"A National Treasure"
Since its opening in September 1926, the ornate, Chinese-themed 5th Avenue Theatre, located within the downtown Skinner Building, was for more than 50 years one of Seattle's premiere venues for stage productions, movies, and visiting entertainers. But time took its toll, and by 1978 it appeared that the theater's days were numbered. The venue was forced to close that year; it was in a state of considerable disrepair, and there were rumors that it might be repurposed as an upscale Chinese restaurant.
But the 5th Avenue was a treasure, a visual jewel box, and 43 local companies and community leaders came to its rescue, donating and raising $2.6 million to finance the theater's restoration. Work began in early 1979 and was completed by the summer of 1980. The opening-night ceremonies on June 16, 1980, drew a crowd of thousands and featured legendary actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993), who recited Shakespeare's 18th sonnet, kissed the stage, and declared the theater "a new national treasure" (The Seattle Times, June 17, 1980, p. B1) Ethel Merman (1908-1984) was there to belt out "There's No Business Like Show Business," along with such lesser luminaries as Merv Griffith (1925-2007) and Reid Shelton (1924-1997), the latter of whom played Daddy Warbucks in the original Broadway production of Annie and would reprise the role when that popular musical opened the 5th Avenue's first post-restoration season two weeks later.
What Was Lost
When the 5th Avenue originally opened in 1926, it had an impressive marquee that can be seen in contemporary photographs. Rising up from the horizontal word "Theatre" was a long vertical section that spelled out "Avenue," and atop this was a canted "5th." Read from the top, the whole spelled out "5th Avenue Theatre." This original marquee lacked the typical three-sided readerboard at its base upon which the titles and stars of current attraction typically were displayed. It is difficult to determine whether the sign was illuminated by neon tubes (which had been introduced in American only three years earlier), or by incandescent bulbs, but it is probable that it was the latter.
In 1941 or 1942 the original marquee was replaced, probably to accommodate a conversion to neon lighting. The vertical part of the marquee became somewhat taller, and the surmounting number "5" was no longer set at a jaunty angle. In addition, the word "Theatre" no longer appeared across the bottom. It was replaced by a three-sided readerboard showing the titles and stars of current attractions. Only the letters spelling out "Avenue" appear to be from the original sign, although even this is difficult to determine with certainty from available photographs. But it was this second sign, and not the original, that was in place when the theater closed its doors in 1976.
During the initial planning for the 1979-1980 renovations there were hopes that it would be possible to save and restore the marquee that then existed, but nearly 40 years of exposure to Seattle weather had caused so much corrosion and structural deterioration that it was quickly determined to be unsalvageable. Safety and aesthetics both required its removal, and with no additional funds available for a replacement, the refurbished 5th Avenue made do for nearly 30 years with only the readerboard that projected out over the sidewalk.
A Family Affair
Two of the leading members of the fundraising effort to restore the 5th Avenue Theatre in 1979-1980 were Roger L. Stevens (1910-1998) and James M. Ryan (1908-1992). In 1953 Stevens founded University Properties Inc. in Seattle (now called Unico Properties LLC), and took Ryan onboard as president. In addition to being a highly successful businessman, Roger Stevens also was a famed Broadway producer. Among the hit plays he brought to the New York stage for the first time were Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Man for All Seasons, Tea and Sympathy, and Bus Stop. He had been instrumental in the creation of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (located in Washington D.C.) and led it for the first 17 years of its existence. Stevens knew and loved theater, he knew and loved Seattle's classic 5th Avenue venue, and he passed on that love to his daughter.
In 2007 Christabel Stevens Gough (b. 1938), Roger Stevens's daughter, had an idea about how she could best memorialize all that her father and Jim Ryan had done for the 5th Avenue some 30 years earlier. She contacted the 5th Avenue Theatre Association and offered to underwrite the cost of a new vertical marquee to replace the one that had to be removed in 1980. She had many happy memories of the theater, and this seemed a suitable way to both improve the facility and honor her father's and Ryan's contributions to it. She fondly recalled:
"Going to opening nights with my father is such a lovely memory for me. It was like Christmas and New Year's all rolled into one, and the bright lights of the theaters were such a part of that" ("Restoring the Marquee").
Designing a Worthy Marquee
In February 2008, armed with Christabel Gough's commitment for funding, the 5th Avenue's director of facility operations, Cathy Johnstone, contacted CREO Industrial Arts of Everett, the company that in the mid-1990s had (under its previous name of SignTech), fabricated the theater's programmable readerboard marquee. During the spring and into the summer of 2008, CREO representatives and theater personnel met several times to discuss just what could be accomplished with an anticipated budget of $300,000, all of which would come from Christabel Gough. There was no detailed design in mind at that point, but rather a shared desire that the new marquee bear considerable resemblance to its historical forebears.
The funding was in place by July of that year, and work began toward settling on the marquee's final form and function, and figuring out how best to fabricate it. The Seattle office of NBBJ, a global architecture, planning, and design firm, was brought on board to design an "ideal" sign based on the ideas developed so far by CREO and the theater association, but without regard at first to budget constraints. Eric Levine and Yusuke Ito of NBBJ were the lead designers. When later describing the project, Ito said:
"We started with a white canvas, no clue what to do. The initial thing we did was say 'let's not think about the marquee; let's think about the history and aesthetics of The 5th and its interior design.' When we eventually looked at photos of the 1926 marquee, we had many ideas, but that was such an amazing design, we wanted to bring elements of that in too" ("Restoring the Marquee").
