle Theatre opened in 1928, the word "Seattle" was emblazoned across the sign's front, above the space reserved for show information, and each of its three faces was topped with an ornate pediment. In 1930, the new name "Paramount" was substituted for "Seattle" on both the vertical marquee and the readerboard, but it appears that the sign was otherwise unchanged. A photograph taken in 1947, however, reveals that the sign had been subtly altered by then, with the surmounting pediments less prominent and the addition of decorative cornerposts.
The biggest change came in 1956, when the Paramount embarked on a short-lived attempt to bring the new (and not yet perfected) Cinerama three-projector system to town. As part of this ill-fated experiment, the original readerboard was replaced with one shaped like a blunted triangle. It no longer carried the theater's name, but rather had "Cinerama" emblazoned on both sides, with the narrow front face carrying a neon design bearing a passing resemblance to a fleur-de-lis.
This initial stab at Cinerama by a Seattle theater was short-lived, and by 1958 the readerboard took on the appearance that it has today (2012), with "Paramount" written in large, red, block letters on a blue background on its two long sides and the fleur-de-lis pendant at front virtually unchanged. Because of its relatively recent vintage, this portion of the theater's exterior signage did not need replacement when the vertical marquee passed the end of its useful life.
The Worse for Wear
The original Seattle Theatre sign went on when the building first went up, and its underlying framework was attached directly to the structure. Fortunately (and unlike the marquee of the also-historic 5th Avenue Theater), this framework was still in good shape and needed only cleaning and fresh paint. But the sheet-metal panels that made up the exterior of the sign had not done so well; they had been exposed to Seattle's rain and damp for over 80 years, and were determined to be unsalvageable. These, together with the two-inch angle iron that tied the marquee's framework to two large I-beams that projected from the building's facade, would have to be replaced.
The sign's electronics also suffered from exposure and were seriously out of date. Most of the old marquee's primary illumination came from nearly 2,000 incandescent light bulbs. By 2009, despite regular repair, at least 400 of the lights were no longer working. In addition to the normal wear and tear, the portion of the sign's wiring that was exposed was further damaged by pecking pigeons and gnawing rodents, and the resulting bare wires created a fire hazard. Potentially worse, parts of the sign had been known to occasionally just fall off, endangering anyone passing below.
Those parts of the marquee's electrical system that weren't damaged were badly outdated. For instance, the devices used to achieve the "chasing" effect (in which a series of lights are given the appearance of chasing each other by turning individual bulbs on and off in a linear sequence), were ancient mechanical "chasers" -- clicking circuit-breakers with moving metal parts, not unlike those that could be seen in early telephone exchanges. The neon lights that outlined the marquee and that may have dated back as far as the 1930 name change used old-fashioned, power-hungry magnetic transformers. Decades of piecemeal repair work had bought a few years additional use, but by 2008 the 80-year-old landmark was dimmed, decrepit, and potentially dangerous.
In December 2008, David Allen, director of operations for the Seattle Theatre Group, a not-for-profit organization that operates three of Seattle's elegant old theaters (the Paramount, the Neptune, and the Moore), concluded that it was time to replace the Paramount's aging marquee. Millions had been poured into restoring the entire theater in mid-1990s, much of it by retired Microsoft executive Ida Cole (b. 1947), who had purchased the venue in 1992 and generously funded much of its restoration. But with all the other expense, replacing the sign back then was just not in the financial cards.
Under the leadership of Kate Becker, STG's Director of Development, the organization started raising funds for a new sign in early 2009. Among the first to step forward were government-run organizations and private foundations, including King County's 4Culture, Washington state's Building For The Arts program, the Martin Fabert Foundation, and the Seattle Foundation. By summer of that year enough had been raised to start the project, and on August 24, 2009, it was announced that The Sign Factory of Kirkland had been selected to do the job. Seven days later, STG announced that it had obtained from large contributors over half the funds needed and was starting a fundraising campaign, called "Paramount Sign of the Times -- Replication, Restoration and Greening," to raise from the public the money needed to completely pay off the project's cost. Said Becker:
"We need to raise another $150,000 --- and we're asking for the help of Seattlites, those who walk past our sign every day as well as those in outlying areas who come to see a show, to consider donating $10, $20 or $50, to keep this historic sign lit" ("Sign of the Times").
Getting it Right
The selection of The Sign Factory to do the job made sense. For more than 15 years the company's field manager, Tom Bonifant, had doctored the old marquee, replacing transformers, wiring, and sockets, and patching sections of sheet metal as needed. No one knew the sign better than he, and he would work closely with company's production manager, Shawn Spencer, throughout the design and fabrication process.
One of the first tasks was to obtain permission to proceed from the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. Because the theater, including its sign, received City landmark status in 1995, no significant changes could be made to either without prior approval of the board. Representatives of the theater and The Sign Factory met several times with board members, and a full-scale, section prototype of the sign was assembled to demonstrate the marquee's actual paint colors, materials, and lighting. The board approved the project under the condition that the replacement match the original’s design and size. With this approval in hand, the necessary permits were obtained from the City.
The next step was to determine just how much of the old marquee could be salvaged and reused in the new. Structural testing by West Coast Structural Engineering of Mukilteo found that almost all of the sign's iron framework was in good shape and needed only surface preparation and repainting. As expected, it was determined that virtually all of the marquee's sheet metal and its wiring and electrical components would have to be replaced.
