Nine years ago, the Lebowsky Center, home to the Owosso Community Players in Michigan, was damaged by a massive fire. In fact, the entire building was destroyed by the blaze except for the front of the structure and its marquee (although many of the original Bakelite panels on it were broken).
Today any remnants of that fire have been extinguished from memory as the interior of the theater has been completely renovated and its marquee now seamlessly hosts two new v-shaped, 16mm Watchfire XVS electronic screens on each side, meeting where the sign starts to curve around the front.
So who was the sign company responsible for putting the spotlight on this marquee that has garnered rave reviews? Enter, stage right, Agnew Sign Co., also of Owosso.
Owner Mark Agnew has been involved in the sign business for thirty-one years and has kept up with the evolving trends. He started out doing simple pinstriping and window tinting and grew his business to also take on wraps, customized signs, monuments, and yes, electronic displays.
“Although we do big projects, like LED signs, we don’t stop doing the smaller things like decals and promotional products—pens, whistles, mugs, hats, embroidery, screen printing, etc.,” he says.
After the fire back in 2007, all that was left of the original Lebowsky Center marquee were the framework, hangers, and some red Zip-Change letters, as well as black letters they’d bought from another theater.
“For years, the majority of the letters they’d use were black, but every now and again, they’d have to throw a red letter up there, when needed,” says Agnew.
The intricate design and operation of the marquee made the prospect of a total restoration difficult and potentially expensive. It took many years for the Lebowsky Center owners to raise enough money to be able to undertake renovations of their theater’s interior and exterior. “Today it’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility,” says Agnew.
Agnew Sign makes sure they are actively involved with the surrounding community, as they participate in a lot of fundraisers (including the ones for this theater project). “Because of this, we were always aware of what was going on and that someday there would be a restoration of the marquee,” says Agnew.
Thanks to his visible participation in the community, when board members decided it was time to renovate the marquee, they approached Agnew beforehand with questions on how to proceed. “I advised them to first get an engineer to look at it and gauge that it would be able to hold the weight,” he says.
Agnew knew other shops would be invited to solicit quotes for this marquee restoration, yet he still had no problem sharing information with board members.
“We even wrote the specs for them,” he says, “explaining what the sign company selected would need to provide to exceed their expectations—disassembling the sign, cleaning out all the old electric and shaping it to fit, custom-ordering the sign to have a 1/4-inch tolerance, flush-mounting, and having pure-white capability. “The last thing they needed was for someone to come in with their own interests in mind and leave them in the end with a lot still to be desired.”
After other shops made their bids on this project, the board unanimously chose Agnew Sign. “Our price wasn’t the lowest nor the highest,” says Agnew. “I think we were selected based on our experience, the number of signs we’ve sold, the quality of the work we’ve done, and the lengthy pages of references we’d given them.”
Agnew also credits the quality customer service his shop provides. “We’re always there to fix it and take care of it,” he says.
Agnew agreed to provide two Watchfire LED displays for this marquee. Since he knew budget was going to play a role in the board’s decision, he had already mapped out several different options they could pursue, and he gave board members twelve different quotes for three different LED sizes in four different resolutions.
“They could put a lot of money in the highest resolution, but at their budget, they’d have to be at a much smaller sign size,” he says. “A twelve-footer was going to be the minimum size. The sign is six feet tall, and the entire length of the flat surface was fifteen feet.
“So if they wanted to get a higher resolution, they’d have to come down in length. This would mean more of the original Bakelite at each end and a smaller marquee.”
Agnew brought along a Watchfire sales rep with him to meetings with board members to help answer any questions they had and explain some of the LED display’s key points. “One of the biggest things they wanted was that it had to be pure white, and the Watchfire XVS series can do that,” he says. “There’s no blue or pink hue to it.”
Agnew convinced them to go with the 16mm display at full size and have the entire screen, which would look much better and still be within their budget. “The 16mm is still a great, beautiful sign at that size,” he says.
The building is located in a historic district, and any changes to the signage had to conform to strict regulations.
The Owosso historic commission doesn’t allow LEDs in this area. So when the community players approached them about using LED signage in this restoration, the commission told them that the only way they would allow this was if the sign continued to look the way it always has—white backgrounds with the gray lines to hang Zip-Change letters on.
Agnew worked hard to demonstrate to them that an LED sign retrofitted into the existing framework could mimic the look of the old marquee with a high degree of accuracy.
“I told them that we could do artwork that would be on the sign all the time,” he says. “Then when they did the copy, it will look just like it always has for eighty years.”
