There was a time before white flight to the suburbs and urban renewal, when Columbia’s Main Street was the hub of shopping, dining and entertainment. And from the 1930s to the 1970s, that entertainment usually meant the movies.
Theaters dotted the street from the State House to City Hall, with names like The Fox, The State, The Palmetto, The Strand and The Carolina.
On Wednesday, there was a return to the halcyon days of cinema in Columbia: Nickelodeon Theatre erected its new marquee, an original art deco design that echoes the design features of the original theater, built in the 1930s.
“We hope it will become an icon for downtown,” said Andy Smith, the theater’s executive director.
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The design for The Nick’s marquee includes the words “Nickelodeon” and its nickname “Nick.” In addition to advertising the movie currently playing, the sign also could be used to post public service announcements, Smith said.
“We could urge people to go vote on Election Day or post donor recognitions,” he said.
The theater will have a formal, public lighting of the marquee at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18.
It is the second retro sign to go up on the 1600 block of Main this year. A few feet away, a beer barrel on a pedestal was erected in front of Mad Monkey advertising firm, a nod to a similar sign that was there when the building was a brewery in the late 1800s.
The colorful, retro-style Nickelodeon marquee was built and produced in Ohio by Wagner Electric Sign Co. and transported by trailer to Main Street. Wagner’s production manager, Larry Ester, said the company has erected electric signs on historic theaters across the nation, beginning with in the Vaudeville era of the early 20th century.
Ester’s assistant Joshua Nichols said the majestic signs get a lot of attention as they are hauled cross-country from Wagner’s suburban Cleveland plant.
“People stare,” he said. “We were in DeKalb (Illinois) and somebody crashed because of that.”
Smith would not divulge how much the marquee cost, except to say “several thousands of dollars.” But he said the generosity of two donors – one anonymous, the other long-time Nick supporter Frank Cox – allowed the theater “to not skimp on it.”
The marquee is the most recent milestone for the nonprofit cinema, which has operated since 1979. Last year, the theater moved from South Main to the new digs next to Mast General Store. The store and the theater have been catalysts for a revival on what is known as “South Carolina’s Main Street.”
The theater was renovated from a hidden wreck with a nail and wig salon in its lobby to a modern art house cinema with a throwback feel.
Phase 1 included $2.5 million to renovate a first-floor theater. Nick officials are now starting to raise another $2 million to renovate the theater’s original balcony into a second screen with about twice as many seats.
Because the art house often plays the same movie for up to a month, the second screen is expected to double attendance at the theater, Smith said.
“We have customers come to see that one movie and don’t come back for another month,” he said.
Smith said the theater is anxious for the opening of The Hub at Columbia – an 850-bed private student housing development in the 21-story former Palmetto Center office tower two blocks away. The influx of the students and young professionals in August are expected to add a new burst of momentum to Main Street’s revival.
“We can’t wait,” Smith said.