Marquee De Mod

Contemporary materials, design and teamwork rejuvenate the Temple Theatre.
Empire Architectural Design (Midland, MI) designed a blade sign and marquee to restore the 91-year-old Temple Theatre in Saginaw.

I have always found the engineering and construction of stone cathedrals fascinating and have studied them for most of my life. I love all the little accents among these gigantic works of art. So when the board of the Temple Theatre in Saginaw, MI approached me to design a new marquee and blade sign for the historic building (which was being renovated), I was excited. The building resembles an early Gothic cathedral and was commissioned nearly a century ago by the Elf Khurafeh Shriners – a fraternal organization like other Shriners, based on fun, fellowship, and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

Osgood & Osgood Architects of Grand Rapids, MI had produced the original blueprints. As Freemasons, Osgood put more than their usual care into this building design. And as a Shriner myself, I found it very interesting to look into the history of the theater. I also found it easier said than done.


Eric constructed a 1/32, 3D model to help decision makers to envision his proposal.
Eric constructed a 1/32, 3D model to help decision makers to envision his proposal.

The original marquee from 1927 carried out the “trolley car” design of that era, a rectangle with three sides of advertisement and decorative spires at each corner. The blade had been carefully hand carved and assembled from wood pieces. Over the years and decades, woodpeckers slowly ravaged it and the blade was taken down along with the rest of the marquee in 1961.

At that time, the theater put up a modern “wedge” marquee to accommodate automobile traffic, replacing the original trolley-car style. The wedge was developed to be read at higher rates of speed; no one was riding trolley cars or stopping in front of the theater anymore. The Temple Theatre board wanted me to keep the wedge shape for the new marquee, but to replicate the original blade. However, only two known photographs and one hand-painted postcard that had partially shown the blade were known to exist. The board also wanted to convert the marquee from changeable copy to an electronic message center.

After many hand sketches on everything from napkins to scrap paper when the ideas hit me, I finally came up with what I thought looked very close to the original sign. I presented sketches to the board, but they had a hard time grasping my concept. So my team and I made a scaled, 3D model by taking my Corel design and scaling it to 1/32. We separated the individual sections into what I call “model sheets” (various thicknesses of materials), which were then computer routed and assembled by hand just like a model from a hobby store. To add more detail, we used modeling clay to create the different features of the façade.

The scale model was so popular that the board decided to do a fundraiser featuring the model and my concept sketches (framed) as the attractions.


The funds, in fact, were raised because later I received a phone call asking me to quote the job and start building. The trick was to find materials that were lightweight, durable and affordable. I also had to find skilled people to build the unusual accent pieces.

I had done projects before where we used carved foam around an aluminum and steel frame coated with fiberglass, but that would be too heavy for the Temple Theatre. Those applications work great when being installed onto a structure with fully known engineering. But this particular building was 90 years old (at the time), with only one or two blueprints in the archives at the local library. I had an idea of what was behind the walls, but considering I would be installing the blade sign 64 ft. above ground level, I didn’t want to risk it.

Around that same time I had attended the ISA Sign Expo and spoke with the people from Benchmark Foam Inc. (Watertown, SD) about some other projects I was working on. I gave them a call and ultimately sent some sketches to see what they thought about attaching custom, hand-carved foam accents. The blade and marquee were to be constructed with a combination of steel and aluminum frames. I even created layered aluminum pan effects and intricate marquee bulb patterns. After several weeks of conference calls and file exchanges, Benchmark’s knowledgeable people were able to pull it off. 

Among the routed and hand-carved decorative spirals, ball ornaments and spires fabricated by Benchmark Foam, a 96-in. x 12-ft. tower crown was made to cap the fully assembled marquee. Once all the accents were carved, hard coated and finished with UV-resistant automotive paint, they were shipped to World Wide Sign Systems (Bonduel, WI) for pre-fitting prior to installation. With both companies’ help, we devised internal structures and attachment points that will withstand many years of high winds, rain, snow and ice.


Lightweight but durable materials were crucial due to lacking complete blueprints of the nearly century-old building.
Lightweight but durable materials were crucial due to lacking complete blueprints of the nearly century-old building.

Back in Saginaw, we removed the replacement wedge marquee from 1961 in six hours, late in the evening after the final performance of a live show. Just five hours later – the next morning – we started installing the new signs. We had less than one week to complete the job before the next show opened. 

The blade was built in several sections (foam being separate) and underwent final assembly on site. In the end, the marquee comprised five sections plus foam accents. All the shipping and deliveries was managed with stopwatch precision because we were installing along a busy, state-maintained street in the heart of town.

I had worked for Signs by Crannie (Flint, MI) for several years in the past. Owner Dan Crannie and his installation crews joined us to custom-weld new structural steel. Using Crannie’s certified welders, we were able to connect a new 16 x 16-in. square tube to the steel that was torched and covered from the 1961 blade removal. This carries 85% of the dead weight. A kicker supports the lower section of the blade, taking up the rest of the load. And the blade is made with hidden fasteners, keeping it easy to maintain.

The marquee and blade feature more than 2,100 marquee LED bulbs. At my request, the people at Great Lakes Sign Products (Niles, MI) set up a custom flash and chase system just for this marquee to achieve the unusual way I wanted the bulbs to“move.” The marquee from 1961 required 90 amps to run with neon, incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. The new marquee runs on less than 60 amps, which should save the Temple Theatre a few hundred dollars a year. We also used two Daktronics 15mm 5-ft., 6-in. x 19-ft., 9-in.-full color displays to replace the changeable copy. 

The new marquee has become a popular landmark, something special that will be seen by tens of thousands of people – maybe more – over the next 90 years or so. And as a tip of the hat to the original architects, I hid some messages in plain sight on the accents of the marquee. Using the Masonic alphabet that can be found online, anyone can read them.


CONSULTANTS: Signs By Benchmark,
ROUTER: Laguna Smartshop II 5 x 10,
WELDERS: Miller Welders,
FOAM: EPS foam core medium, Benchmark Foam Inc.,
PAINTING: Matthews Paint System and coatings,
LIGHTING: FlexiBRITE flexible LED tubing, SloanLED,; Great Lakes Sign Products (programming),
EMC: Daktronics,
ASSEMBLY: World Wide Sign Systems,
INSTALLATION: Elliott crane/bucket trucks,; Signs by Crannie (custom welding),


Signs of the Times January 2021

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