Movie Theaters Are Still Dark. Long Live Their Marquees
As the pandemic wears on, theaters across the country are using their marquees to share funny, moving, and nostalgic messages. Here are a few that have managed to keep spirits up in trying times.
BY YOHANA DESTA
It’s like that scene in The Player when Tim Robbins ambles out of the Rialto theater late at night, after seeing The Bicycle Thief. He crosses under the old-fashioned theater’s jutting marquee, a maximalist haze of bright red neon and twinkling lights. In the next moment, all the lights turn off and the street is plunged into darkness—suddenly bereft of romance and aesthetic pleasure. That’s the magic of the marquee: in its glow, everything gets dipped in light. In its absence, nothing looks quite the same.
Movie theaters have been shuttered for months, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic—but in that time, a handful of theaters have gone viral for displaying funny, thoughtful, and occasionally sentimental messages on their marquees. These images have served as a balm in troubled times, uniting cinephiles at a moment when the industry has never felt more fractured—proving, perhaps, that things may change, but these lights and letters are forever.
North Park Theatre—Buffalo, New York
Marketing director Chris Dearing is the one who decided to emblazon North Park Theatre’s marquee with an encouraging quote from Monty Python: “Always look on the bright side of life.” But New Yorkers didn’t have to trek all the way to Buffalo to see it. All they had to do was tune in to one of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s early press conferences, which included an image of the striped red, white, and yellow marquee—much to the delight of the theater’s projectionist, said program director Ray Barker. Once upon a time, Barker updated its messaging each Thursday; now, it’s been the same for over a month. “I always joke the movie gods are cruel because it always seems to rain on a Thursday evening,” Barker said. “If we don’t have to change it, it’s always blue skies and sunshine.”
Like many theaters, North Park has had to furlough most of its staff. “It’s been very difficult for many of our employees to go through the unemployment process in New York,” he says. “This is a familiar story by now, but we had employees who were calling 60 times a day, and they just could not get in and complete the process.”
Barker, who works two other jobs, has also been struggling—but has been trying to find ways to help his employees as well. He’s launched a virtual screening room for patrons (Tom Hardy’s bonkersCaponeis currently available) and encouraged locals to both buy gift books of tickets and donate to the theater’sGoFundMe page. The theater has also been given a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which has helped with covering utility bills.
“I think there’s been a lot of camaraderie amongst the art house cinemas because, quite frankly, it’s tough for art house cinemas in the best of times,” Barker said. At least North Park is a single screen theater with 607 seats, which means patrons who want to return after the pandemic will theoretically have ample space. “We can give people 20 feet of distance,” he said. “An art house cinema with a huge, old-fashioned screen—you can see movies the way that these auteurs want their movies to be seen.”
North Park also happens to be celebrating a special anniversary this year. “November will be our hundredth birthday, and we’ve survived a lot of things,” he said. “So I think coronavirus is just another thing that we’ll survive.”
Kiggins Theatre—Vancouver, Washington
Back to the Future is Kiggins Theater owner Dan Wyatt’s favorite film of all time, so quoting it on the marquee was a no-brainer for him. He settled on an urgent bit of dialogue from Doc Brown: “Marty, you must not leave the house. Anything you do could have serious repercussions on future events.” Soon, photos of his red, black, and cream marquee went viral, catching the eye of Michael J. Fox—who posted a photo of it on Instagram—and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, which produced the film. “We took the keys to the DeLorean away from Doc and Marty for the time being,” the company quipped on Twitter.
“I was pretty excited,” Wyatt said of the message. “That was the one I was most proud of.”
It’s one of many ’80s-centric messages the theater has posted during the pandemic, including “Goonies never say die” (from The Goonies) and “Keep your distance, Chewie, but don’t look like you’re keeping your distance” (from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi). Wyatt, with the help of events and operations coordinator Laine Keniston, has come up with new messages several times in the past two months and changing the aluminum lettering himself.
Wyatt has also been busy finding alternate revenue sources for the theater, including setting up virtual screenings, selling gift certificates, and transitioning it into a popcorn to-go restaurant. “Some days we’re out-grossing even a regular Friday or Saturday,” Wyatt noted, a silver lining.
