Blockbuster Video sign rewinds time in South Philly

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Blockbuster Video sign rewinds time in South Philly. Alicia Vitarelli reports during Action News at 4 p.m. on June 28, 2018. (WPVI)

There is a spot in South Philadelphia that is an anachronism. It's a relic of a recent past that represents a tradition no longer relevant to most. It's an indicator of a simpler era where a night staying home began with an outside destination.

It is a sign. A sign of the times. But not these times. This is a sign of the times where the words 'on demand' were used less frequently than the phrase 'out of stock.' It's a sign of the times where a membership card was vital in order to watch a movie. And it's a sign of the times where you were told to be kind and rewind.

On the corner of 24th Street and Passyunk Avenue, among the food trucks, SEPTA buses, and passersby, there stands a 78-foot high yellow and blue sign shaped like a ripped ticket stub, or some say a videocassette tape, with one word: Blockbuster.

A Blockbuster sign stands on a South Philadelphia corner on January 16, 2018.



The story of this sign, a marker that might be lost in time, is intertwined with the legacy of the shuttered business it still vigorously advertises.

Blockbuster first opened in 1985. It reportedly grew to over 5,000 stores with 60,000 employees. Fortune reports, at its peak in 2002, Blockbuster's market cap rose to $5 billion.

neta Kucharska, left, and Spence Bromberg look over the movies for sale at a Dallas Blockbuster store Thursday, Oct. 31, 2002.



With new competition looming from Netflix and Redbox, Blockbuster was still part of pop culture in 2007. An online poll voted the company as having the best Super Bowl commercial with its computer-generated rabbit and guinea pig mascots.



And then Blockbuster's Hollywood tale ended with a tweet.



"To anyone that ever rented a movie from Blockbuster, thank you for your patronage & allowing us to help you make it a Blockbuster night."

On Wednesday, November 10, 2013, Blockbuster sent out that message on Twitter, signaling the end of video rentals from the once dominant force in home media entertainment.

It was only apropos the final rental, from a store in Hawaii, was for the comedy 'This Is The End'



Upon hearing this, Seth Rogen, star of the film, became sentimental of his Blockbuster memories.

"The last movie ever rented from a Blockbuster was 'This Is The End.' In high school, I would go hang out at Blockbuster every day," Rogen tweeted.



After that, Blockbuster began to close down their remaining 300 company-owned stores and sold every DVD and Blu-ray in their inventory.

Their final tweet came on January 12, 2014: "Last chance! Blockbuster stores close at 5 pm today! Discounts up to 90%! Get DVDs and Blu-rays for 99!"



Then, like a new VHS release on a typical Friday night in 1995, the stores were gone.

Time would move on and the thought of going to a neighborhood Blockbuster to fulfill weekend plans was far removed, as what to binge-watch on Netflix became the norm.

But, it should be noted, like a surprising movie plot twist, this might have gone differently for the video rental chain if they agreed to an offer that they once refused.

A former high-ranking Blockbuster executive told Variety that in the early 2000s, they were approached by CEO Reed Hastings to purchase his company - Netflix - for $50-million. Blockbuster's chief John Antioco reportedly passed.

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010. After hopes of a rebirth from DISH Network were squashed, the home entertainment business was altered forever when Blockbuster shut down for good a few years later.

Soon, locations around the country that once housed Blockbuster changed to other businesses. There were so many former stores that a Tumblr blog 'This Used to be a Blockbuster' was created to document the transformations.

The dozens of Philadelphia area locations were among them. The Blockbuster at 3300 Aramingo Avenue became a 7-Eleven. The 6810 Rising Sun Avenue shop turned into a Smoker's Zone. 7700 Crittenden Street no longer sold videotapes, but eyeglasses as a Visionworks.

The building that once was the Blockbuster at 24th & Passyunk.



Blockbuster joined a list of growing retail memories in the vein of Woolworth's, Circuit City, and Kiddie City. All signs of Blockbuster were not only removed from the everyday conversation, but were literally removed from their storefronts.

Almost all signs.

Driving past that intersection of 24th and Passyunk in South Philly, a Blockbuster sign still holds court, taking in the changes to the stores, cars, and clothing that surround it, as it remains steadfast and, perhaps, optimistic things might turn around.

The Blockbuster sign seen on February 21, 2018.



The store that at one time was affiliated with the signage is long gone.

The Blockbuster Video store at 24th & Passyunk in July 2007.



It was repurposed into a CK Real Beauty store nearly a decade ago, but the sign has not changed.

The sign's story began on July 19, 1990, when the application for a building permit was completed, per documents obtained by 6abc.com through Philadelphia's Licenses and Inspections.

Application for Building Permit



The permit called for a "free standing sign: 10' x 20' double faced illuminated sign, 200 square feet, 78'3" height, non-flashing, non-revolving, non-intermittent." Its estimated cost was $28,000.

The contractor was the Philadelphia Sign Company, headquartered in Palmyra, New Jersey. PSCO was the signage vendor for Blockbuster Video in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. According to PSCO, with several hundred locations, it was one of their largest accounts.

Today, Pat Hoban is Vice President of PSCO, an international company that has been in business for over 100 years. But in 1990, he was one of PSCO's engineers working on the Blockbuster Video sign.

"I was surprised to hear that the sign was still up knowing that Blockbuster Video has gone out of business. Many times the structure is reused for another tenant, but after 28 years I have to admit the sign still looks good!" Hoban told 6abc.com, after finding out one of his very first creations stands tall.

