Taking the spotlight: Artcraft marquee restoration finished

With the flip of a switch, hundreds of twinkling, chasing, blinking LED lights lit up the front of the Historic Artcraft Theatre.

People gathered on Main Street in Franklin at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, waiting for the symbolic completion of its lengthy marquee refurbishment project. Officials counted down, and beneath the bright red neon of the signature Artcraft blade sign, the new lights illuminated amidst applause and cheering.

After nearly eight years of detailed planning, refurbishment and reconstruction, the Artcraft’s signature marquee is complete once again. The existing wiring has been replaced by a modern electrical system, LED bulbs provide brilliant illumination for a fraction of the power costs and polycarbonate paneling offers a long-lasting protective surface on its face.

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The marquee is the same style that theatergoers have enjoyed for nearly 60 years, just updated, said Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage, which operates the Artcraft.

“I don’t know any other theater to refurbish their own marquee and put it back together the way it was,” he said. “I’m glad we did, but there were so many beat up knuckles and cut fingers from the metal. It’s a lot more intensive than it looks from the street.”

The rounded marquee that theatergoers know was unveiled at the Artcraft on April 8, 1948, though its interior guts of wood and steel date all the way back to the 1930s, Shilts said.

Panels on the front of the display had warped and broken over time. The metal frame was distorted.

“When we started digging in there, we found actual marquee glass under there. They haven’t used that for ages,” Shilts said. “No one had taken it all apart before.”

The marquee project was the final piece of a larger project to overhaul the Artcraft’s entire facade. Funding was provided by donations and a matching grant program from the Franklin Redevelopment Corp.

Because it was tied to the renovation of buildings throughout downtown Franklin, work at the Artcraft was delayed due to a contractor issue and funding delays midway through the project, Shilts said.

“The process of actually taking part of the marquee down started in 2009, when we started the whole facade restoration,” he said. “To prop it up while we waited, we had to take the bottom panels off the marquee. So the bottom of it has been open for eight years.”

Work on the marquee began in earnest nearly two years ago. On the face of the marquee, the illuminated polycarbonate panels were cut to fit perfectly on the rounded frame. A crane lifted off two large air-conditioning units, which keep the interior of the sign cool, while the work is being done.

All of the metal parts of the sign had to be removed and repaired. Workers pounded out and smoothed dings, filled in holes where the metal had worn through and sand-blasted years of grime off each section.

“There were areas that had rusted. There were areas that had been painted over with an actual paint brush or a roller, not the right kind of paint to protect it,” Shilts said. “I’m sure in the past they looked at it like we did, and thought, ‘Do we want to open up this can of worms?’”

Those pieces were then given to Midstate Manufacturing to powder-coat the marquee to match the white and red Artcraft color scheme. Powder coating is a process in which a powder resin is baked into the metal at high temperatures, turning it into a protective glaze.

Piece by piece, the marquee came back together.

One of the big priorities was installing LED capabilities, with new sockets, wiring and bulbs. The wattage required to light just two of the old bulbs is the same as what it now takes to light all 900 new LEDs, Shilts said.

As Artcraft volunteers screwed in the twinkle lights in the center and around the edges of the marquee in late February, the project was completed. A celebration and lighting ceremony was scheduled for March 5, following a special showing of “Jurassic Park” on 35-millimeter film for Reel Film Day.

With the completed project, the exterior of the theater is now finished. Artcraft officials will continue to focus the refurbishment of the theater’s interior.

“A lot of people here haven’t seen this marquee like this for at least eight years, and maybe for much longer,” Shilts said. “When they see it shining and twinkling from now on, it’s going to have a ‘Wow’ effect.”