When the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville closed its doors because of the coronavirus stay-at-home order last month, staffers decided that rather than letting the theater’s sign become the Marquee de Sad, they’d make it the Marquee de Laughyette.

Using the time-honored literary tradition of puns, the staff began posting movie titles for the quarantine age on its marquee.

“Now showing: No Close Encounters of Any Kind."

“Now showing: Mr. Smith Goes to Wash His Hands.

“Now showing: Don’t Stand by Me.”

The first punny marquee The Colonial Theatre put up was a nod to the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
The first punny marquee The Colonial Theatre put up was a nod to the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The punny movie titles were so popular that people posted photos of the marquee across social media and sent in donations to the theater. One man mailed $25 along with a handwritten letter that read, in part: “A sense of humor is a sign of hope.”

Inspired by the response — and by emails pouring in with suggestions for future titles — the Colonial kicked off an online Punny Marquee Title Contest on April 6, giving language lovers everywhere a chance to see their pun in lights.

“One of our core values is that we believe a healthy dose of the offbeat nourishes the soul,” said Ken Metzner, executive director of the Colonial Theatre. “Consistent with that, we said ‘Let’s have some fun.’”

In the first week of the contest — which is being conducted via a Google Doc that’s accessible on the Colonial’s website — the theater received more than 400 entries from more than 130 people who submitted up to three ideas each, according to Michal Kortsarts, the theater’s marketing and communications coordinator.

The first winner: The Day the Earth Stayed Home.

Among the notable runners up were: Scarf Face; Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner; The Dark Night Rinses; Shakespeare in Gloves; Good Will Hunting for Toilet Paper; Carrie 2: Carrie Out Only; Ferris Buellers Month Off; Raiders of the Charmin Isle; and Don’t Lean on Me.

The entries were voted on independently by the Colonial’s eight full-time staffers and one person who is active in the theater’s film advisory committee.

Winners — which will be announced every Tuesday and Thursday on the Colonial’s Facebook and Instagram pages — will receive bragging rights and will get their punny title on the theater’s marquee, at least virtually.

After Gov. Wolf issued his stay-at-home order, physically redoing the 117-year-old theater’s marquee — which typically requires the work of two people, one standing on a ladder and the other hanging over the top of the marquee — became impossible. So Kortsarts began digitally photoshopping the titles onto the marquee, which takes her about two to three hours.

The marquee contest is just one of the many ways the theater is connecting with audiences during quarantine. Staff are also holding virtual watch parties on Facebook Live of films in the public domain, like Not of this Earth, a 1957 film about an alien agent in Southern California on a mission to get blood for his dying species.

The theater has also filled its display cases with posters about movie themes like laughter and friendship, which include prompts like “What are your ‘I need a laugh’” films or “What film friendships do you believe in?”

“We think that film can help us navigate the complex world we are living in,” Kortsarts said. “There is a comfort it can provide in bringing people together.”

Metzner said audience response to these virtual projects will help the theater determine which films to show when it reopens.

“I do think it’s going to be a very challenging environment when we reopen,” he said. “There’s a big question of ‘Will people even want to go to a theater?’ and if they do, what will they be in the mood to see?”

While the Colonial is a nonprofit, 75% of its revenue comes from ticket sales for movies and events. In the first week of quarantine closure, the theater had to issue more than $30,000 in refunds for concerts and events which could not be rescheduled.

The community has rallied, Metzner said, providing tens of thousands of dollars in donations, but with a fixed monthly cost of almost $50,000 the need for financial support remains ongoing.

Metzner said the staff is holding out hope that Blobfest will go on this year as planned on the weekend of July 10. It would be the theater’s 21st annual celebration of the 1958 horror classic, The Blob, which starred Steve McQueen and was filmed at the theater and around Phoenixville (also, I’m pretty sure The Blob is what my self-quarantine documentary will be titled).

Until then, the marquee contest is a good way for staff at the Colonial to keep in touch with what they miss most about the theater — the people, though Metzner said he was struck by something else he misses, too.

“Quite honestly, I thought I’d never say this, but I actually miss the smell of popcorn,” he said.