Once Levine and Ito had a concept in hand, the parties went to work together to refine the plans to fit the budget. After three revisions, a final design was selected -- one which bore obvious similarities to the original marquee and could be built within budget. It was estimated that the cost of design, electrical work, structural testing, and electronic programming would be $100,000, with the remaining $200,000 allocated to fabrication and installation.
Considerable thought went into the illumination that would give life to the finished marquee. CREO put together a full-size mockup of a section of the proposed sign that allowed planners and theater personnel to evaluate LED (light-emitting diode) options of different colors and brightness, and to observe the bulbs' illumination and animation functions as they would appear in both daylight and in darkness. Before CREO actually set to work building the marquee, it wanted to be sure that everyone understood as nearly as possible just what the finished product would look like in full operation.
Putting It All Together
The final plans called for a vertical marquee 60 feet tall, topped by a 10-foot-tall, rotating "5th." The entire structure would be mounted to the facade of the Skinner Building atop the horizontal readerboard marquee that CREO had designed in the 1990s.
As they went about fabricating the sign, CREO settled on dividing it up into 12 different lighting regions, each of which could be programmed separately, giving the theater the flexibility to tailor the light display to different stage presentations. Each of the 12 regions would have a separate electrical circuit drawing 20 amps; 11 of these circuits controlled lighting on the vertical marquee; the 12th controlled the rotating number "5" at the very top. Because each circuit is controlled separately, with some circuits on while others are off or partially off, the total electrical draw of the marquee when in operation rarely exceeds 60 amps. The numeral "5" at the top rotates four revolutions per minute, and is programmed to return to a preselected position when the power is shut off. When in operation, the lights along the marquee's perimeter "chase" each other, and those illuminating other areas of the sign scintillate. (In the world of sign design, "scintillating action" is an effect which gives the appearance of twinkling lights, with such lights blinking on and off in a either a random or patterned manner.)
The marquee is made almost entirely of light-weight aluminum, with a thin .125-inch exterior shell mounted on a framework formed of 2-inch-square aluminum tubing. Acrylic-polyurethane paint was used to finish the display surfaces, and more than 2,000 white and red LED modules provide the illumination. The LEDs, although expensive in the first instance, are long-lasting and energy efficient. The entire structure weighs in at about 55,000 pounds.
Hanging it Up
With the new marquee completed, one challenge remained -- attaching the 60-foot, 27-ton installation to the Skinner Building, which was built in 1926, a time when construction methods and materials were considerably different than those used today. The building had over the decades survived several earthquakes and suffered the normal ravages of age, and it proved difficult to find detailed and accurate information about its structure. Fortunately, after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the building's owners had commissioned a seismic structural review, and this was of great value in determining how the marquee could be firmly anchored without damaging the building's facade.
CREO learned that each floor of the Skinner Building had an underlying structural support of heavy concrete beams that were five feet tall and two feet thick, easily strong enough to support the marquee. After doing some test drills to map these supports and determine the concrete's condition, three locations were selected for the installation of baseplates to which the sign would be attached. These anchoring plates were each secured to the building with epoxy and 36 one-inch-diameter threaded rods
The installation was made easier by the fact that the marquee was made in three sections, two for the long vertical run of letters spelling out "Theatre" and one for the revolving "5th" at the top. Each section had its own steel-tube support, and each was welded to the corresponding baseplate. Since the 5th Avenue was open for business, the installation had to be done at night and coordinated with the theater's performance schedule. After the marquee was installed, final touch-up and finish work was done by workers who rappelled down from the building's roof.
Lighting it Up
The ceremonial public lighting of the new marquee was set to begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 3, 2009, starting off with short musical performances and the inevitable speeches. Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic at 6 o'clock and the street soon filled with the dedicated and the curious, bundled against the 35 degree temperature and a smattering of cold winter rain. The theater's readerboard advertised a performance of the Irving Berlin (1888-1989) musical White Christmas, the season's shopping was in full swing, and the Norway maples lining 5th Avenue were decorated with strings of white lights.
When the moment came, at 7:15 p.m., the switch sending electricity to the sign was turned on. First to come was the glow of the marquee's backlighting, which bathed the entire sign except for the crowning "5th" in a rich, red glow. Next came the lights that outlined the perimeter, followed immediately by "chasing" lights that appeared to cascade down the marquee's street-side edge. On the count of three, the"5th" that topped the sign blazed into life, and a few seconds later started its slow rotations. After months of planning and fabrication, everything came off without a hitch. The venerable 5th Avenue Theatre once again looked very much as it had in its earliest days, and the efforts of Roger Stevens and Jim Ryan, leaders in the theater's salvation, received a fitting recognition.
A Thriving Theater
In 2010 the team that designed, fabricated, and installed the theater's new marquee (The 5th Avenue Theatre, CREO Industrial Arts, NBBJ Architects, Weaver Architects, Unico Properties, and Prime Electric) was honored by Historic Seattle with the aptly titled "Illuminating History" award" for "enhancing downtown’s Fifth Avenue, bringing new life to the street, reaffirming downtown as a great destination, and paying homage to Seattle’s lively past."
Today (2012) the marquee continues to bring the public's attention to the top-notch musical theater that the 5th Avenue Theatre brings to town. In the 2011-2012 season alone, the theater association will be presenting performances of the musicals Les Miserable, Saving Aimee, Cinderella, Oklahoma!, First Date, Titanic: The Concert, Damn Yankees, and Rent. Although the future is never guaranteed, the historic 5th Avenue Theatre appears to now be on a firm financial footing, and its spectacular marquee should tell for years to come what magic awaits inside.