From the Archives: Orpheum Theatre Restoration
San Francisco’s historic theater gets a facelift
By Jenny Schnetzer
Even with the millennium approaching and the increasing convenience of in-home entertainment, the Internet and MTV, theaters still exist—and thrive. In fact, there seems to be a revival of stage plays and Broadway musicals. The arts are once again considered fashionable, and major cities are reviving theater districts and opening restaurants to cater to this newfound interest. Many arts patrons are even attempting to restore the spirit of old-time theaters by renovating existing venues rather than tearing them down. (For an interesting cast study on the Chicago Theatre’s sign restoration, see “Landmark Redux,” ST, September 1997, page 122).
Such is the case with San Francisco’s historic Orpheum Theatre. The Orpheum, situtated on the corner of Hyde and Market Streets, first opened its doors more than 72 years ago. Originally named the New Pantages Theatre after Alexander Pantages, an entrepreneur who owned a string of theaters, the venue housed vaudeville productions.
With a modest budget of $1 million, Pantages designed the theater interior with a vaulted ceiling painted to resemble a clear, night sky and mythical figures reminiscent of a pre-Reformation Spain. The building’s façade, patterned after a 12-century French cathedral, featured an electric blade sign an accompanying marquee. When it opened in 1926, the Pantages was truly a spectacular venue. Unfortunately, vaudeville’s popularity lasted only a few years, and the Pantages was sold, renamed the Orpheum Thaetre, and reopened to show movies.
In 1970, live theater returned to the venue when the Orpheum presented the musical Hair. But in 1981, the theater was forced to again close its doors. That same year, however, the Shorenstein Hays Nederlander Organization, under the vision of Carole Shorenstein Hays, bought the Orpheum, and theater once again returned. To bring Broadway-caliber productions to the San Francisco theater, the new owners funded a $20 million renovation in 1997, which was completed in March 1998.
In addition to the extensive interior renovation, the Orpheum received some brand-new exterior signage. To mimic the theater’s original façade, the owners ordered new signage with a design straight out of the 1920s. San Francisco-based Toll Architectural Graphics Inc. was contracted to create the signage, and then joint-ventured the design, fabrication and installation with Superior Sign Systems, a full-service signshop based in Vacaville, CA. Toll Architectural President Dean Toll and Superior Sign Systems Sales Executive Bob Riddell worked together to make the project a reality.
A unique project
To generate an initial concept for the Orpheum’s new signage, the Shorenstein Hays Nederlander Organization obtained original black-and-white photographs of the Pantages Theatre’s façade for reference. Superior Sign Systems and Toll Graphics then worked with the owners to develop computerized conceptual drawings that would restore the look of the theater’s original signage, but with a custom font and suitable materials. As such, Superior Sign Systems and Toll Graphics were able to design a completely modern sign—one that incorporates vinyl and digitally printed signage—but in a decidedly retro style.
Superior Sign Systems’ Chief Designer Sid Aslami single-handedly designed the three main exterior signs: a blade sign, two show panels and a marquee sign. Although the company has been producing electric signage for 13 years, Aslami says, “This project was a very unique opportunity for us.” It was unique not only due to its vastness, but because the company was given a 30-day deadline to fabricate and install the entire sign project before the design was complete.
The show panels
Showcard panels have historically played an important role in exterior theater signage. But the showcard panel portion of the Orpheum project combined tradition with a decidedly modern twist—digitally printed posters. The two show panels, measuring 8 feet by 11 feet by 1 foot, are fabricated from .125-inch aluminum with a galvanized-stell framing support. Each 8-foot-square, internally illuminated cabinet features a removable Lexan® polycarbonate face that houses a translucent digital print. The Lexan faces are designed to be easily removed, allowing the digital prints to be quickly changed and replaced onto a spare Lexan face so that the digital prints are applied to the faces in-house rather than on-site.
Superior Sign Systems fabricated the “Orpheum” letters out of flat, cut-out aluminum painted with cream satin paint (Matthews Paint Co., Kenosha, WI) to match the building. The upper, lower, and side sections of the show panels have a 45-degree bevel with inlaid 3M (St. Louis, MO) gold-metallic vinyl stripping accents.
