Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Signing On

Signing On
New Marquee for Empress Heralds City's Redevelopment
By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN/Times-Herald staff writer
Vallejo Times Herald

Orlando Willis of Vallejo sits on the curb along Virginia Street as he watches the marquee to the Empress Theater being put into place on Tuesday morning. The signs, which cost about $45,000, has 150 light sockets, 275 pieces of neon, weigh about a thousand pounds each, were built by Miller's Sign and Sheet Metal Inc. of Vallejo. (J.L. Sousa/Times-Herald)

Red, white, yellow and blue lights will soon blink nightly from the nearly century-old Empress Theater's new marquee, signaling a new life for the aging Virginia Street landmark - and to Vallejo's downtown.

Several onlookers watched Tuesday as cranes and workmen hefted the new retro-design marquee into place. They said the event proves the long-awaited downtown Vallejo redevelopment project is finally under way.

The installation comes a week after expansion work began a mile away on the waterfront's Zio Fraedo restaurant, making the marquee the second significant sign of progress.

Work on the aging theater, meant to be the $175 million downtown redevelopment's centerpiece, is slated for completion by April. The theater, hobbled by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, is expected to be functioning by fall after its $4.6 million renovation, said Empress manager Randy Bobst-McKay of the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation.

"It means the project is nearing completion," Bobst-McKay said, "This is the first time the public has something to see to show something is happening on the project."

The 471-seat theater will likely open with art house and historic films, followed later by live performances and events, he added.

Bobst-McKay said he's been coordinating with officials from developer Triad Downtown Vallejo, LLC and Hearn Construction to ready the nearly century-old theater for reopening.

Arc, Inc. Architects designed the marquee, which recreates the look of the Empress in its 1930s heyday, said Arc, Inc.'s John Howland.

"We made it approximate the lettering that had been painted directly on the building," Howland said. "The basic shell of the building is in the Greek style and the inside melds elements from 1910 through the 1950s. We preserved that. It will be pretty spectacular once it's all lit up."

It took more than three months to build the marquee, said Mark Miller, owner of Miller Signs and Sheet Metal which did the work.

"It's kind of a unique design - getting the paint just right, getting the wiring for the chase lights and the neon just right. It was a lot of intricate wiring to achieve the effect. There are 15 transformers in each sign," Miller said. "It's a big step toward our goal of seeing downtown Vallejo come full circle."

When it's up and running, blinking red, white, yellow and blue lights will continuously "travel" around the two halves of the marquee sign, which faces Virginia Street, Miller said.

Meanwhile, the venue's art deco-style interior also features neon in constantly graduating shades of red, purple and blue, Bobst-McKay added. New seats await backs and newly installed brass handrails remain concealed within protective plastic wrapping. Stage extensions are under construction and floors are being installed. A new movie screen is already in place.

"Everything inside is being completely rebuilt," Bobst-McKay said. "There's all new sound and lighting equipment. There's a lot of excitement and anticipation about this project moving forward."

Triad's Dave Egan said he feels it, too.

"We're getting closer," Egan said. "It's been a long wait to get the marquee in place and I'm glad to see it up."

E-mail Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at or call 553-6824.

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