Hoban was fairly new at PSCO when he took on the job of designing the Blockbuster sign. It was his second year at the company.

Pat Hoban's sketch of the Blockbuster sign from 1990.



"This was the largest and tallest sign that we made for Blockbuster Video and I enjoyed designing it. I remember seeing it for the first time after it was installed and was amazed by its size. It's one thing seeing it on paper, but there is nothing like seeing the finished product. I was proud that our company's name was on it," Hoban said.

From conception to construction, Hoban says 22 workers were directly involved in the permitting, design, fabrication, and installation of this particular sign. The fabrication of a sign this size would typically have taken 6 to 8 weeks, Hoban says. The installation of the foundation, supports and the sign itself would have taken around a week with four installers and two crane trucks.

PSCO has worked on thousands of signs through the years for numerous clients, and Hoban says he's always proud when seeing the finished projects whenever he drives by them. He more recently was involved in the fabrication and installation of the 20-foot high FMC letters at the FMC Tower at Cira Centre South in Center City Philadelphia.

The FMC Tower is one of the projects completed by the Philadelphia Sign Company.



"I see the FMC signs on the Philly skyline. My kids are sick of hearing me say 'There's my sign!'" Hoban said.

Though proud of the Blockbuster sign, too, and happy it's withstanding the test of time, and store closures, he is confused to why it remains as he left it.

"Typically, signs such as this are removed or covered after the business has closed. It's been at least several years since this location has closed, so that is a good question," Hoban said.

L&I said their department had no information to answer that question.

6abc.com called CK Real Beauty which confirmed their location used to be a busy Blockbuster store around ten years ago. They were aware of the sign that still stands outside, but did not seem bothered by it. They directed further questions to the property owner.

6abc.com reached out to the property owner's office listed on the L&I documents to see why the sign still exists. They would not comment on this story.

The present status of the Blockbuster sign is unclear at this moment. But can anything be done to make sure this sign of Philadelphia's past remains in the city's future?

Perhaps. If it follows the path of another PSCO project.

After the Lowes Hotel acquired the PSFS building in Center City, PSCO was tasked with replacing the famous neon letters with LED ones for cost savings.

The Philadelphia Sign Company replaced the neon PSFS letters with LED ones.


"After many mockups and field tests, Philadelphia Sign developed a LED fixture which would replicate the look of the original neon, but also gave Loews the option of changing the color of the signs to whatever they chose," PSCO said.

The LED retrofit was completed in early 2016. The new letters have been shining ever since on the historic building which was constructed back in 1932.

The PSFS building was the first modern skyscraper in the United States. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Being designated a National Historic Landmark does not necessarily mean it's protected from any future property changes, but it helps, says Sean Adkins of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, which evaluates properties for their eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

"It is important to note that listing in the National Register does not prevent demolition or alteration of a property in and of itself. Only projects that are licensed, permitted, or funded by the state or Federal government are subject to review by the SHPO, which is the point at which National Register status may be a factor in the project's outcome," Adkins told 6abc.com.

There are conditions for a property to be considered a National Historic Landmark.

Adkins says they must meet one of the following criteria:

1. Association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
2. Association with the lives of significant persons in our past; or
3. Embodiment of distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
4. Has yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.

Adkins says they also, generally, must be 50-years-old or older. The Blockbuster sign, though more than halfway there, is not quite at that mark.

"Properties that are less than 50-years-old, as is the case with the sign in question, can be considered if the properties can be shown to have exceptional significance," Adkins said.

Blockbuster's significance, at least when it comes to American culture, is still being felt today, even when only a few stores, all privately owned, remain.

Comedian John Oliver recently devoted entire segments of his HBO program "Last Week Tonight" to a Blockbuster store in Alaska. Multiple stories have been written online about making a destination to the last store in the contiguous United States in Bend, Oregon. There's even a popular Twitter account taking a humorous turn at Blockbuster's fate 'The Last Blockbuster' which has hundreds of thousands of followers. And every June 7 is VCR Day which would not have been as popular a device without Blockbuster.

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Watch as kids react to ancient technology "from the times before DVD's."



And did we mention Seth Rogen?

But Adkins says it may not be appropriate to compare the Blockbuster sign to the PSFS building when talking about National Landmarks, given that the signage is just one facet of the building.

"The design of the [PSFS] tower is itself significant because it was the first International Style skyscraper built in the nation and was the work of a nationally prominent architecture firm. Thus, the sign is not considered significant independent of the building. In the case of the Blockbuster Video sign, to be considered eligible for the National Register, it would have to be argued that the sign alone is significant for its design or technology or that Blockbuster Video has made a significant contribution to American history and that the sign alone is sufficient to convey that significance," Adkins said.



For at least one man with a connection dating back 28 years, the sign has a ton of significance. As Pat Hoban continues creating new signs, he looks back on this one, even remembering when Blockbuster dropped the word 'video' and the signage had to change logos. It's just one of his Blockbuster memories.

"I remember going to rent movies on VCR tapes and then how quickly DVDs came into the market and changed everything," Hoban said.

It remains to be seen if the corner of 24th and Passyunk will continue to resemble 1990, when Blockbuster ruled movie night, or if eventually the determined yellow and blue sign will be taken down and replaced with a sign of these times.
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