For 38 years, from the time the Orpheum Theater reopened in 1975, theater staff posted coming attractions on the marquee out front by hand, one letter at a time, every time it needed changing — about 2,600 times.
It took two people more than an hour each time. In all kinds of weather, one of them had to perch atop scaffolding, while the other handed up the heavy metal letters.
That all ended last weekend when OPA installed new digital electronic display boards on all three sides of the Orpheum's marquee.
Now a computer in the Holland Center will assemble the content — pictures and letters, all the colors of the rainbow, moving images — that will flash on the marquee's three sides and can change in an instant with a touch of a button five blocks away. The two buildings are linked by fiber-optic cables under the streets.
New LED posters in the theater's outer lobby have also been added, and portable kiosks for the inner lobby will follow by the end of the month, bringing the Orpheum's signage into the computer age of the 21st century. A touch-screen display near the main-lobby restrooms will offer patrons information on the Orpheum Theater's history and coming attractions. A screen above the loge-level bar will post drink specials and count down to the end of intermission.
“We needed to upgrade the capabilities of the signs to reflect the dynamic nature of what's happening here,” said Joan Squires, Omaha Performing Arts president. “It's an ongoing process. Because of the technology involved, we will continue to refine and update how we use this system.”
Squires said the upgrades were chosen carefully to respect the architectural integrity of the Orpheum. Lobby posters, for example, were installed within the original poster frames.
An anonymous donor paid for the new digital signage, not only for the Orpheum but for the Holland Center lobby as well. Squires declined to reveal the cost.
OPA staff started working on the project two years ago, attending a signage convention to learn what options were available. Keywest Technologies of Lenexa, Kan., won the contract over five other bidders and began work in late spring.
When the marquee panels were first tested Oct. 3, passers-by on 16th Street snapped photos, catching a bit of Orpheum history that was soon posted on the Internet.
Letters hanging on racks have graced the Orpheum marquee at least since the 1930s, according to historical photos. The last change made to the marquee was in 1974, when the name “Orpheum” above the display panel was changed from metal script to neon tubing.
Jeff Brown, assistant production manager for OPA, said the framework of the original marquee from the 1920s is still there, hidden beneath the present framework that was installed in the early 1940s.
Jeff remembers how his dad — the late Al Brown, longtime Orpheum manager — would assemble a 10-foot-high piece of scaffolding on wheels. Then he'd lay out the cast aluminum letters he'd need, painted red and black, each either 10 or 16 inches high. He touched up nicks and scratches each time with spray paint.
He stacked the heavy letters in order in big tubs. Then he and an assistant would wheel the scaffolding into place and he'd climb up, remove the old lettering and carefully center the new. Scaffolding had to be moved from the marquee's north display, 6 by 19 feet, to the west, 6 by 14.5 feet, and then the south, 6 by 19 feet.
Al Brown followed that routine for 20 years. One year, 1979, he changed the marquee 95 times.
After Al retired in 1995, Jeff often took his place atop the scaffolding, changing out the letters. A scissor lift, bought in 2010, at least eliminated the need to assemble scaffolding and heave tubs each time.
Now, Squires said, it's the OPA marketing department's job to change the marquee display. She said she had no idea how long it will take them on computer.