It amazes me the old Belle Meade Theater building, or at least its sign and main lobby, in Nashville is still there. Its history stretches all the way back to May 1940, the golden age of movie theaters, and it kept going for more than five decades, finally closing in 1991. I think I have a vague memory of seeing Escape To Witch Mountain—the original, not the 2009 remake with The Rock, because I am old—there, although it might have been the Melrose Movie Theater, which was kind of a poor second cousin to the Belle Meade one. The Melrose theater housed a music video production company in the ’80’s where some of the videos for MTV were filmed, or at least edited and had post-production work done. I went there on a high school field trip and was not one of the kids picked to be an extra in a music video that never got made, but that’s another story.
When the theater closed it was soon reopened as, of all things, a bookstore, and they made sure the sign lit up. That ball on the very top was covered with flashing lights and the letters blinked on and off. A friend of mine worked there as an assistant manager and told me they had an electrician on 24-hour call because maintaining the damn thing was a nightmare. Even if everything was working perfectly there was always a bulb that needed to be replaced. They also used the marquee to announce author appearances, special events, and, once, it spelled out, “Annie, will you marry me?—David”. My wife and I were pretty thrilled when we drove by there the next week and they’d added “She said YES!”
The building, as far as I know, has been empty since the bookstore closed. There was a grocery store in that space but the main lobby which, even when it was a bookstore, had a wall of photos of famous people, mostly movie stars, who’d been to the Belle Meade Theater, has been closed and dark since 2003. The sign has been dark too, although someone’s still maintaining it. The blue and red paint is still bright and the bulbs look mostly intact, at least in the daytime, since they no longer light up.
A lot of signage now seems pretty standard: a sheet of molded plastic on a pole backlit by some fluorescent bulbs. The Belle Meade sign was, and still is, something pretty special, even if it was expensive and difficult to maintain in its original glory. Maybe because it was expensive and difficult to maintain.
I’m not sure why I’m thinking about the Belle Meade sign right now. I drive by it multiple times every week and it’s like an old friend with whom I no longer talk to but who’s still there. We smile at each other as we pass by. No one seems to want to tear it down but, I guess, like an old friend, I never know when it will be gone.