Lexington Opera House’s custom-designed sign debuted just before COVID-19

When Kentucky’s Lexington Opera House threw the switch in March on a new sign, the script called for a steady stream of Broadway shows and local theater and music performances to parade across the marquee’s digital LED screens.

Then COVID-19 made its appearance and turned the plot on its head, resulting in postponements and cancellations that left the marquee with no shows to promote.

But the staff at the downtown opera house, led by director of performing arts Luanne Franklin, has found a way to use its newest addition to help residents weather the pandemic.

“We’ve been providing some inspirational messages inspired by Broadway to try to lift people’s spirits,” Franklin said. Staff members comb through classic shows for lines and lyrics, some familiar and others forgotten, to find words that will offer encouragement in difficult times. New lyrics go up on the marquee each week.

“It’s my COVID-19 therapy,” Franklin said.

Featured recently: “It’s possible! Things are happening every day!” from “Cinderella.” Another, a line from “Anastasia,” offered, “Heart, don’t fail me now! Courage, don’t desert me!”

“Just by listening to the words and some lyrics or a couple of lines from a show, whether it’s from ‘Hamilton’ or as far back as ‘The Sound of Music,’ you can find real inspirational messages to share with our community,” she said.

Photos of the marquee displaying the uplifting messages form a ready-made social media campaign, which allows fans to show their appreciation. “Seeing that feedback is nice,” Franklin said.

The sign is the work of Elyria, Ohio-based Wagner Electric Sign Co., which was asked to create something that would both complement the structure, built in 1886 and restored in the 1970s, and add the modern marketing power of LED screens. Perhaps most important, it helps residents find the venue, which has been without a marquee since it was renovated and is identified by a capstone at the top of the building, not easy to spot from a moving car.

There’s no missing it now. The vertical “blade” portion of the sign announcing “Opera House” stretches more than 20 feet above the marquee.

“Time after time we would get calls if there was a new concert coming (saying), ‘We don’t know where the opera house is,'” Franklin said. “So it just makes sense, not only to identify the building but to provide us with a marketing asset that we simply haven’t had.”

Larsen “was amazing to work with, a true artist himself,” Franklin said. Larsen incorporated architectural elements from inside the building into the sign and did research on wildflowers native to Kentucky, adding the white leaf leather flower and the spring beauty to the marquee. “He would submit a design, we would look at it, we would tweak it, we would make suggestions. It was quite a process even to get down to the shades of the colors,” she said.

Once Wagner won the job, the project took two years and cost almost $500,000. “We had to go in and improve some of the structural integrity of the building so that it could support a marquee designed like this one,” Franklin said.

The Opera House Fund, a nonprofit that has supported the venue going back to its restoration and supports much of the programming there, “came to us and said, “If you had a wish list, what would be at the top of it?” she said. “I have to tell you, that took some thought.”

The fund paid half the cost, and Lexington Center Corp., a nonprofit agency of the city-county government that manages and maintains the opera house, Rupp Arena, Central Bank Center convention center and Triangle Park, took care of the rest out of its capital maintenance budget.

The opera house, which seats about 900 depending on the production and belongs to the League of Historic American Theatres, is one of only 14 theaters across the country built before 1900 with less than a thousand seats still offering touring Broadway productions, Franklin said.

As for when the opera house and other theaters will open again and fill those seats? “It’s hard to imagine a symphonic orchestra social distancing on a stage. It’s hard to imagine performers with masks on, because what we do in the performing arts, expression is an important part of that,” Franklin said. “I believe we’re going to be the last ones.

“The positive thing that I try to hold on to is that by being last, we will have seen and learned from what everyone else has done and so hopefully any mistakes that were made will have been corrected. We will be on point to move forward quickly when we do open.”