One sunny day last week, a Jamaican man with gray hair, round cheeks, and steel-toed boots stood on the sidewalk across the street from the Paramount Theatre downtown. He was looking upward like everybody else, watching workers 100 feet in the air take down the Paramount's 80-year-old, 64-foot-tall sign. He smiled—but David Allen always seems to be smiling. As Seattle Theatre Group's operations director, Allen has been in charge of that old sign for 31 years, ever since he came to America. He says he won't miss it. It was beautiful, but it was also a pain in the ass: corroding, constantly shorting out, dropping small chunks of itself onto the sidewalk below.
A piece of the sign swung free from the steel structure above and a few people cheered. The construction workers—Joey, Anthony, Jim, and Cal—mugged for the cameras, flexing their biceps and pumping their fists. They're hams and clearly enjoyed the attention. An older, tougher-looking construction worker stood nearby, watching the proceedings with the gravity of an elder statesman. Allen nodded toward him and said, "That's Tom. He's the real hero of the sign. He's come out to fix it many, many times over many, many years."
Tom Bonifant began his sign career several decades ago in sign city: Las Vegas. He was just visiting Vegas when he saw a bar advertising a dime per beer. He went in and had one. Then he stuck a dime in a slot machine and got 14 dimes back: "I thought: 'My God! They're paying me to drink! I'm moving here.'" He recalled crawling out onto the thumb of the giant clown at Circus Circus, setting up a ladder, and climbing toward its spinning neon lollipop. "Those signs were shocking in more ways than one," he said. "I been hit with 15,000 volts many times—it doesn't kill you, you just wiggle around a lot. It's the amps that'll kill you." Eventually, Bonifant said, the drinking and gambling life started treating him poorly. He quit both (first gambling, then drinking), moved to Seattle, and began his long affair with the Paramount sign.
"C'mere and I'll show you something," he said. We crossed the street to where pieces of the old sign had been stacked up, waiting to be shipped to storage until somebody figures out what to do with them. The metal was twisted, rusted, and faded, and the ancient wires—insulated with brittle rubber and fraying cloth—hung out of its ends. Stuffing from birds' nests poked through the cracks and a small blue egg sat on the pavement where it had fallen out of the sign. "Birds'd get fried in there all the time," Bonifant said. "Mostly pigeons." He used to spend hours crawling up between the two halves of the Paramount sign—one facing east, one facing west—looking for shorts. (You can reach into the innards of the sign through small doors on the back.) "You'd fix one short over here and then it'd short out over there. Eventually, I couldn't find the shorts anymore," he said. "I told David: 'This is costing you $95 an hour to look for these shorts and I can't find them. It's time for a new sign.'"
Some people nearby on the sidewalk were fretting about Joey, Anthony, Jim, and Cal—it looked precarious up there. The men were wearing safety harnesses; but even with a harness, a fall can go very poorly. You could smash into the side of the building, through a window, onto one of the big I beams poking through the bricks and anchoring the sign. Bonifant told a story about a guy he knew who fell and slammed into a ladder that then collapsed. He got 56 stitches in his face and torso.
But Joey, Anthony, Jim, and Cal were thinking about other things. I took the elevator up to the ninth floor to say hello through a window. "Hey, we're almost out of cigarettes!" they shouted back. Also on their minds: the women down below. Even from down on the sidewalk, you could see them watching ladies walking past. No wolf whistles or anything blatant—just the turn of the head, the nod of appreciation.
Later, as the crane lowered one of the 80-year-old slabs of sign, the wind picked up a little. The slab began to rotate, revealing a message scrawled on the back in big yellow letters:
call me [phone number]
A mystery. The sidewalk crowd began speculating. The Paramount Theatre used to have upstairs apartments—somebody wondered aloud if the message was from one tenant to another. Bonifant spent years climbing up inside that sign, somebody else pointed out. Maybe the number was intended for him. Maybe he even called it.
"No, no, that message hasn't been up there very long," Bonifant said. "Just got written today."
I had noticed some of the workers noticing Amanda Bedell—STG's delightful and adroit PR manager who had spent the day hustling from the sidewalk to the theater, helping TV cameramen negotiate the best shots and helping me with my stream of questions.
"Amanda?" I asked Bonifant. "Did somebody write it for her?"
Bonifant nodded. A private note scrawled on architecture was clearly nothing extraordinary. ("Service workers will write notes to each other all the time," he said. Like what? He paused for a second. "Like: 'This thing is a worthless piece of crap.'")
Days later, I called Bedell and asked if she knew the message was for her. "No," she laughed. It sounded like a combination laugh: a little surprise, a little awkwardness, a little amusement.
"That's sweet, but I didn't write the number down," she said.
Well, I did. Did she want it?
"Um, no thanks," she said, and laughed some more.
The new sign is half the weight of the old one—6,000 pounds instead of 12,000—and is the culmination of nearly a year of work for Jim Risher and the men at the Sign Factory in Kirkland. (If any women work there, I never saw them.) After STG commissioned the replica, Risher and his crew studied the old sign and built a new, more efficient version. Even though it's half the weight of the original, it can withstand the same wind velocities. It's made of aluminum, 44 percent of it recycled, and has LED bulbs instead of incandescent-filament bulbs. It will use almost 95 percent less electricity—equivalent to the amount used by 55 houses per year—and save the Paramount around $25,000 annually in energy bills.
