Returning the outdoor sign tower for Jenkintown's historic Hiway Theater

The original Hiway Theater neon tower sign from around 1940. After much work, a revised version has been installed.
The original Hiway Theater neon tower sign from around 1940. After much work, a revised version has been installed.
Posted: February 09, 2012

The Hiway Theater completed its back-to-the-'40s restoration five years ago, but one thing was always missing:

Its outdoor sign.

The 18-foot, five-letter neon tower, which for decades signaled the single-screen theater's glitz and vitality, disappeared in the 1980s amid a succession of owners and names.

Now that war-era beacon - or rather, a down-to-the-bolt reproduction - has returned to its perch atop the Hiway in Jenkintown. At night, it bathes Old York Road in a warm amber glow.

"If you didn't know any better," said Hiway executive director Fred Kaplan-Mayer, "you would think it had been up there all along."

In the era when theaters such as the Hiway were numerous and competitive, an iconic sign was crucial. In those days, the show started on the sidewalk, customers drawn not just by what happened to be playing on the screen but by the design of the building and its marquee.

"This was a really important part of the whole experience, the whole excitement that going to the movies engendered," said John Toner, a Hiway board member and the executive director of Renew Theaters, which runs the restored County Theater in Doylestown and Ambler Theater in Ambler.

About a hundred people recently turned out for the Hiway's formal nighttime lighting ceremony, where longtime State Rep. Lawrence H. Curry threw a big interior switch to set the sign aglow.

"It's retro, but it's brand-new - it's just gorgeous," said Borough Council President Allyson Dobbs.

From the start, the people running the Hiway wanted to hoist a new neon tower, but obstacles stood in the way.

For one, the cost was $40,000, and the Hiway, a nonprofit entity, was not then or now rolling in money. Kaplan-Mayer spent three years winning grants from state preservation officials, Montgomery County government and the Jenkintown council. Hiway board members contributed, and so did movie fans, who count on the Hiway to show bigger first-run films along with independent and foreign movies.

Kaplan-Mayer and others also faced the challenge of creating a replica of something that no longer existed. He and Toner scrutinized historic photos to judge colors, sizes, and dimensions.

"We wanted to replicate it exactly," Toner said, noting that they followed the color scheme down to the shade of paint in the metal grooves behind the letters.

But one detail escaped them: The color of the neon. Old nighttime photos weren't to be found, and longtime Jenkintowners had different recollections. Eventually, the operators settled on an antique gold that was popular during the period.

A third challenge? Finding someone to build the thing. People who specialize in recreating golden-era movie signs aren't exactly plentiful, but there happened to be one nearby: Bartush Signs, a family business in Orwigsburg, Pa., that had not coincidentally refurbished the neon tower at the County.

Both the County and the Ambler faced demolition before being restored as part of local revitalization efforts.

The Hiway opened in 1913 as the Jenkintown Auditorium. How long ago was that? World War I had not yet begun. In fact, the Battle of Gettysburg had been fought only 50 years earlier.

In succeeding decades the theater changed owners and looks, becoming the Embassy, the York Road, the Hiway, the Merlin, and the Chas III. The light tower was installed in 1940, the year the theater became the Hiway, and came down around 1985.

In 2003, with the theater's future in doubt, local businessman Dave Rowland led a nonprofit group that bought the property to restore it. They called it the Hiway because that was the name it had the longest. In 2006 the Hiway closed for a six-month, top-to-bottom, $1.6 million renovation, reopening to dazzle patrons with 1940s charm and accents.

The goal was to create not only a movie showplace but an anchor for Jenkintown and its business community. In recent years businesses have been rocked by the lousy economy. The Hiway, though, has been a draw.

In the last fiscal year, the Hiway brought 40,000 people to town. Its box office receipts rose, and membership reached a record 1,200 households. Still, the Hiway could not survive solely on movie revenues, and counts on membership fees and a revolving selection of programs.

"For us, the tower has a tangible role to play," Kaplan-Mayer said. "It's a way to welcome people into Jenkintown."


 

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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