Go back a century and cross the pond to England; you’ll find an officer’s battlefield tent. (“Marquee” may possibly be a corruption of “marquess” — a nobleman whose tent would be grand indeed). The tent meaning then evolves to describe the kind of pavilion still used for weddings and celebrations — often pitched back then in front of hotels to accommodate overflow crowds. By 1912, in America, movie palaces are becoming the big thing and their marquees — no longer tents, but overhangs-- shelter a waiting crowd, affording a place to meet in the rain, before entering the hall of dreams.
Moving pictures depend on their advertising! Cars blitz by at record speed, so the marquee, once a tent, then an overhang, morphs into a kind of three-dimensional signboard, the print simple and bold, lighted by that other novelty, electricity.
Ben M. Hall, esteemed granddaddy of theater historians, called these new marquees that graced theaters like the El Capitan in L.A., “electric tiaras.” Indeed.
The St. George Theatre, the still-extant hall I was privileged to help run as a movie palace back in 1976, had, on the day of its opening, December 4, 1929, a splendid marquee, white letters on a black ground and all the requisite light trim. Forty-seven years later, the theater’s marquee had begun to leak badly in rainstorms; but it still functioned, tracer lights framing a white ground of tracks over a surface illuminated by six-foot fluorescent bulbs. The whole thing was lit by a frightening circuit of giant Buss cylindrical fuses that arced when you threw a wooden-handled lever in the panel at the back of the box office. There was a good deal of drama and peril in throwing that switch, a danger I actually thrilled to.
In the 19-teens and 20’s, when, besides the St. George, the Roxy in Manhattan, the Fox in Atlanta, Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre in L.A. and thousands of palaces coast-to coast went up, marquees were almost as lavish as the elegant spaces they fronted. What began as the plain rectangular box, soon soared upward, in many cases, with vertical illuminated letters. The newly-restored Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn is a personal favorite of mine — the opposite of vertical — with its rolling soft-edged frontage, reminiscent of an ocean wave.
It’s easy to go all nostalgic over old-style marquees with their very breakable black aluminum letters, but if you ever dangled on a ladder in a wind storm, trying to hang those things on a steel track, you’d think programmable LED’s are an amazing refinement. After a certain number of M’s have shattered – for which you’ve had to substitute W’s –the glamor of a hand-built movie title melts completely! Nostalgia often forgets to consider the details of daily existence.
If you’re a film buff, you might find this post by Film Babble Blog author Daniel Cook Johnson of interest.