Aug 05

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Solving The Avenue’s Neon Color Mystery

Rare color image of the Avenue Theater neon. screengrabbed from a YouTube video of a 1980s news report.

It’s been over 30 years since the neon on the Avenue Theater’s marquee last glowed, and when the P.N.A. took on the restoration project, the goal was to make it look just as it did in its heyday. This presented a problem for the restoration team that was tasked with bringing the iconic sign back to life. No color photos or records indicated what the full spectrum of neon colors once were. So how did the Portola Neighborhood Association finally land on the eye-catching and somewhat unusual color scheme seen in the rendering? The process wasn’t as simple as just flipping a switch–the years of neglect had taken their toll on the sign, leaving it inoperable. The P.N.A. and the team behind the restoration were left to embark on what turned out to be a year-long mission to find the Theater’s true colors.


Video from a 1983 news report found on YouTube, showing the only known color image of the facade at night.

Hearsay, A Fresh Idea & YouTube

The hunt to discover the original neon colors started well over a year ago when the P.N.A. assumed that the process would be fairly easy. Although all of the photos from the era were in black and white, with so many life long residents in the Portola, someone had to remember the colors – right? As it turned out, while most neighbors who were interviewed could recall an overall color, no two answers were ever the same. Some said it was pink, others swore it was red and a handful more recalled green. The committee began to realize that, much like the original paint color palette, the original neon colors may be lost to history.

In response to the conflicting memories, an alternative plan was created to give the Theater a fresh and distinct appearance. The committee created a list of San Francisco’s other theaters, along with their predominant neon color, and set out to select something totally unique for the Avenue. The paint scheme the committee initially developed for the building was very colorful with a total of 9 different shades on the facade and sign. The P.N.A. committee’s proposed “AVENUE” lettering on the marquee was a bold red.  So in response, they decided that the neon layered over the red lettering should be a simple, timeless white that wouldn’t compete with the facade’s colorful paint design. That was until someone discovered a short video on YouTube from a Bay Area news report done in 1983 that featured pipe organs still in use in area theaters. In all its grainy, off-colored glory, there it was: the only color image known to exist of the Avenue Theater’s facade at night, and it wasn’t a simple white! Clearly, if we wanted to be historically accurate, the team had to head back to the drawing board.



Video of the 70 year old Avenue Theater neon being shocked back to life.

A Sister Theater & A Stroke Of Good Luck

Armed with this exciting new evidence of an apparently multicolored Avenue Theater marquee, the P.N.A. committee switched gears. The YouTube video wasn’t great though–the colors were hard to identify and they wanted to get this right. Clearly there was a pinkish tone but the second color? A green or a blue? Old videotapes can distort colors, so who could be sure?

The answer showed up in two parts. The first was the realization that the Avenue Theater, when renovated in 1940 after a mysterious fire (hmmm), was given a very similar marquee as the Metro Theater on Union St.. This fact was learned through research on websites dedicated to Theater history, but small differences between the two signs created doubt that they had any neon colors in common. The relationship between the signs was confirmed recently, when the neon specialist for the renovation project struck gold. The old sign neon was all coming down to make way for the new bulbs but the letter “N” and some of the remaining trim pieces appeared to be in relatively decent shape.  These salvaged pieces were brought back to the fabricator’s workshop where he applied a direct electric charge to the 77 year old bulbs.  Miraculously, they buzzed back  to life for the first time in decades.. The neon color palette was now confirmed as…pink and green! This explains why there were so many conflicting pink and green memories of the sign and confirmed a direct connection to the Metro Theater. .

The Metro Theater is a very closet representation of he neon colors that were and will be on the new marquee

Almost Show Time!

With the neon color mystery mostly solved, the team behind the project worked to create a complete, integrated color scheme for the entire facade of the building. There were still bits of the sign such as the base and very top of the vertical “blade”, where the original neon pieces were both missing and different from the Metro’s sign, leaving no clues to the colors. At the same time, the city’s architectural review board, which had to approve all color choices for the building, mandated that the paint scheme be toned down from 9 to 5 (Dolly!) colors.  Thus changing the “AVENUE” lettering from red to white. With a less colorful paint scheme and far more colorful original neon design unearthed, the P.N.A. decided a third neon color should be added: an almost white “rose pink” was selected.  A color that is both historically accurate for the period and unique to Avenue, further differentiating it from the Metro.  The mystery was finally solved and after a year of digging by the design team and neighborhood volunteers, the final colors of aqua marine, deep pink and rose pink were finally selected.  The marquee will now look much as it did over 70 years ago and it’s in large part due to the dedicated efforts of community volunteers and Luke Spray, the San Bruno Ave corridor manager.

Through this weekend, you can get a sneak peek at the fruits of the P.N.A.’s labors. Testing of the neon on the blade portion of the marquee will be going on until Monday (day and night.). Before we get too excited though, the project is not finished yet, the lower potion of the sign still needs to be completely rebuilt. The strip tease of scaffolding coming down will start soon though, with the top half being removed this coming Monday, revealing much of the new paint job. There will be plenty more to see in the coming months, when all the details that Portola neighbors generously donated to have included, such as the flashing neon lights, are installed. There is a tentative plan to have a big public bash and lighting ceremony for the Theater in September and we will report back when there is a firm date. Keep an eye on the Facebook page Renew the Avenue for updates and photos as the theater’s progress nears completion!

Waiting to be unveiled, the all new neon on the Avenue Theater marquee is testing this week.


Permanent link to this article: http://portolaplanet.com/2017/08/solving-avenues-neon-color-mystery/

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