That doesn't include the old energy- sucking motors—hidden in a dusty utility nook inside the theater, two metal boxes full of "finger flashers"—that made the sign's lights flash. The metal fingers would tap up and down rhythmically, connecting and breaking the current to individual bulbs, creating the effect. The flashers, theater employees said, used to spark and glow in the dark—and nobody could mention them without doing an imitation of their fast clicking sound. The new sign has internal electric flashers that require around one-fiftieth of the energy used by the old motorized ones.
"Seattle Theatre Group picked a good time to replace the sign," Risher said. "Just a few years ago, we didn't have this conservation technology. Who invented the light bulb? Edison? Those filaments haven't changed much since. We've been burning energy like it's water flowing down the river. But these new solid-state transformers and LED bulbs are really efficient. The LED bulb doesn't get hot like an incandescent bulb. Heat is your enemy in energy conservation."
Risher grew up in the illuminated-sign business. As a young man, he took over his dad's sign company, bought a couple more companies, and consolidated them all into the Sign Factory. The factory is a medium-size building in Kirkland, and Risher is its Willy Wonka. He was almost exhaustingly enthusiastic as he gave me a tour, hopping from room to room, merrily asking, "You want to see something cool?"
The factory is full of cool things, like the room where a router was cutting the word "NORTH" out of a sheet of aluminum. During the tour, two days before they were to install the new Paramount sign, it was lying on its side in six enormous pieces. Risher bustled over to the neon shop, where a handsome young man named Justin was bending glass tubes and filling them with gas. "This technology hasn't changed in years and years," Risher said. The theory behind neon signs even predates electricity. In 1675, a French astronomer named Jean-Felix Picard—who collaborated with many scientists, including Isaac Newton—noticed a faint glow in a barometer filled with mercury. The glow came from static electricity, and the discovery led to Newton's study of spectroscopy: the dispersal of light according to its wavelengths.
"Want to watch Justin make a tube?" Risher asked.
Justin passed a glass tube through a blue-flame torch, bending it into a long arc. He welded a "tubulated electrode" on each end (they look like large silver bullets with two wires coming out of the top), then took the tube to another station and connected the electrodes to alligator clips.
"I'm putting a whole shit-ton of electricity, 20,000 volts, to my advantage," Justin said. He heated the tube to 300 degrees Celsius (572 Fahrenheit) to vaporize the dust, moisture, and other impurities. Then he filled it with gas. In clear tubes, neon gas makes red and a mix of argon and mercury makes blue. The same gases make different colors in frosted tubes. "Now we can make a dozen shades of white," Risher said.
"Yeah, it's kind of ridiculous," said a bearded worker leaning against a piece of equipment.
Justin set a wooden stool on a rubber mat—the electric current is so strong, he had to sit there and push the start button with a wooden dowel to avoid getting shocked. As the tube crawled toward 572 degrees and its impurities burned away, it glowed a bright milky white. The electrodes were so red they looked like they'd melt. You could smell the oils from Justin's fingers burning off.
"Don't get near it," the bearded man warned. "It won't hurt you. It'll just kill you."
Justin flipped off the electricity and sucked the air out of the tube, creating a vacuum roughly the same atmospheric pressure you'd find 100 kilometers above earth, where our atmosphere ends and outer space begins. Then he filled the tube with gas, explaining: "A neon unit is just electricity sparking from one end to the other, just an arc going through gas. And when the neon is in there, it gets excited and turns red." He flipped a switch and the tube glowed deep crimson.
"You've just witnessed the birth of a tube!" Risher said.
Outside, in the big part of the warehouse, a forklift and hoist lifted the six sections of the new Paramount sign onto huge wooden trailers.
On putting-up-the-new-sign day, Risher and two-dozen others watched the final slabs of the new sign get hoisted up and welded onto steel girders. Risher was wearing a hardhat and kept a wad of chaw tucked behind his lip. Little orange sparks shot out of the top of the sign and fell to the sidewalk below.
"Why does the sign look so phallic?" I asked. Long vertical shaft, rounded on top and doubled on the bottom like slightly pointy testicles.
"I think it's intentional," Risher said. "Maybe it's pagan or something. Lots of signs look that way, especially from that era."
The color is a little brighter than the old sign, but not much—and not nearly as bright as the sign that went up 80 years ago. Risher and his team found some of the old sign's original, unfaded paint in places where the metal overlapped. They duplicated the colors, but the city's Landmarks Preservation Board decided they were too bright—that the old sign's chalky, oxidized weathering had embedded itself too deeply in the city's memory, that the decay was worth protecting. "So we added some cream and flattening agents to fade the colors a little bit," Risher explained.
While the welding sparks flew from the top of the sign, a tall old man in a baseball cap walked up to Risher. "Is that the new sign or the old sign?" he asked.
"Aha! Congratulations!" Risher cried, pumping the man's hand vigorously. "That is exactly what we wanted to hear."