History of Signs

Motion Picture Exhibitor, August 23, 1961 By Erwin Wagner, Wagner Sign Service, Inc.

A sign — through the ages the word has had many meanings, embracing the religious, the mystic, the strange as well as the simple and the strictly for communication. Long before men were blessed with the ability to vocally transmit their thoughts to one another, they evolved some kind of a sign language to tell of their needs, desires, hopes and fears. They recorded their triumphs and disasters by chiseling their stories on stone. In their primitive way, they created via signs advertisements for their civilization. Through signs, their fellow knew what dangers, joys and beauty to expect in a given area.
Are we so different? In a world of many refinements and an atmosphere of super-sophistication, do we not resort still to the emotional impact of a sign language to tell our stories of excitement, suspense, love, fear, etc? You bet we do.

Walk down New York’s fabled Broadway or any of a hundred other gay white ways across this land and around this world. An army of spinning lights, brilliant colors, vibrant action assaults the imagination from millions of signs, selling everything from toiletries to entertainment blockbusters.

The debt of entertainment world to the ageless language of the sign is incalculable. Dealing in commodities as ephemeral as laughter and tears, it finds the spoken and written word poor conductors. Rather the quick and sharp appeal to the senses of the bright light, the action-packed photograph, the pungent headline. The stimulus of an entertainment sales message is aimed not at the intellect but at the emotions of the potential customer. The impulse to buy is the result not so much of conscious determination as of sensory response. For this reason, the sign is a far more successful salesman than the word.

The necessity for merchandising ever-changing film attractions made theatres the logical establishments to lead the way in exploring new techniques of outside point-of-sale advertising.

This is our story, and we shall study the changing pattern bulletins, has been importantly employed by theatres for a hundred years or more. Typical of such promotion in 1874 is that of the Globe Theatre, New York City; in 1876, the 5th Avenue Theatre, New York; and in 1889, the Peoples Theatre, Toledo, Ohio.

In the early nineteen hundreds, when show business was probably more fun, the nickelodeon came into being and likewise adopted this form of advertising. Inasmuch as no printed posters were available, exhibitors were forced to become sign writers. Garish, painted posters, which had to be hand lettered in water colors between the times of picking up the show at the film exchange and opening the theatre doors, were very much in evidence in front of all nickelodeons. Shows were not “booked” in advance and the titles of “today’s” show frequently were not known until the reels were selected for showing.

Some of the fellows were quite imaginative and since change of bill was usually a daily matter, they became quite “proficient” as sign men. Painted bulletins such as were displayed by the Casino Theatre, Orwigsburg, Pa., 1908, with its three full reels (45 minutes) for 5 cents, and the Broadway Theatre, Toledo, Ohio, 1909, are cited as exhibits.

About 1910, the film companies started including lithographs with the film. Typical are those shown at that time aty the Orpheum Theatre, Orwigsburg, Pa. Early one, three and six sheet lithographs included scenes from the picture, the title, name of the producer and number of reels. This size paper eas for all practical purposes large enough. It was to be some years before there would be theatre showings of such large proportions that current attractions could be determined from as far away as a city block or so. Attraction signs increased in size pretty much as houses increased in capacity.

Early lithographs were followed by such stock signs as those made by the Federal Electric Co., Chicago. Custom made electric signs were the next development, in about the year 1914. Examples are those used by the Criterion Theatre, Chicago, and the Colonial Theatre, Chicago, using both script channel bulb letters and a transparency. Both were constructed by Federal Electric Co., Chicago. As the length of engagements was gradually extended, theatremen devoted more time and money tot he merchandizing of the attraction. The theatre front afforded one of the best and most economical means of doing this job.

There was a period when the building of appropriate atmosphere fronts and lobbies was the rage. Some were very elaborate. But entrances soon became so cluttered that a “Cleaner: front with more formal displays was demanded. The era of changeable letter copy boards arrived in the year 1916. And it was so practical that no better means of displaying billing has been found even today.

Subsequently, in the year 1917, came changeable bulb letters such as those used by Astor, New York, for the Ziegfield Follies, and the Majestic, Chicago, for Orpheum Circuit vaudeville. The chief disadvantage of these letters was that they cost too much to change, which was considered reason enough for quickly adopting the raised glass letters which appeared in the year 1919 and are illustrated ion the Helen Hayes, New York City, and the Vita Temple, Toledo, 1926.

New York’s main stem then started the use of giant spectaculars such as that on the Globe made by Artkraft-Strauss of New York, in which the figure of Captain Kidd is 30 feet tall. Such tremendous displays are used to this day, for the promotion of films rather than for theatre identification. Raised glass letters were followed in the year 1921 by the luminous type beveled edge letter into which flat glass was inserted. The advantage of this letter was that flat glass cost only a small fraction of the moulded raised glass letters. They are illustrated on the Paramount Theatre, Toledo, Ohio, in the late 20’s.

Then, in the early 30’s, came the conversions by Wagner Sign Service from glass letters to Wagner silhouette letters in individual lines such as are illustrated in the photos of McVickers, Chicago; Gaiety, New York; and Grand, Chicago. In some instances mew lighting and single openings were installed, as at the Temple, Detroit, shown before and after the conversion in illustrations, and the Windsor, New York.

Later in the thirties, I conceived the idea of marking frames on all 7″ centers and slotting letters accordingly, so that all sizes of letters, from 4″ to 30″ could be used on the same frames. The first to purchase these Master-Multiple type frames was the Apollo, New York. Shown is an interesting sequence of pictures of this house. At first, when the theatre dropped burlesque and switched to motion pictures, the openings were 60″ high. They were subsequently enlarged, and are now altered to 90” as shown. The second theatre to install Master-Multiple frames was the Roxy Theatre, New York.

In quick succession we changed from glass to Master-Multiple at many theatres. We also changed from our own individual openings to Master-Multiple frames such theatres as the Central, New York. In the case of the Central we used some aluminum letters with plastic inserts. These letters were very expensive and not successful because of the difference in expansion and contract of metal and plastic.

About the year of 1942 we started the manufacture of injection molded plastic letters as illustrated on the Miracle Mile, Toledo, Ohio; The Lakewood, Cleveland; and Imperial, Inglewood, Calif. In line with our policy of constantly improving promotional products for theatres, we designed in the year 1946 the transparency frames for several theatres in Chicago. Although these were very effective and well received, the cost of production was almost prohibitive.

To meet the demand by the early drive-ins for an expensive attraction board, we developed in the year 1946 the extremely successful Enduronamel Panel which is practically indestructible and can be shipped knockdown and easily and quickly assembled on the job. These panels being constructed of steel can only be illuminated by flood lights or goosenecks, as illustrated on the Magic City Drive-In, located in Barberton, Ohio.
The growing demand for larger sign openings was filled in the year 1949 by our Window-Type Frames in several Chicago houses and Saenger, New Orleans, with the world’s tallest single opening — 26 ft. 1 in. high. Window-Type frames had made possible openings which were unlimited as to height.

More recent developments include the perfected Mechanical Hand in the year 1950, whereby letters may be changed without the use of ladders, and Plasti-Bar in 1960, which permits the manufacturer of backgroundswith mounting bars which create practically no dark lines when the board is illuminated.

Typical of today’s Times Square’s gigantic spectaculars is that of the DeMille for “Spartacus.” Manhattan’s Great White Way stands pretty much alone in this colossal form of promotion. This undoubtedly can be attributed to the fact that premier showings in New York are usually supported by an advertising budget the magnitude of which is far out of proportion to that in other cities across the land.