The Historic Artcraft Theatre’s marquee.
The first thing you see when driving down Franklin's North Main Street is the Historic Artcraft Theatre's glittering marquee, illuminating the historic downtown. It is the showpiece and the grand entrance to the historic theatre. The marquee as we know it today was added to the façade of the Artcraft during its Art Deco renovation. The semi-circle marquee and Art Deco flairs were designed by Alden Miranda when Trueman Rembusch owned the theatre in the late 1940s.
What did the marquee look like prior to being bejeweled with fluorescent lights and glowing bulbs? The theatre had two looks for its façade between its opening in 1922 and the current Art Deco style. Before the Art Deco renovation, the marquee was A-framed shaped with no lights. The Artcraft blade was added during this time. This marquee was finished being installed in early 1940, a few months before Life Magazine came to Franklin, IN, to capture life in the small-town Midwest. The letters on the marquee were also flat transparent cards with the letters printed on them.
Artcraft Theatre in the 1940s.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Artcraft did not have a marquee. Instead, the venue was built in a neoclassical style with straight lines and clean edges. The building did have two awnings off to the sides where storefronts existed (one is where the Will Call office is now).
Sketch of the Artcraft Theatre from the June 7, 1920 issue of The Franklin Evening Star .
As we know it today, the marquee has nearly 1,000 bulbs that light up the block. It was built by Swanson Nunn Electric Company in the late 1940s. When Franklin Heritage, Inc. (FHI) bought the theatre in 2004, they had a lot of work on their hands to give the whole theatre a little TLC. The first order of business was getting the marquee and façade in stable condition. Since they hadn't had proper maintenance in many years, the electric codes in the early 2000s were very different from those of the late '40s.
Franklin Heritage Inc. board members in front of the Artcraft Theatre in 2004 .
The front part of the building with the marquee was pulling toward the street, and the top part of the brick near the roof was leaning back into the building. The marquee was dragging the building toward the road. After the structure and marquee were stable, it took more than 10 years to finish the project, which happened in 2017. Scott and Michelle Graham of Generations Custom Auto & Collision, Inc. were tremendous community partners in restoring the blade sign between 2009 and 2010. Steve Renner of Neon Amenities also helped to remove the blade for restoration and to update the neon lights on the sign.
Heavy damage can be seen on the blade sign before restoration in 2009.
"Scott Graham came over one day when the FHI committee was looking at the marquee and said, 'Oh, that's just like a hot rod; we could take that down and sandblast and paint it just like a car,'" said Glenn Faris, History and Preservation Coordinator of FHI. Which is precisely what they did. The Grahams took down the blade sign, sent it to the shop to have it powder coated and painted, and then put it back on the front of the Artcraft.
The restoration of the blade sign is almost complete at Generation Collision Services in 2010 (now Generations Custom Auto).
The rest of the marquee project was also a massive undertaking by the community. Since the marquee was custom-made in 1948, no instructions or guides were available on how to take it apart or maintain it. Many volunteers and board members took the marquee down piece by piece to restore and maintain the weathered structure. Mike Mettert, volunteer, and former projectionist, rewired the entire marquee. Before Wild Geese Bookshop moved into the lower half of 48 E Madison Street, it was used as a marquee workshop for several years.
Volunteers working on the marquee waterfall in 2016.
Dave Windisch, Director of Marketing at FHI, is the leading marquee sign changer, changing the sign to show the latest upcoming movie late Sunday night or first thing Monday morning. Glenn also changes the marquee sign when needed. Each letter is hoisted up into the air using a long pole with a hook at the end. Generally, Dave starts in the middle of the marquee, finding the letter in the middle of the word that needs to be spelled, and then works his way out so that everything is centered and has enough room.
"Sometimes we have to get creative with how we spell or advertise things," says Glenn. "There's only so much space you have, and when you have sponsors with long names or a lengthy movie title, it can be a fun challenge to figure out how to abbreviate it on the marquee."
Whoever changes the sign has to be careful to cling the letters onto each row so the hooks stick and the letter doesn't fall to the ground. A broken letter can be problematic. Although the Artcraft has a wall of marquee letters, they are mostly irreparable. Sometimes broken letters can go to the letter hospital, and Dave can glue the fractured letter back together, but when a letter shatters, there isn't much you can do about it.
"Not all letters are created equal. Es are the most precious letters," says Glenn. "We only have a handful of them, so we have to be extra careful not to drop or break them, or else we may be unable to spell a word. There are a lot of Es used all the time!"
Green Sign Company installing LED light strips behind the sign.
Wagner Sign Company used to make Artcraft's marquee letters, but they went out of business right around the time of the pandemic. Recently, FHI has worked with an independent contractor who uses a 3D printer to create new letters for the marquee, creating a consistent supply, even though they can no longer buy bulk letters.
Changing the letters on the marquee takes just 40 minutes to an hour—changing only the north and the south sides. Changing the cartoon sponsor or the special message on the front of the marquee can take up to an hour and a half.
Dave Windisch changing the letters at the Artcarft’s marquee in November 2023.
Although it would be easier to maintain and change a digital sign, which many independent theaters have switched to, the Artcraft's marquee is iconic to Franklin's downtown area and is the cherry on top of the whole theatre's ambiance and historic charm.
Megan Elaine is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.