Long after we showed the last reel of Carrie, back in ’77, a parking lot magnate acquired the place for live shows. To our horror, he treated the marquee like a kind of cake, frosting it in ornate plaster and stucco, embedding a tiny neon script “St. George” in the center. No doubt, he was trying to circumvent the leakage problem, but to no avail. When it rained, water still ran out from under the plaster, freezing often enough, and increasing the risks of walking under the overhang (I was sure the whole thing, rusted badly under its heavy load, would fall on me or some other innocent pedestrian, so I walked in the street for many years). So, kudos to management, who’ve won a five million dollar plus grant to do a variety of things interior and exterior. Meanwhile, to celebrate the removal of all that hideous plaster, I’m dedicating the remainder of this blog post to theater marquees and their multiple uses. Mostly, these ornate overhangs have served to advertise what’s showing, but there have been and continue to be creative uses for these gigantic illuminated message boards.
The most intriguing alternative use is as literary devices in novels and in movies themselves! To quote from a "novelization" of a cult film:
"Continuing to the end of the block, Marty found himself in front of the Essex Theater, a movie house which he had never seen before but felt he knew intimately. According to his mother and father — especially when a few drinks loosened their lips—the Essex was the local petting parlor during the early and mid-1950s. There, in the balcony or deep recesses of the back row, many warm and wonderful relationships were spawned. Occasionally, people even went there to see a movie, although oldtimers like Mom and Dad never reminisced about what was on the screen. Now it advertised in large red letters: CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reegan. Beneath the marquee floated a banner that read AIR CONDITIONED."
—From Back to the Future by George Gipe (quote, page 83)
In Back to the Future, Cattle Queen of Montana was part of the theater’s past, but Orgy American Style would indicate its transformation, by 1985, into a 24-hour porn house. When Marty travels beyond his own adolescence, into the future, the same theater features Jaws 19 (Spielberg referencing Spielberg), in the unfathomable year of 2015.
The New York Times noted in 1995, “When film characters go to the movies, or even pass a movie theater, the title on the marquee usually embodies a message. It can be a subtle commentary, a foreshadowing or merely an act of whimsy.” Think Woody Allen in Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo or Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Beyond plot devices and outright advertising, marquees can serve as blank slates for self-expression. For example, this summer in Milwaukee, Dan Carpenter proposed to Kat (last name not listed) using the device of the Riverside Theatre’s otherwise blank marquee. The couple had, apparently, had one of their first dates at the Riverside, an old movie/Vaudeville house of some 2500 seats, these days a working live theater which remarkably still boasts its original 3-manual 13-rank Wurlitzer organ.
Perhaps what started me off on this riff about marquees is an interesting article I read in The New York Times this past Sunday about a treasured Brooklyn movie house. the Pavilion, originally the single-screen Sanders that’s in the process of being revitalized to become the new Nitehawk Cinema (the original Nitehawk is in Williamsburg). Now as you may know, I am originally a poet, so when I read that the Nitehawk folks had hired some Brooklyn poets to keep the marquee active during renovation, by writing Brooklyn movie haikus, I was intrigued.
But here’s what gave me goosebumps: And though the haikus fit flawlessly on the Pavilion’s marquee, Pisarra [Drew Pisarra, one of the poets] said the theater does not always have the letters needed to produce all of the poems, which requires some literary logistics to ensure there are enough As, Bs, and Cs.
Just like the old days! -- when we had to spell out WW and the Dixie Dance Kings, as (upside-down M, upside-down M) & the Dix Dnc Kngs. We had run out of “i’s” and “w’s.”. Fortunately, this cryptic message was on the uphill side, which, fewer people read. The downhill side, visible to people walking up the hill from the ferry, was okay.
Afterthought #1: Paulie, a staffer who often changed the marquee letters on Tuesday nights, suggested we simply put See Other Side on the uphill face of the marquee, but he was voted down.
Afterthought #2: Dean, my husband and long-ago partner at the St. George Theatre, recalls driving to the Pavilion Theater in Brooklyn (the Sanders in those days), on a mission to procure two gigantic red plastic J’s, two A’s, two W’s and one S (for the anticipated arrival of JAWS the following week). These letters were twice the size of our old-school aluminum letters; the theater manager, who was selling them for ten dollars apiece, couldn’t furnish a second S, which had “gone missing.” He told Dean, “We had an usher named Sam, I think he swiped it to put on his bedroom wall.”
Correction: An earlier version of this blog post mistakenly identified the quoted text from Back to the Future as a novel that preceded the film. It was, actually, a "novelization" after the script. Mea Culpa.