“It’s been here since 1936,” Wyatt said of the theater. “Kiggins was the name of the town’s mayor at the time, who was quite the real estate magnate and a movie lover. He built several theaters, but this was the only one that exists today. It stands out as a little bit of a beacon on Main Street.”
Sunrise Theater—Southern Pines, North Carolina
On March 15, the Sunrise Theater was forced to cancel a sold-out screening of the Riverdance 25th anniversary show—a gut punch as the reality of the coronavirus began to settle in. “We had to send 360 people away,” said MaryBeth Poplyk, the historic theater’s executive director. “It was just not in their best interest, health-wise. We’re a small theater, so you’re tightly packed in there.”
Since then, the theater’s house manager has been swapping the marquee messages every so often, using it to quote lines like “Be excellent to each other,” from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” from Airplane!. The theater has taken suggestions from fans on social media in exchange for a popcorn prize; one fan, James Reynolds, suggested “Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Poplyk loved. “When I told him to stop by and pick up his free popcorn, he said he’d love to, but he’s on a deployment in Saudi Arabia right now,” she recalled. “He loves the theater and being a part of the community, [but] he loves it from afar now.”
In the interim, the theater has been selling curbside concessions once a week, in addition to asking for donations and doing virtual screenings, though Poplyk concedes that the latter hasn’t been lucrative. “It’s not a huge revenue generator,” she said. “We work with different studios for each movie, and they’re not really prepared to give us a box office reports very frequently. Some of the movies we’ve had, I still don’t know how many people have watched. So it’ll be interesting to see when it all pans out.”
Colonial Theatre—Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
The Colonial has leaned on puns, riffing on movie titles by posting messages like “Don’t Stand by Me” and “No Close Encounters of any kind” on its marquee. “That usually takes two people. It takes a ladder, and sometimes hanging upside down,” said Michal Kortsarts, the theater’s marketing and communications director. “It's a big event to get the marquee changed.”
As the theater’s first two messages went viral, it also started receiving submissions from its wordplay-happy followers. “We were starting to receive emails upon emails, Facebook messages, and Instagram private messages about it...every day, [we receive] at least 10 to 15 submissions,” said Kortsarts. There have been so many that she’s started photoshopping different versions of the marquee, showing off winning submissions like “When Harry Met Sally on Zoom” and “The Social Distance Network” on the theater’s Instagram account.
Though the theater has had to furlough concessions and hourly workers, about eight full-time staffers have been able to stay on board, working to make sure the theater can be reopened at any moment. In the meantime, the theater has been asking for donations and hosting a variety of quirky virtual screenings, including a compilation of cat videos and a documentary about mushrooms. “We’re really trying to scrutinize which titles we add to our virtual screening offerings to really match our mission,” said Kortsarts—which is “to celebrate the weird and celebrate the offbeat.”
Emmaus Theatre—Emmaus, Pennsylvania
“We had to furlough pretty much everybody,” said owner Robert Audibert, after the historic Emmaus Theatre closed on March 15. Getting creative with the marquee has given him a way to pass the time—and he loves how it’s helped him lighten the moods of locals. “It gives them a little bit of joy, you know?” he said.
Thus far, the marquee’s lettering has been changed four times in the past few weeks to include punny messages like “Stand by Me but six feet away” and “Dirty Dancing but from a distance,” Audibert’s favorite. He’s also since organized a GoFundMe to raise money for the theater, as well as the staff. “We’re a very close-knit bunch,” he said of the theater’s employees, who have been keeping in contact with a group chat.
Once the theater is able to open again, Audibert plans to ease back into shows, hosting classic movie screenings and bringing in local comedians to do benefits. Emmaus has 450 seats, which should make it easy to properly space people out during a show—but Audibert still thinks it’ll be a long time before patrons are comfortable coming to the theater again. “I’m still a little nervous about everything. To tell you the truth, I’m a bit high at risk myself,” he said.
Yet Audibert is determined to keep the lights on because, like North Park, this year marks his theater’s centennial. “This is actually our a hundred-year anniversary,” Audibert said. “That gives me more motivation to make sure that it keeps running. We can’t go out of business on a hundredth year. That would be a travesty.”