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High Horsing

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Today, the expression “being on a high horse” suggests the cited person has snobbish airs, but the original meaning, which dates to pre-automobile times, describes the collective trait of wealthy men choosing to ride tall horses – Tennessee Walkers, for example, at 17 hands or Shires now draft but once war horses, at 21 hands. From such equine platforms, these aristocrats would characteristically instruct less prosperous souls, workers, on how to get a job done. You might imagine a disgruntled worker forming the original expression: “Get down off that damn high horse and I’ll…”

Over time, the expression evolved to include people who tell others how to live their lives. This haughtiness characterizes people who believe they have something important to say and on occasion take the stage, as I am about to do here. I’m mounting a “high horse” to argue for the preservation and use of true neon in antique signs that originally featured neon, especially theater marquee signs such as the one beautifying the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, KY.

The theater website spin says, “The historic and architecturally distinguished cinema has been a civic anchor on Main Street Lexington since 1922 when it was rated one of the top ten movie theaters in the US. In 1926, it was one of the first 50 theaters in the country to introduce sound and the first in Lexington to introduce Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone sound films.” The site adds that the theater was built by the Switow family, who commissioned the design to Joseph & Joseph [Architects] of Louisville, Kentucky’s oldest continuing architectural firm – and one of its most distinguished.

The best-known Kentucky Theatre guardians are Fred Mills, Isabel Yates, the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre, the City of Lexington and Tim Cambron of Ruggles Sign Co. (Versailles, KY) although Tim, with characteristic modesty, noted his sign company wasn’t involved in the original preservation effort, but has maintained the classic marquee sign for several years. “We don’t always charge what we should,” he said.

I met Fred, the theater manager, at the theater box office on a balmy evening in July. My wife and I had been photographing Lexington’s excellent murals and at day’s end, we turned onto downtown Main Street and spotted the soft brilliance of the lit theater marquee in the distance. It is a charmer. We parked the car and while Li took light readings to photograph the marquee, I walked inside and found Fred. Although our meeting was unplanned, it was as if I had known him for years. I soon noted that friendliness is his nature and the theater, his life.

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The original (1922) sign featured a then popular Art-Nouveau mien with open-face channel letters illuminated by incandescent lamps. Fred said the present neon-adorned marquee was designed and installed in the ’40s and braved a renovation in 1992. In 2013, the “Friends” group voted to modernize the theater and replaced its projection system with a digital device. They also replaced seats, carpeting, applied new paint and repaired the marquee (Tim said they repaired some water damage at that time).The renovation also affixed all the interior lighting with LED lamps, but retained the original luminaires and decorative fixtures in public areas.

During these processes, the group discussed replacing the marquee neon with LED-type neon and everyone, including Tim from Ruggles, voted to preserve the neon. The marquee is, after all, a rare but functioning antique.

You may remember that I’ve been on a high horse before. In May (see ST, May 2017, page 18), I described my visit to the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga, TN, and said, “…although I loved the museum and its exhibits, I was appalled upon finding machine-cut vinyl letter signs on trucks that clearly preceded the common vinyl-sign era.” At that time, I talked with renowned signpainters and pinstripers Jim (Dauber) Farr and Bob Bond, and with American Sign Museum Founder Tod Swormstedt; all agreed that museums that exhibit antique signs should only present signwork that matches the object’s era. LEDs and solid-state lighting did not exist when the Kentucky Theatre sign was re-designed in 1949; therefore, to remain a truly historical sign, the marquee neon must be, and has been (so far), preserved.

After all, the theater’s charm, neon, antiquity and uniqueness are what draw audiences.

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