A worrying photo appeared in a Facebook development group Tuesday afternoon, showing the backlit plastic readerboard on Broadway’s Orpheum Theatre marquee partially dismantled.

The post was immediately shared among concerned preservationists. We too were worried by the photo, so we pulled up all the building permits associated with the Orpheum, and found this recently approved signage permit, to convert the 1940s-era backlit plastic readerboard to 21st century digital panels.

Shockingly, the permit states that this radical alteration is in compliance with the Broadway Historic Sign District ordinance, an initiative spearheaded by disgraced former councilman Jose Huizar, who is scheduled to stand trial in February for racketeering related to Downtown Los Angeles development.

We attended some of the informational programs related to this ordinance, and don’t recall hearing anything about it being acceptable for a property owner in the National Register district to swap out a 1940s backlit plastic readerboard for brand new digital screens. This type of garish, animated signage has become a blight on Hollywood Boulevard’s historic buildings and just south of Downtown, with the hideously bright Reef roof wrapping.

Our preservation pal Doug Dunn has been documenting this week’s work on the Orpheum marquee, and shared these photos showing installation of the new screens.

While not a fan of digital conversion, he is also concerned about how close the scaffolding and braces are to the fragile neon tubes. Let’s hope nothing breaks.

Doug adds, “In case you are wondering, the screens are Daktronics Galaxy. Looks like this model has a fairly large pixel pitch (min 15 mm) and seem to focus on brightness. Typical applications seem to be sports scores, signage for strip malls, schools, etc. Seems to be a model that focuses on weather durability and brightness over picture quality. Aside from the issues with modifying the board at all, this seems like an odd choice. If they display text on this it will definitely look pixelized.”

Orpheum backlit plastic readerboard, 1946 (Billy Vera, Vintage Los Angeles)

So that’s what’s happening to the Orpheum Theatre’s 1940s-era marquee, via what appears to be an anti-preservation loophole created by Jose Huizar’s Broadway signage ordinance. Although the RICO charged councilman is still presumed innocent, it is quite clear after two successful related prosecutions and the cooperation of his co-conspirators that Huizar made public policy not for the betterment of Los Angeles, but to further enrich the property owners who enriched him.

As anyone who attended our LAVA Broadway on My Mind walking tour series, or watched them on video knows, we believe that Broadway is a precious historic landscape that must be protected from short sighted greed. It deserves better than a signage ordinance that would allow a beautiful historic marquee to be quietly modernized with city staff approval, but no public notice.

If you agree, please call in to the Cultural Heritage Commission on January 19 at 10am, raise your hand during general public comment, and ask the commissioners to hold a hearing on how something like this could happen to the Orpheum, and if the CHC believes that such alterations are truly appropriate in the National Register Broadway Historic Theatre District.

Update January 18, 2023: Bill Counter was on the scene to document testing of the newly installed Daktronics Galaxy digital screens. For this and more photos, visit the Los Angeles Theatres blog post about the Orpheum.

Update January 19, 2023: During public comment at the regular Cultural Heritage Commission hearing, our Richard Schave alerted the commissioners about the problematic signage change, and asked them to bring this up with Council District 14, the office of embattled councilmember Kevin de Leon. In response to Richard’s request, CHC President Barry Milofsky directed staff to do so.