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Broadway National Sign rebuilds the famous Radio City Music marquee

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Faced with cold, drizzly weather, New Yorkers were not eager to venture outside on Dec. 27, 1932. But something was forcing thousands of people to dig far into their pockets, virtually empty from the Great Depression, to attend the gala at 50th and Sixth streets celebrating Radio City Music Hall’s grand opening.

Build in the 1930s, the Music Hall cost approximately $8 million to construct, funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and theatrical genius S. L. "Roxy" Rothafel. The exterior is ripple-finished gray Indiana limestone, decorated with vertical aluminum spandrels. Lighting up the corner, whether in the 1932 scrimping days or the 2000 bull-market days, the 50,000 lb. stainless steel and 40,000 lb. aluminum combined marquee is as long as a New York City block. It consists of roughly six miles of red and blue neon powered by 599 transformers. Originally, the marquee was constructed around the Sixth Ave. elevated train, which was dismantled in 1939.

Currently, the theatre reports over one million patrons attending its Christmas Spectacular, which stars the beautiful, high-kicking Rockettes, making it the world’s best attended live event.

After 67 years of movie and theatrical use, Cablevision Systems Corp., who acquired a 25-year lease from property owners Tishman-Speyer Properties, wanted to give Radio City even more dazzle than it had before. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the $70 million, seven-month landmark renovation, which included the marquee, lounges, theater interior, Art Deco ticket lobby and Ezra Winter’s three-story "Fountain of Youth" mural in the Grand Foyer. It also included retuning and refurbishing the 4,178-pipe Wurlitzer organ, overhauling and upgrading the lighting system with a computer-controlled system and ensuring ADA compliance throughout the theater.

Broadway National makes history

Broadway National Sign (Ronkonkoma, NY) bid on the marquee renovation in March 1999. "While we sifted through the plans, we were not frightened by the overwhelming sign structures. Instead, we were eager to get involved with this historic reformation," said William Paparella, company president.

In May, Broadway National was awarded the job through the construction-management company Barr & Barr Inc. (New York) and was given the deadline of Sept. 30, 1999. The day after being awarded the contract, Dominick Paparella, vice president and co-founder, and Bill went to the theater to plan the job’s approach.

As the Paparellas examined the jobsite in person, several concerns arose. First was the safety of their employees — some men would be working half-way up the side of a New York City skyscraper. Also, New York City regulations would not allow trucks on Sixth Avenue. Removing six miles of neon from a sign 100 ft. in the air would be difficult without the full use of boom vehicles. Looking up at the 96-ft. vertical marquee, perpendicular to an additional horizontal sign, the Paparellas fully realized the immense amount of work they had to accomplish by the deadline.

They determined that Dominick would head the project, working in conjunction with Broadway plant manager Keith Mickaliger and neon manager Lance Wilson. Bill would serve as the liaison between the sign company Barr & Barr’s John McGrath and Thomas Lepage and Radio City’s Joe Pepe.

Out with the old

When they began removing neon, Broadway National’s crew members took care not to damage the tubes, as the neon shop would be measuring and reproducing the exact patterns. The crew used boatswain chairs and, within three weeks, all the neon was removed and transported to the plant. Broadway assembled many racks to transport the six miles of neon.

While the neon division refurbished the tubes, the installation crew arrived at the site to perform the heart of the job — removing and replacing all components of the existing marquee, including its transformers, miles of wiring, housing and standoffs. Crews cleaned the marquee, removed anything that had tarnished the stainless steel and aluminum, then replaced the materials which dated back decades ago. Both phases took 11 weeks. Broadway National doubled work crews to finish the project by their own target date, Sept. 20, 10 days before the project was to be completed.

Marquee draws attention

"The new neon lights give the building life again," Bill says. "Broadway National has completed other projects more complex and bigger in scope than Radio City Music Hall, but this is the project that got the most attention. We love seeing our signs all over the newspapers, magazines and television."

Bill adds that, "The efficiency and professionalism of Union Local 3 (IBEW) and Local 137 (Sheet Metal Workers) made it plausible for us to meet the target date."

After restoring a piece of history, Broadway National has moved on to even bigger projects. Radio City also moves forward, with new lighting and theatrical technology as its history of entertainment continues to attract millions.

Building a Multi-Million Dollar Sign Shop

When William (Bill) E. Paparella graduated from high school 10 years ago, he asked his father, Dominick, to help him start their own business. "Unlike many parents who are reluctant to go into business with their 18-year-old son and invest most of their life savings, my father was confident in my idea and me," Bill says. Father and son knew they had to start out small. They built their business out of their garage with limited supplies and a dilapidated van. For the first few years they catered to mom-and-pop stores soliciting owners to sell them interior neon signs and borders. "Now that I look back," Bill remembers, "I laugh about how it took us three days to install one ‘Open’ sign and four borders."

Word of mouth

Despite meager beginnings, Broadway National focused on obtaining Times Square jobs. The shop got its first "Broadway" audition when PC Richard & Son, a local hardware chain with 40 stores, needed signs. Once those projects were in motion, Broadway National’s name was passed around the construction scene, then the tri-state area and, as time passed, the national market.

Now, with the family-owned-and-operated business flourishing for more than a decade, all members of the immediate Paparella family play a vital part in business development. Dominick’s wife, Marguerite, directs human resources. Middle sister Marga directs sales and marketing. Bill’s wife Christine handles all special events. Youngest son Carl J. soon will graduate from Cornell University and aspires to become involved in the family venture.

Keeping up with the industry

After the first three years, Bill reports the company grew at an amazing rate. The first challenge it faced was finding seasoned craftsmen. "Established sign companies offered skilled technicians a great deal more," he says. "As a result, our training and recruitment costs rose substantially."

To become more competitive, they invested in computer-aided design and operational systems. "We were apprehensive that it would take us awhile to recoup our investment," Bill comments. As time passed their speculation paid off.

Bill credits their aggressive marketing campaign and investment in technology for the reasons behind the company’s growth. Also, they focus on total project satisfaction, in-house design, engineering and manufacturing, group-oriented culture and comprehensive national installation networks.

The future of Broadway National

"My advice to other sign companies is have a vision," Bill says. "Make sure your infrastructure can parallel your sales force. Get everyone involved in the excitement. Keep the client at the top of the list. Keep up with the latest industrial changes and constantly try to revolutionize the sign industry. Finally, have your customer service differentiate you from the others."

As for future plans, Bill, age 28, says he still has passion for building a business. "I look forward to doing more work across domestic borders. I would like to get involved with more signs in New York City, Florida and Las Vegas. If we are still blooming, I am optimistic that we will open multiple production facilities across the country."

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