Night Out at the Theater: Iconic American Theater Marquees
For those of us who love to settle into a red velvet seat and enjoy a movie or a play, there’s no better venue than one with historical significance. These theaters often have creaky seats or scuffed floors. However, what they lack in modern conveniences, they more than make up for in historical ambiance and architectural wizardry.
Many of our favorite theaters feature iconic marquees out front, beloved remnants of a golden age of theater and cinema. Here are some of our favorite iconic American theater marquees.
Fox Theatre – Detroit, MI
The Fox Theatre in Detroit was first built in 1928. It was the first “movie palace” established by the brand-new Fox Theatres organization. They went on to build tons of these grand movie theaters all over the country — many of which are still in operation today.
The Fox Theatre’s marquee stretches almost the entire length of the building and features two golden winged griffins holding up the vertical FOX sign. The signage was all recently refurbished. During this refurbishment, the old bulbs replaced with LEDs.
Portland Center for the Performing Arts – Portland, OR
Only recently incorporated into the larger Portland Center for the Performing Arts, the hall behind this marquee is properly called the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It began its life as the Portland Publix Theater in 1928 and was one of the area’s premier vaudeville venues.
The gigantic vertical “Paramount” sign still stands today and is visible from blocks away. Once you get close, you can really appreciate the many individual bulbs that make up the rest of the marquee that sits over the entrance to the hall.
Apollo Theater – New York City, NY
The grand dame of Harlem’s musical history is the Apollo Theater. This music venue first opened its doors in 1914 under the name Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater.
The theater became known for its Amateur Night, which was introduced in 1934 when the theater re-opened as The Apollo. Amateur Night helped to jumpstart the careers of legendary performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Luther Vandross, and so many others.
The “Apollo” marquee proudly proclaims the theaters pedigree in fluorescent lettering with classic white bulbs underneath.
Studio 54 – New York City, NY
Although its marquee is rather new and relatively understated for New York City, Studio 54 is an iconic location in the landscape of American nightlife.
Opened in 1977, Studio 54 was originally a nightclub. As a nightclub, it regularly hosted guests like Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, and even Jackie Onassis. Bianca Jagger celebrated her 30th birthday here and rode into her party on a white horse.
The club closed in 1984. In 1998, Studio 54 was re-opened by the Roundabout Theater Company, who built a stage and now use it as a theater.
Orpheum Theatre – Los Angeles, CA
Downtown Los Angeles is full of stately theater marquees that are evidence of the city’s rich theatrical history.
Located on Broadway, the Orpheum Theatre is one of the most impressive. First opened as a vaudeville theater in 1926, the original marquee — with its brilliant bars of light framing the word “Orpheum” in flowing script — is still intact.
Drexel Theatre – Columbus, OH
The Art Deco façade of the Drexel Theatre was first built in the 1930s. It was recently renovated following its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.
The marquee and the building itself have been beautifully constructed to flow into each other, with large panels of light illuminating the sign from behind. The entire marquee is crafted in shades of blue and purple and is washed with golden light.
ART Theater – Champaign, IL
Located in Champaign, Illinois, the ART Theater was built in 1913. It’s officially one of the oldest operating movie theaters in the country. Originally named the Park Theatre, it featured both a piano and a manual pipe organ.
The marquee is simple. It features the word “ART” in neon fluorescent block letters, above a classic marquee with small bulbs underneath. Made of maroon brick interlaid with white tile, the building itself is striking.
The Mayan Theater – Denver, CO
The Mayan Theater is decorated in the unique Art Deco Mayan Revival style, which was popular among theater architects in the 1930s. The inside of the theater matches the exterior, with the same colorful brick pattern continuing through the lobby.
The marquee — which was renovated along with the building in 1986 — features a sign with bright blue block letters atop a low-profile letter board.
Naro Cinema – Norfolk, VA
Built by entrepreneur William S. Wilder, the Naro Cinema of Norfolk, Virginia has always been a cornerstone of the local community. Originally named the Colley Theater, the building now referred to by locals as “The Naro” opened in 1936. It was one of the first suburban theaters in Virginia.
The triangular marquee features the words “Naro” on two sides and juts out from the Art Deco-style building, almost fully covering the sidewalk.
Castro Theatre – San Francisco, CA
Located in San Francisco’s historic Castro neighborhood, the Castro Theatre was built in 1922 for the incredible cost of $300,000.
The exterior was built to resemble a Mexican cathedral. Therefore, the marquee was sculpted into one of the sides of a massive façade swirling with elegant plaster decorations. It formally achieved landmark status in the 1970s.
Rheem Theater – Moraga, CA
Although it’s not as old as some of the theaters on this list, the Rheem Theater of Moraga, California features one of the most interesting marquees in America. Built in 1958, the large movie theater is mostly decorated in shades of butter yellow, with scrolling neon fluorescent lights framing the word “Rheem” at the top.
It has alternately been a movie theater and a concert venue. Unfortunately, it closed its door in 2018.
Athens Theatre – DeLand, FL
Located in the small town of DeLand, Florida, the Athens Theatre first opened in 1922. This was after a year of dedicated effort by primarily local craftspeople and laborers to get the theater open on time.
Designed in Italian Renaissance style, the Athens Theatre began its life as a vaudeville house, supporting many touring artists. Eventually, it added a screen and turned its focus to movies.
Before it closed in 1993, the Athens Theatre was often used as a community venue for events. Fortunately, it re-opened a year later.
Robey Theatre – Spencer, WV
Another classic theater built in the Italian Renaissance style is the Robey Theatre, which opened in 1911. It’s three stories high and features balconies along the front façade. The distinctive neon sign has been in place since the beginning and sits above a marquee that displays the upcoming movies in bright red block letters.
Added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1989, the Robey Theatre is one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the country.
Grand Lake Theatre – Oakland, CA
Built in 1926, Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre is one of the most iconic buildings in the neighborhood. The theater is still owned by the families of the original owners, Abraham Karski and Louis Kaliski.
Since it started its life as a vaudeville house, it features a gigantic Wurlitzer organ, which still stands in the lobby of the theater. Faux columns line the façade of the building. The marquee is small compared to the giant rooftop sign that proudly flashes the theater’s name.
The current owners often use the marquee as a political message board. This has added to the building’s mystique.
Saenger Theater – New Orleans, LA
This New Orleans beauty is one of the few remaining atmospheric theaters in the country. Atmospheric theaters are buildings that feature murals and paintings designed to make the audience feel like they’re sitting outdoors.
Built in 1927, the Saenger Theater features a half-circular marquee that illuminates the amazing exterior design.
In 2005, the theater suffered major water damage due to Hurricane Katrina. Eventually, it was rebuilt and restored with help from both the government and private donors.