Once the scope of the work was set, the next challenge was to figure out how best to make a reproduction that would be as nearly as possible a precise replica of the original. The existing marquee was simply too big to be removed and used as a template. With the sign in place, detailed information was collected about every piece of steel and sheet metal and every nut, bolt, and screw, and paint samples were taken from all surfaces. Then Sign Factory employees resorted to one of the oldest known methods of print-making to create a pattern of the entire sign. Large sheets of paper were taped to the marquee, and "rubbings" made of the intricate outlines of its letters and other design elements. The accumulated information was used to produce a full-size, highly detailed drawing of the entire sign.
The process then moved from one of the oldest technologies to one of the newest. The details of the rubbed pattern and the measurements were entered into The Sign Factory's computer-aided-design (CAD) program to create a full-size, digital version of the sign. This data could be fed directly to the company's sophisticated computerized routers, which then cut out the two faces of the marquee, placing all the appropriate holes to accommodate wiring and lighting. To minimize weight, reduce future weather damage, and comply with environmental requirements, 0.125-inch aluminum manufactured with 44 percent recycled material was used.
The Paramount marquee is 65 feet tall and its width varies from five feet, four inches on the long center section to eight feet, eight inches at the somewhat bulbous ends. The letters spelling out "Paramount" are of the "open-pan channel" type, meaning that they are three dimensional and have an open face to accommodate lighting. To match the original, each new letter was eight inches deep. The letters' interior walls and the marquee's ornate border, also open-faced and recessed eight inches, were painted gold. After the letters were welded to the marquee's two faces (which are designated the "face" and the "back"), both faces and the outer surface of the letters, were painted blue. For ease of maintenance, access panels were installed at strategic points to permit future work on the electrical components, and each such panel was hinged and weatherproofed to keep out moisture, pigeons, and rodents.
The open-pan channel letters were each illuminated by three neon tubes, two in red framing a center one in blue. If laid lengthwise, the neon tubes would extend 420 feet, nearly a football field and a half. The marquee's outer borders and top and bottom design details, each divided into three separate channels, were lit by 1,944 LED lights (or 1,932, depending on which source is consulted). The Sign Factory filmed the original marquee in action to faithfully reproduce the speed and rhythm of the chasing effect that was used for these perimeter lights. Care was taken to ensure that the quality of light produced by the LEDs would closely match that of the original incandescent bulbs.
Putting It Up
The original Paramount marquee had been left in place while the new one was being fabricated, so the old sign's removal and the new sign's installation took place one right after the other over two days in October, 2009. Beginning on October 6, the sheet-metal faces and lettering of the old marquee were cut into five sections on each side of the sign and removed from the frame, using a 40-ton crane and a 125-foot "cherry-picker" lift. As described in a Seattle Times article, quoting David Jeffers of the Seattle International Film Festival:
"The vertical marquee of Seattle's historic Paramount Theatre came down on Tuesday, in cascading clouds of rust, grime and pigeon poop. With a large construction bucket and an even larger crane, ironworkers carefully dissected the old masthead in ten great pieces of rotting sheet metal, using cutting torch, pry bar and muscle, while a crowd of onlookers watched from the street" ("The Paramount's New Marquee").
Each face of the new marquee was divided into three sections. These were carried to the site on three flatbed trucks, carefully lifted into place, and attached to the existing framework. Apex Steel Inc. of Redmond was in charge of removing the marquee and welding the new one into place, all under the eyes of City inspectors. The careful planning and measurement paid off -- the work went on virtually without a hitch and was finished well ahead of schedule.
A New Old Marquee
In little more than two days, a marquee that had been in place for 81 years was removed and replaced by a precise replica. After the sign's new faces were in place, only the final wiring hookups and testing remained to be done. These were accomplished in a matter of days, and the entire project, from initial idea to first light, was completed in just over 10 months.
So precise was the reproduction, and so speedy its installation, that someone not paying close attention might not have noticed that anything had changed. But much had changed, as the details show. First, the savings in weight, and thus in stress on the framework and the building to which it is attached, was substantial. It was estimated that the sheet-metal sections of the original marquee that were removed weighed close to six tons; the new aluminum faces weighed half that.
The savings in energy consumption were even more dramatic. Although the old mechanical "chaser" circuit-breakers were left in place for historical reasons, they were replaced with much lighter and more energy-efficient electronic devices. Each neon-illuminated letter had its own small transformer, replacing the heavy magnetic transformers used in the original. Each of the original incandescent bulbs that lit the marquee's border and provide its chasing animation drew 11 watts; the replacement LEDs draw only 0.75 watts each, far less than one-tenth as much.
Overall, the energy savings are estimated to be approximately 90 percent. This translates into a net savings of nearly 500,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, or enough to power approximately 55 average Seattle homes. The new marquee's miserly energy use also qualifies the Seattle Theatre Group for approximately $56,000 in energy-efficiency rebates from Seattle City Light.
Once the testing was done, the Seattle Theatre Group was ready to publicly debut the Paramount's new marquee. On October 21, 2009, a small gathering of Paramount Theatre fans and supporters held a brief ceremony in the venue's splendorous lobby.
After a few short speeches and a salute to Ida Cole, who had saved the Paramount from destruction some 17 years earlier, the group moved outside into a clear twilight evening for the lighting. Accompanied by a drumroll, the assembled counted down from five in unison. When they reached "one" there was the audible sound of a large electrical circuit closing. Instantly, the new marquee and the readerboard below burst into glorious illumination.
The meticulous care that went into its design and fabrication ensured that the Paramount's new marquee is in fact nearly indistinguishable from its predecessor and preserves the theater's historic character. The efforts of all involved were further rewarded in 2010, when Historic Seattle presented the project team with an Illuminating History award for "their extraordinary efforts in ensuring that the sign continue to light up a key downtown corridor for decades to come" ("Paramount Theatre Sign: Illuminating History Award").