Agnew Sign Co., started by measuring the original grid work. They disassembled the sign a little bit to acquire some interior measurements and order the 15-foot, 1-inch-by-7-foot, 2-inch-panels with 1/4-inch tolerances all the way around.
The grid pattern was vertical and horizontal; it measured 9-by-18 inches all the way up and across the old steel framework used to hang the letters. They then developed it to scale with the same thickness and a nice gray tone and dropped this artwork in the Watchfire software as basically one frame that they always place their message over.
“It lines up perfectly with the old grid work around that front curve,” says Agnew. “So when the sign is on, it looks very original and very historic.”
It helped that one of the key people on the historic commission used to be the downtown development director. Agnew had worked with him a few years back in writing a city ordinance for electronic signs that allowed them to be regulated in a way that works for both the community and the business. “You just have to know how these signs work,” says Agnew.
With the commission’s approval, it was necessary to find LED components that could accurately reflect the white background of the original Bakelite tiles. It is natural for LEDs to dim over time, but Agnew finds that Watchfire’s high-quality components and color calibration ensure that the white background of their content will remain true.
As soon as the Owosso Players had finished their last play before the marquee renovation, Agnew Sign, with the help of Carl Ludington of Owosso’s Ludington Electric, started disassembling the faces and removing everything.
“We cut the grid work out, got rid of the Bakelite panels, and removed all the electric, wires, and framework inside so that it was hollow,” says Agnew. “Since we already knew the depth, we had to cut some hand holes in the back of the sign to pull the sign in.
“Then once that was done, SLH Metals of Corruna, Michigan made some covers, and a new roofing was put over the back on the inside of the sign to protect it.”
According to Agnew, the two Watchfire panels arrived one week before the scheduled installation date. “We were always ahead of schedule,” he says. “Start to finish was somewhere in the six- to eight-week range.”
Agnew Sign kept the displays in the packaging Watchfire had shipped them in. They strapped them right to the trailer and drove them to the theater where they used boom trucks to lift the two digital signs into place onto the existing marquee framework.
Thanks to well-timed pre-planning, all the signs were perfectly installed without a single glitch. In fact, what was scheduled for an expected two-day install only took one day. “We actually pulled the permit with Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to close the lane in front of the theater for two days,” says Agnew.
The brightness (nit value) of the two displays was set up beforehand by Watchfire, and Agnew Sign Co., was able to adjust that once installed. “The LED screen is always white (with the exception of the black and red letters),” says Agnew. “We want it to look as realistic as possible.”
Another fundraiser for this marquee involved removing 900 original incandescent bulbs from it and selling them for $10 each to help pay for new, yellow LED bulb replacements. Ludington Electric removed a lot of the old electrics from the marquee and did the complete restoration on the yellow chasing lights on the marquee.
A majority of those were already up and running when Agnew Sign got to work on installing the Watchfire displays, but their installers were able to successfully steer clear of them.
During the renovation process, Agnew found the original light-flasher motor that ran the marquee’s chaser lights. It was a 1945 motor made by Watchfire’s original parent company, Time-O-Matic. It needed a little clean-up and oil, but it’s back in working order and running 900 new LED chaser lights.
Ludington Electric also hung the “Donald Schneider Marquee” letters on the marquee.
“[Schneider] owned a movie museum,” explains Agnew, “and when he passed away, he gave a large portion of his estate to the community players. They used that money to help pay for the sign restoration.”
Agnew even developed specially designed content to blend the look of the new Watchfire signs seamlessly with the original curved marquee that remained on the front.
“We made one letter red on the first message on the new sign because everybody was quite fond that, every time they did a play and put letters up there, there was always a red letter,” he says, noting the sign shuts off automatically at midnight.
Agnew enjoyed working with the historic commission, the theater, the city, the MDOT, Watchfire, and the fabricators and electricians to pull this project together into a very organized installation.
He also gives credit to his long-time fabricator and installer, Bill Simons. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without him,” he says. “Bill has been in the sign industry for years, and he has the foresight to be able to know what to look for, make it fit like a glove, and ensure it will all work.
“To Bill, this was just another project, and I owe a lot to him as an installer.”
Agnew even states that this was the most exciting project he had worked on in his thirty-one years in the business. He is so proud of his involvement that he hired a video firm to document their work on it—from loading the trailer to the countdown for the relighting. (Note: To view this video, visit bit.ly/2dzZVT5).
Agnew is still involved with some of the theater’s fundraisers today.
“Right after the sign was done, the theater group put on their version of Dancing with the Stars and asked me to be one of the dancers,” he says. “I won the People’s Choice Award and helped them raise $40,000.”
By Jeff Wooten
All Photos: Agnew Sign Company.