Curtain rises on refurbished theater sign

January 18, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Shellee Miggins (left), neon department chief, and Chris Greytak, router operator, employees at The Sign Factory in Kirkland, turn up the lights for the first time Jan. 11 on the restored Village Theatre First Stage Theatre sign. By Greg Farrar

The color palette on the sign slicing the First Stage Theatre façade suggests a candy store.

Consider the rich chocolate and cream blended to form the soft-edged letters. Or the neon — as brash as Liberace — done up in bubblegum pink and spearmint green.

The restoration team at a Kirkland sign manufacturer spent weeks to restore the decades-old sign. Crews installed the refurbished sign on the façade Jan. 14, as the theater reconstruction project nears completion.

Village Theatre plans to raise the curtain on a rebuilt First Stage Theatre soon.

The reconstructed theater is a doppelgänger for the old building. Even the red-and-green color scheme is the same.

The same attention to detail imbues the refurbished sign. If the façade is the crown, the sign is the jewel.

Though plans required the decrepit theater to be razed, the sign — salvaged from the frontier-era building — needed to be restored to glory.

The battered and blistered sign reached The Sign Factory in Kirkland not long before Christmas.

Logos from familiar brands adorn the shop and nearby offices: Seattle’s Best Coffee, Williams-Sonoma and more. The Sign Factory does a brisk business in signage for national chains and mom-and-pop outlets.

Turning back the clock

The project is the latest upgrade for a landmark theater to reach The Sign Factory.

The team crafted a sturdier and energy-efficient sign to adorn the Paramount Theatre façade in downtown Seattle. Crews installed the immense, blade-shaped sign in October 2009.

The project is almost complete. The remaining gargantuan pieces — ready to be installed along the marquee — sit on the shop floor in Kirkland.

In order to restore the First Stage Theatre sign, experts had to repair the rusted metal cabinet, trade old neon tubes for a fresh set and upgrade the electrical guts to 21st century standards.

The initial steps entailed creating detailed stencils and patterns for the painted letters, neon accents and color palette. Then, the team pulled the curled letters from glass fasteners and set out to fashion replacements.

“I feel like I’m bringing up the Titanic!” owner Jim Risher said just before Christmas, as he bounded across the shop floor to jimmy the old neon tubes from the sign.

The process felt like archeology at times. The restoration team discovered bird nests amid the innards. Crews stripped paint from the surface layer by layer.

Long decades in harsh Pacific Northwest conditions had exacted a toll on the sign. The bottom segment had to be replaced, because rain pooled in the curved piece in the decades the sign spent perched along Front Street North. The Sign Factory also beefed up the supports to connect the sign cabinet to the theater façade.

The team then sandblasted, primed and repainted the metal sign cabinet. Then, crews reapplied the chocolate, cream and lemon color ensemble in modern coatings meant to better endure a Western Washington winter.

Chasing a neon rainbow

The design did not call for contemporary LEDs in the updated sign, just old-fashioned neon.

Designer Shellee Miggins still handcrafts neon elements for signs. The process requires a steady hand — and plenty of patience.

“The first Q I made took me three days,” she said. “Now I can do it in about a half hour.”

Miggins uses a flame and elbow grease to turn glass tubes into curlicues and filigrees, letters and numbers.

The restoration team reassembled the sign in early January, after Miggins logged many hours to craft the glass letters and repaint the sign to be faithful to the original.

Miggins and colleague Chris Greytak, a router operator, bent into yogalike positions beneath the sign Jan. 11 to string wiring inside the cabinet. The colleagues used copper wire to secure the curled glass tubes.

Miggins and Greytak completed the task, and the sign radiated in green-and-pink splendor.

Now, the sign just had to be loaded on a truck and hauled to Issaquah. Crews gathered in the rain early Jan. 14 to install the refurbished sign at First Stage Theatre.

“The pattern follows exactly what was on there before,” Miggins said. “I like restoring these old signs.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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One Response to “Curtain rises on refurbished theater sign”

  1. Rebuilt First Stage Theatre readies for debut : The Issaquah Press – News, Sports, Classifieds and More in Issaquah, WA on June 14th, 2011 12:17 pm

    [...] Theatre into a lobby ticket booth, plus molding and wainscoting throughout the building. Crews also restored the mid-20th century neon sign perched on the [...]

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