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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Garland movement: After decades, the Iconic Spokane theater’s sign spins once again

After decades of immobility, the sign that has stood in front of the Garland Theater at the corner of Monroe and Garland is turning.

“I’ve never seen it spin,” said Nate Corning, owner of Mark’s Guitars, which has shared a wall with the theater for about 22 years. “I had no idea it could even spin – I think it’s freaking cool.”

According to the Spokane Register of Historic Places, the 48-foot marquee was erected in 1958. Sandwiched by signage spelling “Garland” are the two rotating aspects spelling “Tops in Shows” and “Theatre.”

Though the theater at 924 W. Garland Ave. was built before the sign in 1945, few Garland District old-timers recall a twirling marquee.

“I don’t ever remember seeing that thing spin, and I’ve been here a long time,” said Bobby Quam, owner of Quam’s Watch Center, which opened in the Garland District around 1984.

Bonnie Quinn, owner of Quinn Advertising, said she can recall a distant memory when her father opened the family firm in 1979.

“I can vaguely remember it spinning at that time, but I can’t be sure,” Quinn said. “But I think it’s awesome that it’s spinning today. Anything that brings life to historic Garland District is good.”

“I’m not sure any business has been here longer than we have,” said Mark Sleizer, owner of Garland Printing, which opened around 1980. “I’ve heard that it could spin, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. But what they’re doing over there, bringing back to the old theater – I think it’s great.”

Jasmine Barnes, part-owner of the Garland, has worked at the theater for about 10 years and was largely unaware of the sign’s rotating capability.

“I think a customer told me a couple of years ago that is used to spin, but it never registers,” Barnes said. “I thought it’d never spin again.”

Chris Bovey, also part-owner of the business, landed his first job as an 18-year old as a ticket-taker at the theater. More than two decades later, he learned that the marquee was movable.

“I think it was only last year that someone told me it used to spin, and my mind was instantly blown,” Bovey said. “And it became my obsession to try and make it spin like it used to.”

After experiencing difficulties, he elicited the help of Todd Stewart, who Bovey refers to as the “resident handyman” who has helped Bovey and his business partners since they took over the operation in December.

Stewart could not be immediately reached Wednesday afternoon, but Bovey said the handyman diagnosed the marquee with a busted gear and a missing motor.

“So, we looked all over the theater and, sure enough, down in the boiler room, we found a motor stowed away, and it turned out to be the exact motor from the sign,” he said.

For three months, Stewart worked to repair the motor and replace the gear, according to Bovey.

Then on Monday, he received a video message from Stewart showing a spinning sign.

“I couldn’t even put it into words – it was like something at Disneyland,” he said. “Seeing this icon of Spokane, that you used to only know it to be one way, just stagnant and sitting there, and then all of a sudden you see it come to life – it’s magical.”

Aside from the swirling spectacle, moviegoers can notice many changes to the historic theater.

According to part-owner Tyler Arnold, the lobby has been revamped.

Authentic film props line the walls, and neon lights have been fastened to the perimeter of the ceiling that illuminate an overhead mural depicting a space theme, with cosmic dust, spaceships and shining stars.

The theater’s lone screen has been expanded and its sound system upgraded. The cocktail bar, Bon Bon, has received its liquor license after a six-month wait.

The efforts were an attempt to create an experience around attracting customers with the experience of watching movies, instead of the movies themselves.

Since opening, the owners have held numerous sold-out showings, including for the 1989 comedy/science-fiction flick “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” which was attended by cast member Amy O’Neill. They also held a sold-out showing of the 1985 comedy “Weird Science”.

“We’ve had some big nights. I mean, there are 160 people in there right now,” Barnes said, displaying a tally counter on Wednesday during an 11 a.m. showing of the animated children’s film “Trolls Band Together.”

But the business owners are not done dreaming.

“We’re going to keep doing projects to the theater to bring it back to life,” Bovey said.

According to Bovey, they have acquired equipment for “rumble seats,” which allow audience members to feel the effects portrayed on screen.

Other projects include overhauling the patio of Bon Bon, revamping the theater’s front display window and refurbishing an archaic 35 millimeter movie projector that uses rolls of film, contrary to modern digital projectors.

“People of a certain generation, like my generation, will lose their minds,” Arnold said. “Actual film hasn’t been rolled in decades.”

But as business owners, Arnold, Barnes and Bovey are focused on the theater’s interior. The exterior is being handled by the property’s owner, Jordan Tampien, and his business partner, Ryan Berg.

Berg said façade improvements may begin as early as next week when he and Tampien decide on a contractor.

Project manager Andrew Spelman said the construction firm will be in charge of repainting, cleaning tile near the main entrance, cleaning canopy edges, resurfacing canopies, repairing some minor roof issues and landscaping work along Monroe Street.

“All of this will not impact the historical nature of the building,” Spelman said, “which is key for us.”

The company awarded the contract will also construct the Garland Apartments, a four-story residential structure that is planned for the parking lot immediately behind the theater.

The $6.2 million project will include 44 units and encompass about 35,000 square feet, according to plans submitted to the city of Spokane. Units will include studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments and be market-rate priced, according to Berg.

If all goes according to plan, the construction could begin in early August and be completed around May , according to Berg.

The apartment building will be accompanied by another a few blocks east at 3909 N. Wall St. The four-story, 60-unit building, named Millennium North Hill by developers, is in its final stages of construction.

Since the theater changed ownership, Garland District business owners Quinn, Quam and Sleizer have all reported an uptick in foot traffic.

Though the two apartment projects are sure to increase foot traffic more, the three are skeptical of the net benefit to the district because of the potential negative effects of a parking shortage.

“Parking. That’s the only thing we’re concerned about,” Quinn said, noting it’s already becoming an issue.

But in the meantime, the rejuvenated sign is bringing its own activity to the neighborhood.

“People are walking the streets and the sign is spinning – the Garland District feels alive.”