Return of the dazzling lights

David Peck

Hyart sign restoration project underway


An iconic Lovell downtown landmark will shine again this fall with the restoration of the grand Hyart Theatre sign, which was damaged in the hailstorm of 2018.

The front of the now 72-year-old theater was damaged in the storm that struck north Big Horn County on July 26, 2018, especially the tall east and west facing pylon blade sign bearing the name HYART and the emblematic paintbrush and palette. It has taken some time, but Phase I of a project to paint the sign and replace the Hyart’s neon lights with new LED lighting was conducted last week.

“There was damage to the roof and the sign, the west side mainly, but both sides sustained damage,” Hyart Redevelopment Committee president Mike Steenbakkers said. “It broke the neon, disabling the majority of the neon lights.

“We looked into replacing the neon, but it was both hard to come by and price restrictive. We didn’t have the money, and finding someone in the area to replace the neon was difficult.”

The sign and marquee sat unrestored for three years until an $8,000 donation by Lovell Inc. Economic Development in late 2021 spurred the committee to move forward with a restoration project, Steenbakkers said. With that donation, an anonymous local person pledged $10,000 to the restoration if it proceeded, and the project gained momentum.

“We started looking into the cost difference of LED versus neon, along with painting, upgrading the electrical and repairing the marquee,” Steenbakkers said.

Sadly, longtime Hyart owner and operator Loretta Bischoff died on July 8, and a few weeks later the executor of her estate, Elsie Martens, stepped forward to say that Bischoff’s wish was to see the sign repaired because she could see it from her home on Oregon Avenue.

“Elsie said Loretta wished she could see it lit up one more time, that her wish was to see the sign restored and it and the marquee lit up again,” Steenbakkers explained. “Elsie said the estate would pay for all of the vertical sign (restoration), which allowed us to save the other funds for the marquee. And Elsie said she was open to helping with that, as well.”

Theater manager Wendy Roth spoke to several sign companies to obtain estimates for the project, Steenbakkers said. Roth and the committee narrowed the list to three companies, who submitted bids.  Steenbakkers said the committee separated the sign project from the marquee project and broke the first phase into two parts: the sign painting and the electrical work. He said the painting was estimated to cost around $13,000 and the lights some $45,000.

As the project planning began, the committee consulted with Martens on the colors, essentially giving her the final say in honoring Bischoff’s wishes, Steenbakkers said, hoping to get the various colors as close to the original hue as possible. Sign Products of Billings got the contract to perform the painting.

Prep work took one day, Steenbakkers said, followed by two days of painting by a three-man crew working atop tall cranes. The crew replaced one rusted sheet metal panel, sanded other rusted areas and removed the old ladder bars that had been attached to the top and bottom of the sign. They also removed the old neon tubing and brackets, patched holes in the sign where the neon emerged and removed the internal electrical components.

The crew then painted the vibrant colors of the main HYART sign, the paint brushes, the paint dabs, the palette itself and the rest of the vertical sign. The first part of Phase I is essentially complete.

Martens said she is pleased with the result.

“We didn’t want to change the colors,” she said. “They’re going to be bright. I’m sure people will think the colors are different, but they’re not. Hy (Bischoff) and Loretta chose the colors, and that’s what should continue on.”

Next on the schedule is the electrical work by the Billings Sign Guys, which includes the installation of brighter, energy efficient and hail resistant LED lights bent and shaped to match the original neon, along with the internal electrical components. The goal is to closely match the original colors and shapes of the neon lights.

“Hopefully, it will be brighter than the old neon,” Steenbakkers, and Martens said at a recent meeting of the committee a sample board of the LED lighting was indeed bright but also efficient.

“It was on for the entire meeting,” she said, “and it never got warm. It was rubbery, and hail will never hurt it. It’s also going to save electricity.”

Steenbakkers said the hope is for the lighting work to be completed by early to mid-December, weather permitting.

Due to the LED lighting’s energy efficiency, the committee is considering illuminating the sign every night of the week, at least for a couple of hours, rather than just on movie night, which has been the practice for many years.

“To me it’s completely different going to a movie without the sign, and it will be something special going to a movie with it all lit up,” Steenbakkers said. “A lot of people in the community enjoy seeing the Hyart sign lit up. It’s been a landmark in this area for a long time.”

The marquee

Phase II of the project will be the marquee in front of the theater, which not only sustained some hail damage but was only partially operating before that. That project will include some more LED lighting around the perimeter of the marquee and in the HYART sign to the right side, repainting the marquee and restoring the plastic letters and lighting telling what movie is playing the next weekend. The underside of the marquee will also be repaired, Steenbakkers said.

The goal is to have Phase II underway next spring, he said.

With the front of the building restored, the final main project the Hyart committee will eventually have to complete is major repairs to the roof.

“That’s certainly a need to be fulfilled in the not too distant future,” Steenbakkers said, noting that an estimate three or four years ago put the project at more than $150,000.