You know marquee letters: the older ones were cast black aluminum, and the newer 1950’s variety, black or clear red plastic. On changeover night, in most cases Tuesday, an usher or other able-bodied teen got up on a ladder and pulled down the old letters that spelled out the movie about to depart, then slid the new ones, announcing the feature yet to arrive, onto the metal tracks that covered the glowing white plexiglass surface.
Several years ago, back when the old leaky marquee was still barely hanging on, I wrote a blog post about the ritual of changing marquee letters. The theater was open under its current management as a live working house, but had no functioning marquee. A pause I made in my car under the marquee generated the post that follows, and there’s a little something else at the end:
I’m sitting in my Volvo directly beneath the marquee of what was once our theater, despite the fact that around fifteen years ago someone chose to cover it — like a badly iced cake — in beige stucco, which always makes me afraid the whole thing will come crashing down. Although it’s been forty years, I can blink my eyes and see the steel tracks that used to run on two sides, and the erratically flickering St George Theater in curved neon centered above.
My original intent today was to get a cappuccino. The space to the right of the theater — a failing barbershop when the marquee still had its tracks — is now a coffee bar. I’m waiting in my car beneath a red NO PARKING ANYTIME sign, just long enough for the barista to make my double shot. When it’s ready, she gives me the signal. I dash in, slap a five dollar bill on the counter, grab my drink and run back to the car. I’m late to leave for my next appointment, but sitting beneath the marquee for even a brief time is a kind of transport, like falling down a mine-shaft in time. I sip my coffee and tumble.
It’s 1976. Jim, a senior usher, is teetering on a 15-foot ladder on the downhill side of the marquee. A dangerous wind threatens him, as he tries to keep his balance while hanging that most fragile of items, black-painted aluminum marquee letters. It’s Tuesday night. A new movie starts on Wednesday. It’s Jim’s job to spell out, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, for all to see. It’s an impossibly long title. He has to substitute an upside-down M for the W, and two capital I’s for the L’s. We inherited our incomplete set of letters — and not much else — from the previous theater manager, who pulled out in the dead of night. At least he left us the means, more or less, to spell out the names of the movies that would break our hearts, week after week, failing, one title at a time, to fill our cavernous auditorium. A gust of wind causes the ladder to sway, and Jim drops a precious capital G. There is no sound quite like the sound of breaking cast aluminum, a surprisingly brittle material. Almost like glass but not quite. What’s a substitute for G?
I shake myself back to the present, press the button that starts my Volvo, and pull out from under the marquee’s shadow.
Paulie Plonski (concession staff, usher, and all-round crew from our year at the St. George) is someone I hear from every once and a while. He wrote this reminiscence of changeover night, in response to mine:
For a moment I was in the car with you in front of the theater. I could see the ladder. The sidewalk in front of the theater was on a hill, making the right side of the marquee a much higher climb than the left. The ladder was on the right, a formidable height. A blonde high school kid was next to the ladder. He was quite energetic and a little nervous, as he steadied the ladder at it's base. The wind was blowing, black cast aluminum letters were being passed up the ladder and others were being passed back down. There were a lot of voices, and then a quick yell to watch out, as the G came crashing down, then some more yelling, much louder this time, followed by a period of calm. The wind again. The high school kid was at the base of the ladder, steadying it, but cautiously looking up. There was an unusual movement above, and suddenly the edge of a white panel popped out. The wind had quickly gushed underneath, extracting it from the marquee. Flipping erratically, the panel fell towards the ground. The blonde kid moved quickly, but the edge of the panel caught him on his nose and mouth.
There was a sudden pain in my upper lip, I couldn't help, later, looking in the mirror: everything looked fine. Good. I smiled. It was a slightly crooked smile, a smile that has brought, perhaps, character and many compliments to my life ever since that windy day. I am not sure what a substitute for G is, but after watching Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles in that film, I certainly figured out why that sailor fell from ( )race with the Sea.
I love his description of the letters being passed up and down the ladder. It seems magical to me now. In the light of electronic signboard marquees, the whole analogue ritual of spelling out words in aluminum seems medieval, like a hand-lettered text. I am also in awe of Paulie’s cheerful acceptance of something which apparently altered his smile permanently. What a smile it was, and is!
Believe it or not, the leaking, barely functioning marquee was subject to a tax. Isn’t everything?
Other movies were hard to spell out too...
Part of the Tuesday evening ritual was figuring out what the five precious lines of the marquee would say, Dean recalls. “I forget how many characters per line, but I remember the problem of having only one G. (Hence, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be Kinq on the uphill marquee side).