As part of a 12-year restoration and preservation of the historic Hollywood Theater in Gowanda, New York, the theater’s iconic marquee was refurbished by Signs Unlimited in Eden, New York. The newly restored sign was given a digital upgrade with the installation of a Watchfire Signs 8mm LED double-sided display. This allows the theater to change the sign’s messages electronically rather than by hand.
We spoke with Jamie Allen of Signs Unlimited to learn about the ins and outs of the project.
What were the major challenges of the marquee restoration?
JA: The architect on the project wrote up the specs to repair the sign; however, when we took the marque down and transported it back to our shop, we found the interior wood was rotted, and much of the main steel had deteriorated beyond repair. Therefore, we needed to secure new funding, devise new engineering, and figure out a new process for assembling the sign.
Additionally, due to the pandemic, we experienced a number of supply chain issues making it hard to source key items to repair and renovate the sign. Costs for many of these items had tripled and quadrupled. Availability was also nearly impossible due to lack of production as most of these items are no longer made in the United States.
Simple things like red paint were impossible to find, and if another sign shop had a gallon, we were forced to pay high prices and wait until we found enough. We then had to mix all of them together to avoid dye lot or color variation issues.
Was there any aspect of the project you found particularly unique?
JA: While taking the old structure apart, it was found that when the original craftsman assembled the structure, it was believed to be partially built on-site because of the way the metals were connected and assembled. There was no way to get inside to remove bolts or access key assembly items. The parts had to have been built in a shop and then assembled on-site during installation.
Nuts & bolts
JA: The main steel structure was all built by drilling and countersinking holes vs. welding, and all the structural bolts used were countersunk. In addition, flat-headed, straight blade screws were used with square structural nuts vs. Phillips head and hex nuts used today. The time to countersink and bore all the steel must have taken forever back then. There were thousands of sheet metal screws placed perfectly on the center, and, again, all flat head brass screws were saved, stripped, cleaned, and reused for reassembly. The screws backed right out without issue, even after numerous years of weather and multiple coats of paint (this is something that today’s hardware never does).
JA: We needed to replace all of the neon lighting around the marquee. Finding neon tube artisans today is difficult as this lighting method is not used like it once was. We called signs shops around the country to secure 533 Bakelite sockets that replaced the original “Eagle” sockets from that era — because the pandemic had halted any production of these sorts of items. Hundreds of phone calls were made to small sign shops around the country, buying up shelf stock to try and get to the number required. This, too, created an unforeseen issue because with sockets coming from all over the industry and from different times, the socket design and generations had changed. So we ended up with four different style sockets — that all had their own inherent install issues.
JA: The project was initially thought to require about 6-9 months of restoration. However, by the time all of the aforementioned issues were resolved, the sign was reinstalled and finally put back in service on December 3, 2022 — exactly three years from the day it was initially removed.