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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 21, 2010

A real (big) sign of the times

By Lee Cataluna

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Wolf Levine, general manager of Varsity Grill and Bar, is offering the original Varsity Theatre sign free to anyone who will carefully haul it away. The sign is made of sheet iron and weighs several thousand pounds.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The 8-foot-tall, 25-foot-long marquee from the old Varsity Theatre now lives under tarps at Puck's Alley.

Advertiser library photo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Varsity Theater, designed by legendary Isle architect Charles Dickey, was demolished in March 2008.

Advertiser library photo

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Wanna piece of Honolulu nostalgia in your living room? All you need is a flatbed truck, a forklift and a really big living room.

It started out with the best intentions. When the Varsity Theater was torn down in March 2008, the guys across the street said they'd like to save the marquee.

Mike Powell, Pete Faulkner and Nick Schlapak had taken over the old Magoo's on University Avenue the year before and opened The Varsity Grill and Bar.

They envisioned fixing up the neon letters that spell VARSITY and putting the sign outside their business. Kamehameha Schools, owners of the old theater, gave them the 8-foot-tall, 25-foot-long sign.

If everything had worked perfectly, the Varsity marquee would stand proudly right across the street.

"The McCully-Mo'ili'ili Neighborhood Board was very happy the marquee was saved," said board president Ron Lockwood.

But there was no room to keep it inside the bar, what with the 11 big television sets tuned to various sporting events. The marquee has sat under tarps in the back parking lot at Puck's Alley all this time.

Meanwhile, reality set in.

Wolf Levine, general manager of Varsity Grill and Bar, estimates it would take close to $15,000 to make the sign functional again, too much for the business to handle right now.

"It would be like fixing up an old car, stripping it down, painting it," Levine said. Fun work if you know how to do it, but daunting if you have to pay someone to get it done. Add to that the permit process for a nonstandard sign that could take over a year, plus large consultant fees.


So basically, if you have a safe way to move it, a good place to keep it and are handy with metal work, you can have the Varsity marquee for free. They'd like to find the sign a good home.

The Varsity Theater opened in 1939. It was designed by legendary Hawai'i architect Charles Dickey in the streamline moderne style of the late art deco period.

The sign is not ornate, but its simplicity is elegant. Some of the neon tubes are broken and there are holes where it was cut to remove it from the mounting; it's sitting in a back parking lot when its place is supposed to be up above it all, but even in its current condition, it's a pretty thing.

Levine said the bar owners have thought about putting it on eBay, and there has been mild interest from people who have come to take a look at the marquee.

"We've had a few tire kickers, but that's it," he said.

Varsity Grill and Bar also had the two 1930s-era projectors that used to sit outside the theater sitting near their entrance, but there were complaints that they were blocking the sidewalk and were an eyesore, so those got hauled away for scrap.

Anyone interested in owning the marquee can contact Levine at 447-9244. And make sure you have a big truck lined up to take it, Levine said, "not a guy with a couple of friends and a Honda Civic."