Cary’s downtown theater getting its marquee back

akenney@newsobserver.comAugust 21, 2013 

— After 50 years in disguise, Cary’s downtown movie theater is reemerging.

The brick building at 122 E. Chatham St., which has served as various shops for decades, regained part of its cinematic pedigree Wednesday as a crane hoisted a tower of steel and workers welded metal.

Though incomplete, the 3,500 pounds of curved and latticed steel on the building’s face are unmistakable as the skeleton of a theater marquee, designed by artists Lynn Basa of Chicago and Matt McConnell of Raleigh.

“This really is a piece of art,” McConnell said, taking a break from the hours of careful work that brought the framework from his Raleigh studio to downtown Cary. For months, he and a crew have welded and bent metal, carefully rotating the entire “blade” by crane to get at all its sides.

Eventually, the structure will mark the entrance of The Cary, the town-owned arts venue that recalls Cary’s first indoor cinema and is a major component in the government’s push to revitalize downtown. The town is spending $6.2 million to renovate and expand the theater with a new three-story addition and expects to complete the project by the end of the year.

Come opening day, thousands of light-emitting diodes will shine on the marquee’s polycarbonate and sheet-metal skin and custom-font letters will spell out a welcoming message across the illuminated white panels.

Front and center on the display will stand two sets of big cut-out letters: C-A-R-Y.

‘A focal point’

The marquee artists considered 20 designs, modeling their plans in 3D and consulting with town leaders as they went.

During its drafting, the marquee struck some as an un-Cary-like shift away from the town’s strict aesthetic rules. The town changed its ordinances to allow the large, luminous marquee, the latest loosening of the sign restrictions.

As they debated the merits of the marquee last year, several Cary Town Council members argued that luminosity and a loosened collar could bring life to downtown. Long-time councilman Jack Smith, meanwhile, warned that the big-and-bold approach could backfire.

“You know what? (Gen.) Custer was bold. It isn’t always good,” Smith said at a meeting early in 2012, though he ultimately voted for the concept.

The issue split residents, who either praised the town’s vision, condemned its perceived hypocrisy or questioned its spending. The completed four-ton marquee will make up a maximum of $200,000 of the theater’s cost; the town considers it both public art and a key part of the building.

With their arcing, curving looks, the theater and marquee will be a marked contrast to the nearby barbershop, motel and strip mall. And in a town that mostly shuts down by 9 p.m., the marquee and its changeable-color lights might become the brightest thing around.

“It’s going to light up East Chatham Street. It’ll really be a focal point for this block,” said Lyman Collins, Cary’s cultural arts manager. “It says energy, it says excitement.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary

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