I can tell you myriad stories about the old marquee, come to think about it, I have already: what it was like to power it up from a Frankenstein-like Buss fuse panel in the box office which arced when you threw the switches and could easily electrocute the person holding the wooden handle, should her hand stray onto bare metal. And how perilous it was changing the letters, dangling from a fifteen-foot extension ladder balanced on an uphill pavement that slants at about a twenty degree angle. Whatever its dangers or condition, the marquee was there for a reason, to let the world know what we were showing, and, if we had enough unbroken aluminum letters, what was coming soon. There was a moment recently, just after the curvaceous new marquee went up, when it seemed current management only wanted to show off pictures of the interior. Gorgeous as that baroque cave is, where were announcements of acts booked next month or next week?
The entrepreneur in me was troubled, but I’m pleased to report that “Kool and the Gang” flash by on the electronic signboard if you pause long enough. Gone are those breakable letters, whose disappearance forced us to use upside-down W’s for M’s and deliberately misspell a number of words. We’re post-millennium now, no time for analogue tech. And the show must go on.
In some places, the show doesn’t go on anymore , but the marquee still does. For instance, in Mount Morris, New York, the New Family Theatre’s marquee, last time I drove through, bore on it’s tracks the following message,
LOVE YOUR FAMILY
In New York City, the new owner of a closed-down movie palace or neighborhood cinema is allowed to use the defunct marquee, as long as she or he has a marquee-use permit. A couple of years ago on the Upper East Side, I spied the marquee of the Clearview Cinemas, a six-screen theater, now defunct, repurposed as one of the sites of Manhattan Mini-Storage. I imagine that pretty soon there will be more mini-storage units in Manhattan than there are apartments.The new owners of the building had seen fit to list a number of phony movie titles on the marquee: Lost and Out of Space, Space Hunter, and other wonders.
On New Dorp Lane, not far from where I live, the excellent neon Art Deco marquee of the Lane, a stadium theater that was landmarked some time in the eighties, has become the signboard for its new resident, the Crossroads Church, now advertising God instead of Rodney Dangerfield. There are other more stellar examples of theater churches. The famous former Loew’s 175th St. these days the United Palace of Cultural Arts, was originally one of five “Wonder Theaters,” in the Greater NYC area, but morphed, in 1969, into Reverend Ike’s United Church Science of Living Institute. The exquisitely restored "Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco” Thomas Lamb theater is also now a cultural center, as well, detailing that whole enchilada, church and showplace, on its wraparound marquee.
In 1977, a year after we left the movie exhibition business, our rival Staten Island movie palace, in the nearby neighborhood of Stapleton, advertised its own demise, FOR SALE, on the marquee. The Paramount operated as a nightclub, then as a rock venue, and finally, for a decade or so as a warehouse for neighboring Steckman’s Sporting Goods. These days its magnificent crumbling marquee advertises itself once again, this time not for sale but for lease. Like so many American movie palaces, it has an uncertain future.
1. Recently, Atlas Obscura invited anyone who treasured a theater marquee to send in their pix. I recommend the whole tour, but my faves from that collection are: The Grand Lake in Oakland, Ca., a listing which editorializes,
WE WILL NOT ENFORCE THE R RATING ON FAHRENHEIT 11-9
POLITICAL DISCOURSE MUST NOT BE STIFLED
In Marquette, Michigan, the Delft Theatre invites us to
BELLY ON UP TO OUR BRUNCH & BLOODY BAR
SAT 7 SUN 10 AM
2. “The business of America is business,” as Calvin Coolidge famously quipped, so it shouldn’t be surprising that some marquees have nothing to do with theaters, or even churches. An (out-of-business) ice cream parlor in Newark recently trolled for business with:
THE POLICE COME IN
In Newcastle, Oklahoma, a dental practice boasted,
BEST CAVITY SEARCH EVER.
These aren’t really marquees as such, but free-standing signboards with track lettering. I include them, because the definition of “marquee” is enormously elastic anyway, which brings me to:
3. The definition:
1680s, "large tent of unusual elaborateness," from French marquise (mistaken in English as a plural) "linen canopy placed over an officer's tent to distinguish it from others,' " fem. of marquis and perhaps indicating "a place suitable for a marquis."
By 1812 the English word was used to denote large wooden structures erected for a temporary purpose (a concert, dinner party, etc.). The extended sense of "canopy over the entrance to a hotel or theater, etc." is recorded by 1912 in American English.’ [underlining mine].
It so happens, that if you want to rent a tent (for a wedding or whatever) in the UK, apparently you ask for a marquee, but there isn’t a wedding planner on this side of the pond who’d know what you were talking about!