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Duchnowski: 'Theatre of the Future' in the limelight again

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 1:57 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 12:35 a.m. CDT
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Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com Crews work to install the DeKalb Theater marquee Tuesday before tackling the on-site fabrication needed to finish restoring the sign at Debutantes School of Cosmetology and Nail Technology, 145 N. Third St. in DeKalb. The single-screen theater operated from 1949 to 1991 and has housed several businesses since then. The fully restored marquee will be showcased at a ceremony at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Tom Rogers and his three daughters were full of dreams when they founded the Debutantes School of Cosmetology and Nail Technology in 2008.

They bought the former DeKalb Theater at 145 N. Third St., and Jaime Rogers, Tom's oldest daughter, suggested naming the business after her mother, Deb, who lost her battle with cancer in September 2006. Tom, Jaime and his other daughters, Sarah and Becky Rogers, had talked casually of going into business together, but Deb Rogers' death made everything more pressing.

"When you're hit with the reality that tommorrow is not promised to any of us, it brings a sense of urgency to today," Tom Rogers said.

As they strove to build a business that would help talented young people build a career, they thought they might restore the old marquee someday. That day came in April, when crews with Wagner Electric Sign Company of Elyria, Ohio, removed the marquee from its building to take it back to Ohio for restoration.

DeKalb city leaders approved spending up to $90,000 to restore the landmark using tax increment financing, which is a special taxing district that sets aside taxes associated with increased property values for economic development.

Debutantes is going to cover the cost of operating the sign, which is powered through 12 20-amp circuits, Tom Rogers said.

"I'm afraid to do the math, but I bet our electric bill is going to double," he said. "And it's pretty substantial already."

The restoration process was rather scientific. Crews used old black-and-white photographs and analyzed the layers of paint on the sign to determine which pigments had the least exposure to the elements and were most like the original, Tom Rogers said. They also analyzed the glass neon tubes.

Tom Rogers visited the marquee in Elyria, Ohio, while he was in the area for the 155-mile Pelotonia bike tour, which raises money for cancer research, on Aug. 10 and 11. The large sign returned to DeKalb, and crews worked to install it Tuesday.

They had a couple days of fabrication work left before a community ceremony at 8:30 p.m. Thursday celebrates the restored marquee as a throwback to a different era for downtown DeKalb. The theater operated with a single screen from 1949 to 1991. After the theater went out of business, several other businesses used the space and left the marquee dark.

But decades ago, the theater opened in March 1949 as "Theatre of Tomorrow," a tagline that still tickles Tom Rogers. In retrospect, it's a little funny, but he figures it's full of optimism.

"I love that the owners of the theater were excited to bring this theater to the community and believed their best days were yet to come," Tom Rogers said in a news release. "I believe the same thing today. The future of DeKalb is indeed bright, and every night when these lights are turned on, I hope others will be encouraged by the progress being made in this city and will want to be part of whatever that future will bring."

He's inviting everyone for free popcorn and a short ceremony before officially lighting the marquee for the first time in 22 years.

Ahem. Well, perhaps Thursday night will be the second time the marquee is lit in 22 years. Tom Rogers expects they will make sure it lights up before the public ceremony.

"We'll find some time to test it," he said, laughing. "Wouldn't that be a thrill: you go to throw the switch and nothing happens?"

• Jillian Duchnowski is the Daily Chronicle’s news editor. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, or email jduchnowski@shawmedia.com.

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