But Aslami noticed the top of the sign, a curved element painted with a plain green background and gold trim, was missing something. So he worked with Korth Sunseri Hagey Architects—the firm that handled the interior renovation—to help him find an architectural element to add to the empty spaces on the show panels. Using a similar architectural feature from the building’s interior, Aslami incorporated gold-metallic vinyl sunbursts. In fact, the two sunbursts were the final elements installed; Aslami laid down the vinyl graphics just before the panels were transported to the job site.
The show panels proved tricky because before Superior Sign Systems could install the sign above the marquee, installers had to find a means of support. As such, the general contractor dug holes into the building’s facade and inserted steel tubing, trying several different angles before finding a secure method of installation. The steel framing system consist of 6-by-6-inc steel tubing projecting out from the wall and bent at an approximate 30-degree angle. The show panels were then attached to the frames by Superior Sign Systems.
Because the theater’s marquee was still standing, but badly in need of renovation, crews tore it down and rebuilt it. Measuring 28.5 inches high by 41 feet long by 6 feet deep, the new marquee is constructed of aluminum and features galvanized-steel framing supports. The 10-inch-high “Orpheum Theatre” letters are fabricated from flat, cut-out aluminum and painted cream. Above the letters is a cast-iron architectural element—a part of the old marquee sign that was saved, refurbished, and repainted gold.
Still higher, jutting out above the marquee, is a decorative trim fabricated from pressed-metal mounted over a 3-inch-deep reverse-channel mold. Decorative shields on the corners of the main sign are custom-fabricated out of GFRC—a fiberglass reinforced concrete material that has the look of concrete without the weight. Aslami designed the shield accouterments using partially existing shields as a guideline. However, because the shields were damaged, he had to recreate part of the design. Once the design was completed, the approximately 3-foot-high shields were cast by San Francisco-based William Kreysler & Assoc., Inc. Superior Sign then coated the shields in green satin paint (Matthews Paint Co.) to complement the blade sign.
The blade sign
The double-sided blade sign, designed to mimic the old Pantages Theatre sign, measures 5.5 feet wide by 45 feet high by 20 inches deep. Constructed of fabricated aluminum with a galvanized-steel frame, the Orpheum blade sign features 3-foot, 10-inch-high open-channel letters with painted-gold outside returns and infilled with light bulbs. The insides of the letters are painted cream to match the building, and the sign’s background, also constructed of .125-inch aluminum, is coated with green satin paint and overlaid with a grid pattern of 3M gold-metallic vinyl.
Aslami says the vinyl grid pattern behind the channel letters was carefully planned to feature two full diamond shapes in between each letter. Because the background grid was shaped after the historic Pantages sign (which actually has eight letters, while the Orpheum has only seven), Aslami says great care was taken in the design and execution to ensure the new pattern remained true to the original design. The upper and lower sections of the blade sign feature several architectural enhancements. Custom-fabricated aluminum, coated in two tones of glossy gold paint, makes up the majority of the signs’ elaborate crests. Additionally, a half-inch-thick Sintra® expanded PVC sheet overaly, painted light gold, tops off the aluminum accoutrements. Emobssed ornamental urns (manufactures by the WF Norman Corp., Nevada, MO) add a royal touch to the blade sign and to the show panels, as well. Light bulbs and a dimensional channel border placed around the sign’s edges unify the sign design.
Once assembled, Superior Sign’s next challenge was to position and install the blade sign onto the building’s facade. The company had to project the sign far enough out to avoid interference with the building’s architecture, but still adhere to the city’s strict regulations. In fact, the 5.5-foot-wide sign could only project out 6 feet from the building. Additionally, the sheer size of the sign—a hefty 3,500 pound—required that it be lifted carefully with a crane. Superior Sign installed the upper section using 18-inch-by-16-inch-by-.5-inch steel tube supports welded to the building’s existing I-beam. The lower section was attached similarly to the building’s I-beam using 14-inch-by-6-inch-by-.5-inch steel supports.
Despite the severe time constraints for such a large sign project, Superior Sign Systems and Toll Graphics rose to the challenge—and met a tight deadline.
Aslami says it was highly unusual to continue the design phase well into the installation. So coordinating the design, fabrication, and installation of the Orpheum signage required speed, accuracy, and a lot of skill. Both companies’ dedicated and highly skilled staffs helped make the project a success. Aslami adds, “Even though we were rushed, nothing went wrong. Everything fell into place perfectly.” And so the curtain closes to thundering applause on this sign project.