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Keith-Albee Theater Sign Restoration

Huntington, West Virginia

The Story

Huntington, WV is lucky to have the beautiful Keith-Albee Theater. Built in 1928, and named after vaudeville impresarios B.F. Keith and Edward Albee, who supervised its construction, it was one of the largest theaters of its kind in its day. The theater’s interior featured Roman-style décor with enormous plaster sculptures and gold-leaf. A nonprofit organization, Friends of the Keith, currently owns it and is restoring it to its original beauty.

During a 2012 windstorm, the original, 84-year-old, copper-clad sign partially collapsed and had to be removed for public safety. Because we’d recently serviced the sign’s neon, we were hired to remove the sign and move it to a storage location.

The removal drew a large crowd; bystanders took old light bulbs from the sign as keepsakes. The entire community loved this sign, and everyone had a story about it. Sadly, once the original sign was gone, it looked as though the heart of the downtown had been removed.

After removing the sign, we determined there was little to save. The internal steel structure was completely rusted away. However, the external skin was completely made of copper with a beautiful patina. Friends of the Keith requested that we provide a bid to repair the sign and reinstall it.

We provided them with a price to build a completely new sign that reused the original, copper exterior. The sign was left in storage for two years while the customer looked for funding for its reconstruction. Trifecta Productions, a Huntington-based movie- and video-production company, decided to get involved with the project’s funding. Joe Murphy, Trifecta’s owner, appreciated the history and beauty of old signs. Trifecta developed a “Save our Sign” campaign; the entire community support the effort and donated funds. The campaign’s final contributions were raised at a concert held in the Keith-Albee.

Reconstruction begins

We removed the sign from storage and transported it to our metal shop on two flatbed trailers. When the sign reached our shop, it looked like a copper-colored bag of rust. The interior of the sign had completely rusted into small pieces, and was in a 3-ft.-deep pile at the bottom of the sign. We cut a hole in the bottom of the sign and poured the rust out. The copper was completely bent and distorted from the move; some of the letters were crushed.

To begin, we removed the skin from what was left of the frame. While removing the broken neon glass from the letters, we discovered the neon wasn’t original to the sign. The original letters had been lit with 11W, incandescent lamps that resembled chasing lights that encircled the sign’s perimeter. When the neon was installed years ago, the backs of the letters had been cut and damaged. The customer requested the sign to be rebuilt to create its original appearance. To recreate the original look of the letters, we CNC-routed new copper letter backs with cutouts for the lamp sockets on out 5 x 10-ft. MultiCam 3000 series machine.

A pretty face

Next, we applied a copper patina to the letter backs using a chemical concoction made with sodium thiosulfate, lead acetate and water. We sprayed the solution onto the degreased copper panels, and it kick-started the patina process. Over a few days, the patina formed, and it’s still creating a richer texture today. To avoid damaging the original patina on the sign’s body, we applied it to the backs before installing them inside on the letters. This was our first experience applying a patina to copper; we enjoyed learning about the process.

Because we had limited access to the signs, we installed the sign on its original mounting points. Therefore, the sign needed to weigh approximately 300 lbs. less than the original installation. We decided to rebuild the sign with a steel center tube and angle frame to support the copper skin. We welded all of the internal, steel parts with our Millermatic 350p MIG welder. We also reduced the sign’s weight by cutting holes in the center tube.

Once we’d finished fabricating the frame, we moved it into our Binks paintbooth and applied two coats of Matthews epoxy primer to prep it for a final coat of Matthews acrylic-polyurethane paint. Each coat was left to cure overnight before the next day’s application. We’ve found no better rust protection than this combination.

We removed the copper, and carefully straightened it with hammers and wood blocks, and then patched it. The patches needed to include the original patina, so we made them from scraps from the sides of the original copper. We installed the original copper skin to the frame using 3/16-in., stainless-steel rivets; using stainless steel was important because it reduced the galvanic reaction caused by dissimilar metals in contact with each other.

Power up

Once the skin was attached to the frame, we installed new, pre-wired letter backs. We left the cabinet sides off to make the installation of the sign’s ceramic sockets easier. We fabricated new sides by cutting the removable copper covers with our RAS Systems SmartCut CNC shear and TurboBend metal folder. The new components will make future service work much easier.

The original sign’s letters lit one at a time until they spelled “Keith Albee.” Recreating this required us to run the wires for each letter into the building, which we control with a mechanical chaser.

We replaced the original 850 lamps with new 1.75-in.-diameter, 120VAC LED lamps with a medium-screw base, which we purchased from Action Lighting. We control the lamps with a Model 66 four-circuit mechanical chaser. The new lamps looked like the original but decreased the power requirements by approximately 8,500W versus the old sign, while also increasing its reliability.

We used nearly a mile of seven colors of #14 wires to connect all the new sockets to the chasers. All the internal connections and the bulb threads were coated with dielectric grease, which prevents oxidation; our goal was to build a sign that will last another 84 years.

For the relighting ceremony, much of the audience dressed in early-20th-Century-clothing, and the firing of a cannon and black-powder pistols, both tributes to West Virginia’s mountaineer past. Now, the Keith-Albee, gloriously clad with a beautiful replica of its original sign, plays host to such diverse performances as Frank Valli & The Four Seasons, La Boheme and Beauty and the Beast. We’re proud to have done our part in bringing such a cultural treasure back to life in Huntington.

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