Denver is lucky to be home to a handful of vintage movie houses-turned-performance venues. For the city's Northside, the Oriental Theater is the remaining shining star. And this weekend, the Oriental's exterior will reflect how special this historic place is to the area with the unveiling of a freshly refurbished neon sign, just in time for the annual Totally Tennyson neighborhood block party.
No LEDs here: The Oriental's sign is pure, bright, snarling electric neon tubing, expertly crafted by Gordon Sign, a company that began making signs in Denver more than a hundred years ago. In fact, Gordon Sign may have been the company that built the Oriental's sign in 1926, in time for the theater's opening that year. Gordon reps are still digging through the company's archives to be sure, but it wouldn't be at all surprising: Gordon Sign has had a hand in creating, mounting and repairing signage for the Satire Lounge, Bonnie Brae Ice Cream, the Cherry Cricket, Applejack Liquors, Davies Chuckwagon Diner, Flesher-Hinton Music, the Esquire Theatre, the Candlelight Tavern, Denver Diner, various Taco Houses and thousands of other businesses across the metro area.
Because neon signage is costly to repair, the Oriental's long- darkened sign remained low on the independently owned and operated venue's priority list. Enter general manager Scott Happel: A friend of the Oriental's owners, the businessman was brought in two years ago to look over the then-financially underwater theater's books and assess whether the business was worth keeping open at all. Despite the monetary distress, Happel saw a bright future. He got to work tightening belts and budgets, and in less than a year, the Oriental was making money. Happel then decided that the Oriental needed some exterior improvements.
"I looked at the sign every day when I came into work and thought, you know, if we really want to change the feel of the theater, we need the sign to be operational," says Happel. "It really affects the perception of anyone driving by or even someone coming in. If you come here for a show and the sign is completely dark and inoperable, you're probably thinking, all right, I know what kind of place I'm coming to. It wasn't a good thing."
The first fix was the marquee itself: Working with the landlord, they split the cost of repairing the strips of neon and lighting fifty-fifty. As local neon expert Seth Totten of Acme Neon was working on the marquee, he made a discovery: Hidden under pieces of metal, there were sockets for dozens of incandescent bulbs. The Oriental's marquee was once again able to glow and flicker and flash. But the top half of the sign — known as the blade, displaying the venue's name — remained dark. It was just too expensive and too big a job; it had to wait.
After another fiscally successful year for the venue, Happel again started thinking about finishing work on the sign. It wasn't going to be an easy job; because of permitting and sign regulations, the sign couldn't be removed while the work was done. It had to remain attached to the building, which meant they needed to find a company that could handle the specific neon work and have a truck big enough to get those neon experts up onto the front of the structure. Enter Colorado-based Gordon Sign, one of the oldest sign companies in America.
As luck would have it, Amanda Nichols, a onetime cocktail waitress and bartender for the Oriental, was working for Gordon and connected Happel with the company. It was key to partner with a professional company that fully understood what kind of work was needed to restore a sign on a historic structure; Totten's work on the lower half of the marquee was great, but the top portion was too big a job for the small-business craftsman to handle on his own.
A few years ago, local preservation group Save the Signs had held a benefit to raise money to repair the sign. The fundraiser was appreciated and well-intentioned, Happel says, but the funds raised were just enough to cover the cost of a paint job — and then the person hired to paint it did more harm than good. By the time winter hit, the paint was peeling off and the sign looked horrible.
Though the landlord only pitched in a small amount for the sign's revamping this time around, Happel says it still felt like a good investment for the business itself. "Honestly, that was a question we had to ask ourselves: We don't own this sign, so is it worth it to our business to invest in it?" Since Happel had taken over as general manager, the venue had also brought on famed local venue booker Mark Sundermeier, and he was bringing big shows to the Oriental. Tickets were selling, things were going well, and Happel thought it in the venue's best interest to continue its slow and calculated renovations. "Our landlord is great; we have a long-term lease and have no fear that he would lease the building to anyone else as long as we're here and being successful," Happel notes. "As far as the sign [goes], my argument was, this is the face of the theater. We are getting more and more national acts in here. We've spruced up the place and are looking at it as a legitimate home."
When Gordon Sign took on the project, the company suggested bringing it into the 21st century with LED lighting — lighting that is less expensive, easier to maintain and many times more energy-efficient than traditional neon. Happel wouldn't even entertain the notion: It was neon or nothing. "We're not redoing the sign, we're refurbishing the sign; we want it to look like it did in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s," he says.
"We're not trying to make it modern; we want the sign to be authentic to what it always was," he continues. "It was important to us that they repainted it exactly as it was painted, keep with neon and the same look it always had. The theater was built in 1926 – opened on New Year's Eve between 1926-1927. It's important to us to keep that history. We hear from people all the time how much they love that we haven't drastically changed the place. We have people come in and tell us they saw movies here when they were teenagers in the '50s and '60s. There's a little modernness here and there to be able to function, but overall, we've maintained the look and feel of the theater."
Gordon Sign was happy to make neon happen. Though the company no longer manufactures brand-new neon signage at its local warehouse off Federal Boulevard at Ninth Avenue, it still has the capacity to repair it. Gordon Sign's neon experts were able to get every detail of the Oriental's unique signage right: From the painted lettering to the precision bends in the luminescent tubing, the venue's welcoming gesture in the sky looks just as it did almost ninety years ago, when the theater first opened.
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Happel sees the sign as an investment that benefits everyone — the business, the Oriental's guests and the surrounding neighborhood. "We're at the corner of 44th and Tennyson, and it's a busy intersection," he points out. "Thousands of people drive by every day, and if those people see this? They'll think something totally different about the theater than they had for years, if not decades before.
"There's nothing like us in Denver, and we're really proud of that," concludes Happel. "We are succeeding in ways that a lot of people thought wasn't possible."
Join the Oriental Theater in celebrating its brand-new neon sign as part of the Totally Tennyson neighborhood block party on Saturday, April 30. There will also be an official "meet the sign" gathering next Friday, May 6 — more details to come via the venue's website. For a great look at Denver's past through the eyes of its commercial signage, follow Gordon Sign on Facebook and Instagram.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies