Re-opening the Music Box

Renovating the marquee of a historic Chicago theater.
The Music Box marquee blends new LED technology with the original look and design elements.

In the summer of 1929, the Music Box Theatre was constructed and remains one of the few large movie theaters in Chicago. At that time, the Music Box was somewhat of a rarity – smaller than the grand cinema emporiums of its time, which were mostly constructed to accommodate live-stage presentations. The Music Box was one of the first theaters built with a focus on the new era of sound-on-film. Like most theaters of its time, it featured a large, ornate marquee to advertise current films and coming attractions.

Throughout the past 88 years, the Music Box marquee has seen its share of layers of paint, updated lighting and missing ornamental decorations. It has showcased nearly 10,000 movie titles, thousands of directors’ names, a handful of marriage proposals and one World Series congratulations to the Cubs. A decision was made in the early spring of 2017 by the owner and managers of the Music Box to renovate the marquee, despite the challenges. “When we looked at doing yet another face-lift on the marquee, we found that the mounting issues both cosmetically and internally were not going to help the longevity of the marquee,” said Ryan Oestreich, the theater’s general manager. “We decided we should not only build a new marquee in the historic look and feel of the original, but a whole new superstructure to support the marquee to ensure it lasts another 90 years.”

LIFTING THE LID

A look at the previous failing structure of the sign and canopy before demolition.
A look at the previous failing structure of the sign and canopy before demolition.

Landmark Project Lead Shaun Ensign was contacted by William Schopf, the president of Music Box Films and current owner of the Music Box Theatre, along with Shapiro Associates, in April 2017 to discuss design options. They approached Landmark Sign Group because of our vast experience working with and producing some of the most iconic theater signs in Chicago, including the Goodman Theatre (see ST, June 2017, page 58).

The group determined that the failing structure needed to be completely rebuilt because the current steel had rotted to the point of almost collapsing. The plan was to have the general contractor, Knudsen Construction (Calumet City, IL) – completing the renovation on the interior – also disassemble the existing marquee and lower it to the ground. Knudsen would then build the new super-structure while Landmark Sign began the design process of re-creating the sign to its original look from 1929 while using updated LED lighting to make the sign more energy-efficient. “Building a new marquee will remind our patrons of the magic that cinema has to offer in the city of Chicago,” Schopf stated in a press release. “Music Box’s history is tied to our historic marquee, so maintaining the original look and feel is imperative.”

NEW BOX, SAME TUNE

The original look is also important to Chicago. Although the building is not on the City’s Register of Historic Places, it is on the “Historical Watch” list, so time was invested early on in the design process to locate matches to the ornamental mouldings, rope borders, urns, corner drops and crestings of the original sign. We went to our favorite resource, W.F. Norman Corp. in Nevada, MO. They have been in business since 1898 and offer a wide range of castings and ornaments. We were able to find exact matches for all of the decorative zinc-casted elements needed for the new sign. Along with the ornaments, a lot of time went into re-creating the profile of the cornice. We eventually cut off a section of the old cornice in order to match the profile and bend it to exact specification. We were also able to remove the center urn and scrolls from the original sign, bring them back to the shop, restore and install them to the new sign to keep some of the history intact. 

While most of the focus was on keeping the sign as historically correct as possible, another goal of the owner was to use new, modern energy-efficient lighting. Terry Ambrosini, senior technical engineer at Landmark, came up with a few different ways to deal with the lighting. For the changeable copy boards (CCBs), the architect decided to go with the same recessed look as the old sign. Surrounding the CCB sections are fabricated aluminum frames with 2W LED bulbs hooked up to mechanical light chaser units. The background panels are 2247 Milk White Lexan panels held in place with aluminum extrusions. Each CCB is illuminated using GE 3200k LED Tetra Power-Strips. For the words “Music Box” on the front of the marquee, we used SloanLED FlexiBRITE flexible red LED tubing attached to painted, ½-in. acrylic backers to simulate the neon of the previous marquee. The under canopy comprised an aluminum frame construction with drop-in ACM panels that contained sockets for the 240 2W 2700K steady burn LED bulbs. 

READY TO PLAY

Traffic had to be blocked to spin the main front section of the sign into position.
Traffic had to be blocked to spin the main front section of the sign into position.

Installing signs in late January in Chicago is a challenge in itself. On Jan. 24, the Landmark crew headed downtown on one of the coldest and windiest days of the winter. We built the sign in three different sections to attach easily to the new steel superstructure. The first day of install included mounting the three marquee sections and beginning the wiring of the electrical connections. On the second and third days, the under canopy was installed and final wiring was completed for the entire sign. During the installation, several people from the neighborhood stopped by to thank us and let us know that they were excited that the new sign kept the character of the 88-year-old one they were used to seeing every day. 

Talks will begin next spring to determine the design and plan for renovating the iconic blade sign that towers over the marquee. During this process, it was determined to be in good enough condition not to be included in this phase. In the future, we’ll be re-painting the structure, fabricating new letters and replacing all of the lighting with LED bulbs. For the Music Box Theatre, keeping the lights on means keeping a piece of Chicago history alive and well for another century!


EQUIPMENT AND MATERIALS

SOFTWARE: Adobe Illustrator, adobe.com; EnRoute, enroutesoftware.com; Gerber Omega, gspinc.com
ROUTER: AXYZ 10 x 22-ft. CNC with dual carriage and dual spindles, axyz.com
WELDERS: Miller Welders, millerwelds.com
PAINT: Matthews Paint System, matthewspaint.com 
LIGHTING: GE Tetra White LED PowerStrips, gelighting.com; Satco 2W LED bulbs, satco.com; SloanLED FlexiBRITE flexible LED tubing, sloanled.com
ZINC CASTINGS: W.F. Norman, wfnorman.com
INSTALLATION: Elliot Crane Trucks, elliottequip.com; National Crane, manitowoccranes.com

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Signs of the Times November 2018

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