A true Madison icon disappeared last week. But don’t worry, the massive Orpheum Theater sign will be back soon — though you likely won’t recognize it.
It’s a common misconception that the 50-foot vertical sign is original. It’s not. It dates back only to the 1950s. A far more elaborate replica of the Orpheum’s original 1927 sign will take its place over State Street, at an estimated cost of $200,000.
That first sign had animated lights and was larger and more ornate. The details are something of a mystery for Dan Yoder and his Sign Art Studio, based in Mount Horeb, the company tasked with re-creating the sign. “I’ve never been a sign sleuth before,” he says. “It’s fun.”
But also challenging. The first question is just how big the original was. Opening day press accounts list it as 63½ feet tall and 10 feet wide. (It cost $18,000.) The second sign was smaller, so that may have been press agent puffery. However, as Yoder and his crew were working last week, it became apparent that, “when they installed that new sign, they cut off a very substantial part of the bottom of the frame,” he says.
Another question: What colors? Our Orpheum was part of a national vaudeville theater chain. In fact, the replica sign will say “NEW” at the top, just as the original did, to distinguish it from Madison’s first Orpheum Theater. The Orpheum chain’s few surviving 1920s signs show various colors, though red seems a sure bet.
But red tends to fade in the sun, says Yoder. “We’ve got to do our best to honor the original sign,” but there are practical concerns. “We don’t want this sign — in three years — to be pink on one side and red on the other.”
Research continues. The final mystery may not be as easy to solve, though there are clues. The big letters were lit, as was the border of the sign. Yoder has counted, and there were a total 1,660 individual bulbs. We know they were animated, but exactly how is unknown. Did each letter light up in turn?
Black-and-white 1920s photos suggest that the lights on the edge of the sign “chased” each other around the rim, turning on and off, thus showing up more dimly on the time-exposure images taken at night. Orpheum owner Gus Paras has a few of the original chaser mechanisms. “I am going to see if the others were found in storage,” says Yoder. “Maybe they have markings on them as to what sections they ran.”
While the past has unknowns, the future offers certainties.
“We want to make sure the sign is up there for another 100 years,” says Yoder. “The new version will be built out of aluminum, so I imagine it will be a third of the weight of the original. It just keeps everything much safer. Maintenance is going to be virtually nil.”
Every part of the sign will be hand-formed. There will be only one automated process: drilling holes for all those bulbs. They’ll be LED lights made to resemble Edison bulbs.
Altogether, more than enough care is being taken to satisfy the most rabid preservationist — as well as another kind of buff.
“I’m a sign nerd,” admits Yoder. “We build a lot of big, big signs, in the 30- to 40-foot range, so we are certainly no stranger to big signs. But this project has been something. I have eyed that sign and wanted to be a part of it going on 10 years now.”
Owner Paras is saving the parts of the later sign. “When we’re done, when we light the [new] sign, we’ll have a big grand opening for the Orpheum,” he says.
Readers with clues to the Orpheum mysteries are encouraged to contact Isthmus (email@example.com).