Sign of the Time

Sunset Neon to Recreate Westdale Theatre 1935 Marquee

by Graham Crawford, Board Member, Westdale Cinema Group

It was first lit up in August of 1935.

Original limestone and brick facade has been restored.

The marquee of the Westdale Theatre featured the name of its first movie ‘Dance Band’, a British musical comedy starring Buddy Rogers and June Clyde. That original marquee was removed in 1969 when the front of the Westdale Theatre underwent a renovation that saw the addition of a large light box topped by 8 letters that spelled out the name of the theatre. Since the Westdale received its heritage designation in 2017, the focus of the Westdale Cinema Group has been on restoring the theatre to its original Art Deco splendour. Think classy versus flashy.

That left the WCG, the volunteer-run, charitable organization that is restoring the theatre, with a challenge – replacing a marquee that was dismantled almost 50 years ago.

Aided by a combination of archival photographs and original architectural drawings, all sourced through the Ontario Archives, there was some information on which to base the work necessary to recreate the original marquee. The question then became, who could take on such a challenge? The goal was to replicate it to exacting standards required under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Luckily, the Westdale Cinema Group team didn’t have to look far. A specialist with international experience was found right here in Hamilton. Just a few hundred metres from where Barton crosses Centennial, on a street called Cascade. There sits the home of Sunset Neon. They’re the same people who restored the Sam the Record Man sign. They also fabricated the AGH letters that are suspended over King Street. The owner, David Carely, gave me a tour of his 50,000 square foot facility recently. I saw signs for Dairy Queen, Moores Clothing, Miele and GE. All large. All 3D. Made out of metal. And plastic. And LED lights, which have largely replaced neon, according to Carley. Having said that, he showed me the area of the building where the neon is still crafted. Glass tubes carefully stacked ready for shaping.

Carely’s own history as a sign specialist began in 1982 when the company he was working for downsized, putting him out of work. His dad repaired signs for a living. David asked his dad how he found new customers. His dad told him he drove around and made note of signs that were broken and in need of repair and then he would contact the owner. David tried his hand at it. It worked. So much so that soon his father was overwhelmed with the volume of work. David added sign repair to his list of skills. Fast forward 35 years and Sunset Neon is now working out of a 50,000, state-of-the-art facility in Stoney Creek.

Sunset Neon owner, David Carley, and fabricator, Hai Pham, who will work on the Westdale sign.

On the tour, I’m introduced to the person who will be actually fabricating the Westdale Theatre marquee. His name is Hai Pham. He takes a break from finishing a large, three-dimensional Dairy Queen sign to say hello. Sunset Neon does all of DQ’s signage, big and small.

Then, I meet Michael Thompson, Supervisor, Art & Design in his office. He’s translating archival drawings and photographs of the original marquee into detailed working drawings Hai Pham will use to do his work. His attention to detail is evident as he describes to me some of the things he’s noticed about the original marquee.

Michael Thompson, Supervisor, Art & Design, is translating archival drawings and photographs into final drawings for the fabrication of the Westdale marquee.

For example, the font used for the letters in WESTDALE on the marquee and the three lines at each side of the marquee that we thought might have been neon. They weren’t. Mike super enlarges to photograph of the original to prove his point. He’s right. What we thought might be neon tubes were actually formed metal bars. While Sunset would have no trouble adding curved neon tubes at both ends of the marquee, they understand this is a restoration and accuracy matters. So, formed metal bars they will be.

As a Board member of the Westdale Cinema Group, I knew we’d made a good choice when we selected Sunset Neon as our partner. Visiting the owner, meeting some of his team, and seeing the amazing facility made me even more confident  we had found the best.

We like that a Hamiltonian who made good is helping to ensure the restored Westdale Theatre will be every bit as beautiful as it was when the lights were dimmed for the first time to a full house of Hamiltonians back in 1935.

Follow Sunset Neon on the Facebook page:

Learn more about their incredible services on their website: