1935 Neon Sign Gets Facelift
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1935 Neon Sign Gets Facelift

When the Cascade Theatre opened its doors in 1935 it was billed as the finest cinema house in northern California.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Like many theatres of its day, the Cascade is considered an architectural gem. The 1,348-seat palace and vaudeville stage was unique among Redding's commercial buildings, with an artistic exterior that included a wide frieze across the top of the building depicting northern California's resources. The original Art Deco design featured gold and silver gilded walls, ornate plasterwork, intricate decorative paintings and neon signs that were described as magnificent.

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  • Indeed, the signage was an integral part of the theatre's beauty, garnering attention from moviegoers and architects alike. The vertical neon sign that rose from the top of the marquee to the top of the building proudly displayed "Cascade" to anyone within viewing distance, and small lights in the pilasters enhanced its beauty. But after more than 60 years of opening nights, the Cascade fell victim to shopping mall multiplex movie theatres and closed its doors in 1997.

    So begins the story of The Cascade's restoration.

    A new beginning for a classic neon sign Jefferson Public Radio (JPR) purchased the theatre in 1999 for $550,000 and the preservation efforts were soon underway. The theatre is already on the California and National Registries of Historic Places.

    JPR brought in McHale Sign Company to handle the repair and restoration of the theatre's marquee and vertical neon sign.

    "Restoring the sign is a neat project," said Pat Corey, president of McHale Sign Company. "Plus, it's a local thing. I'm a native of Redding. It was a project that we wanted to have come out of our shop. We take pride in giving back to the community."

    McHale's crew leaned on its experience in restoring other classic northern California signs to help restore one of Redding's cultural icons back to its original glory. The emphasis was on attention to details, big and small. McHale's crew recreated all the historical trim and embellishments of the original mid-30's era sign.

    After hundreds of man-hours over the course of about three years, McHale's portion of the restoration is nearly complete. The resurrected theatre will serve as a performing arts center once architects and designers finish work inside the building.

    Assessing the damage

    McHale's used sign cranes to remove the signage from the theatre. When they assess it more closely they could see that they had their work cut out for them. McHale's President Pat Corey said that the sign had seen better days. One or another of the sign's service providers had cut the access doors over 65 years. Still, he says, it could have been much worse.

    "The sign wasn't rusted out. It was the old galvanized, corrugated metal. Everything was soldered together," he says. "It had a lot of layers of paint on it, so I guess that helped. There was some rust inside. The pigeons had been living in the top section for a while, so that wasn't in the best shape."

    Corey also notes that much of the neon was missing.

    "All we really had was the holes from the housings, but no neon," he says. "The sign calls for a lot of curly-Q and script neon on there and embellishments."

    McHale's goal was to incorporate as many of the sign's original parts as possible to preserve its historical value. JPR's goal was to create a facility that has historical character, including the signage. That meant reviewing old photographs of the theatre and its signage. Sketches were produced and architects were brought in to consult. Once the restoration team was satisfied that the crew had enough information to begin the actual restoration, the real work began.

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    Step by Step The first step was stripping the sign down. Next, the electrical components were removed from the interior, and then the exterior of the sign was sandblasted.

    "Once we got to this stage we could actually see the original paint lines," says Corey. "We saw that we were pretty close with our drawings, but now we had a pattern to follow. It's the tall typical theatre sign with the Sally Rand Fan at the top an on the side and perpendicular on the back so that we could see the leaves and how that all went. And we knew what colors the glass was because bits and pieces of the original glass remained." (The original photos were in black and white).

    The next step was drawing patterns for the neon. Corey says figuring out the pattern for the neon took longer than the rest of the steps in the restoration. Modern glass was used in colors picked by the architects and matched to McHale's paint system.

    After overcoming that obstacle, it was downhill from there. Modern transformers and housings were installed to bring the electrical parts of the sign up to code and the restored sign was re-installed.

    Pricing restoration jobs

    With the possibility of hidden problems and quirky designs, how does a sign maker price a restoration job? Do your homework first. In this case, Corey evaluated the sign to figure these things out before even trying to guess how long it would take.

    "We went out and surveyed so we knew how many pieces of glass there were. We knew how big the sign was. We measured everything," he says. "We then estimated all the new neon and transformer nodes, the equipment time to take it up and put it down and the total man-hours needed to pull it off."

    In order to accurately figure your man-hours you have to understand what you are really getting into. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you undertake such a project:

    • Are there old photos available to guide the restoration?
    • Are there major electrical challenges?
    • Is there significant sheet metal work involved?
    • Will the restoration require special equipment or materials?
    • Is there complete buy-in from the sign's owners?
    • How much collaboration with architects and designers is required?

    "There's a lot of hidden stuff, of course. It's hard to see when you are looking at a project like that," he says. "When you get it down you find all the little quirks in the way guys built stuff years ago. But it wasn't tough, just one step at a time."

    The Cascade Theatre won't officially open its doors again until about 2005. Much of the timeline depends on how successful fundraisers go. But while the rest of the building is getting its facelift, the signage will serve as a glowing reminder of a restored theatre that promises to revitalize Redding's downtown business.

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