There’s a fine art to writing in jumbo letters.
Just ask Dan Wyatt, the owner of Vancouver’s independent Kiggins Theatre, or Jaynie Roberts, the founder of Magenta Theater. The historic cinema and the community stage have both gone dark due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have also repurposed their Main Street marquees to speak out in special ways.
“When the first shutdown order came, I knew we had to have something up there,” Wyatt said. “A marquee is for telling people what’s playing, but it can say so much more. And now is the time for that.”
It immediately struck Wyatt that the Kiggins‘ first message of solidarity and encouragement for the people of Vancouver had to be “Goonies never say die.” That’s a quote from a cult classic that happens to be local: “The Goonies” follows the absurd adventures of a gang of misfit kids in Astoria, Ore.
Next came a quote from “Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi”: “Keep your distance, Chewie, but don’t look like you’re keeping your distance.” Wyatt said he liked the humorous relevance to the social distancing we’re all trying to learn to do — maybe even with a little grace — these days.
When Wyatt posted pictures of the marquee on social media, others all over the world found it funny too.
“It went a little viral. People in London were commenting,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt realized he’d stumbled onto something. His next marquee message was a home run, he said, because it comes from “Back to the Future,” his favorite film of all time, and it speaks directly to today’s shared emergency: “Marty, you must not leave the house. Anything you do could have serious repercussions on future events.” (Missing punctuation supplied by this newspaper.)
“That one was a big hit, it went really viral and I started hearing from media outlets,” Wyatt said.
CNN, Vanity Fair magazine and The New York Times all reached out. Wyatt said he’s glad for all the unexpected attention — for his town as well as his cinema.
“I’ve got hometown pride. This is our hometown theater,” he said. “We’re putting Vancouver on the map.”
How do you choose a marquee message for the coronavirus era? Wyatt insists his quotes must be movie-related. No TV shows, no songs — nothing but cinema.
“It’s got to be easily recognizable. Too obscure doesn’t work,” Wyatt said.
He strung together a bunch of Tom Cruise movie titles into a complex coronavirus-relevant message of his own devising: “Being an outsider is risky business but all the right moves are to stay far and away with a cocktail knight & day to avoid oblivion.”
Then Wyatt realized most people didn’t get it. He said he doesn’t think he’ll try anything so tricky again, and now he always runs his ideas past his staff.
That staff is down to two, Wyatt added, and he’s only been able to retain them via a government small-business loan program. The Kiggins is doing approximately 20 percent of its normal business these days, he said. That’s only thanks to partnerships with multiple streaming services that bring independent films directly to people’s home screens, as well as surprisingly robust weekend popcorn sales.
“Obviously we’ve got a caring community that wants us to stick around,” he said.
To help everyone stick around, Wyatt’s latest message speaks to an essential ingredient in hand washing, although the speaker, Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” is actually remembering childhood punishment by mouth washing:
“Over the years, I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. Though my personal preference was for Lux, I found that Palmolive had a nice, piquant, after-dinner flavor.”
One block up Main Street, a few folks from Magenta Theater set up a ladder Friday morning and replaced the marquee message over their front door.
Magenta spent thousands of dollars on its upcoming season before the pandemic hit and the theater had to close, founder Jaynie Roberts said. It was a “brutal economic blow” to the nonprofit organization, she said.
It was new Magenta volunteer Pete Wonderly who looked up at the theater’s small marquee and saw a way to generate some revenue. Magenta has begun renting out its marquee at the rate of $50 per 48 hours.
Messages are limited to 60 letters in two lines. Roberts said she’ll welcome almost any positive messages, including inspirational or fun quotes, birthday greetings, declarations of love and statements of congratulations. She’s also retaining the personal right to reject messages that are political or seem inappropriate.
“We want it to be fun and positive and raise smiles on Main Street,” Roberts said.
That wish came true even before the first new message went up on the marquee. Pedestrians and drivers paused to gawk while Wonderly and Roberts’ husband Bill took turns going up the ladder to spell out a rather brainy message about messaging.
“I’m so excited to see something happening at the theater,” one driver called.
All proceeds from marquee rentals will go toward Magenta’s rent, utilities, insurance and other basic expenses, Roberts said. If you’re interested, e-mail her at email@example.com with the subject line “Magenta marquee,” and include your phone number.
Roberts said Magenta has formed a recovery committee to plan a safe reopening, whenever that’s allowed. The plan already includes taking each person’s temperature at the door and providing disposable fabric masks for people who don’t bring their own. There’s a new seating chart that spreads out a maximum audience of 50 people, which is one-third of Magenta’s actual capacity. After each performance, the seats will be treated with an electrostatic disinfectant.
All box office transactions will have to happen over the phone so that family-group seating arrangements can be worked out, Roberts said. Beer and wine might come back, but it doesn’t look good for truffle sales, she added.
“It’ll be a different world and we’ll just have to deal with it,” she said.