HYDE PARK - Since late November, a sign for the Everett Square Theatre has been shining brightly over Fairmount Avenue in Hyde Park. With its bare incandescent bulbs, the handmade replica of the original 1915 sign evokes an era when Broadway got its "Great White Way'' nickname.
But this new Boston neighborhood landmark isn't intended to attract visitors to the latest movie or play - the theater has been closed for three decades and is in serious disrepair. The sign is designed to spark interest in restoring a place that was once home to vaudeville and other shows. Before it closed in the early 1980s, the venue was a movie house known as the Nu-Pixie.
"My kids laugh at me, but I really want this to be a theater again,'' said owner Pat Tierney, who runs a real estate agency in the building. "I know the neighborhood can support it.''
Tierney is a prominent figure in Hyde Park. Her husband, the late Joseph Tierney, was a Boston city councilor for 16 years. Her daughter is the television, film, and stage actress Maura Tierney, who as a child used to watch movies at Nu-Pixie.
The nonprofit preservationist organization Historic Boston Inc., oversaw the design and installation of the sign with a $30,000 grant from the city of Boston's Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund.
"We wanted to restore a missing piece of the streetscape,'' said Historic Boston senior project manager Jeffrey Gonyeau. "We see this as a small step in a much larger project.''
Historic Boston estimates a complete restoration will cost $5 million to $10 million. Although the theater is now mainly just a shell, some historic features remain, including opera boxes and marble stairs with brass railings leading to an expansive balcony.
Boston has preserved some of its most important historic downtown theaters - including the Boston Opera House, the Modern Theatre, and the Paramount - but smaller spaces in neighborhoods haven't fared as well.
In the early 1900s, there were about 130 theaters spread throughout the city, according to Historic Boston. Today, the city-owned Strand Theatre in Dorchester's Uphams Corner is the only large neighborhood theater still operating.
The smaller French's Opera House, opened in 1897 and used today by Hyde Park's community theater group, Riverside Theatre Works, is on Fairmount Avenue near the Everett Square Theatre.
Larger historic theaters have survived into the 21st century in some of Boston's neighboring communities and outlying suburbs. Brookline's Coolidge Corner Theatre has been run as a nonprofit since 1988, while the Somerville Theatre and Dedham Community Theatre have survived as for-profit businesses.
The Stoneham Theatre, which was shut for almost three decades, reopened for theater in 2000. The Norwood Theatre is undergoing renovations in preparation for a summer 2012 reopening. But the city of Quincy has so far been unable to find funding to repair and reopen the Wollaston Theatre, closed since 2003.
In 1929, generally considered the high point for downtown theaters, there were about 20,000 such spaces in the United States. But with the rise of suburban multiplexes, along with the general decline of urban areas, downtown theaters died. Today, only about 275 to 300 vintage theaters still operate in the United States, according to the Theatre Historical Society of America, based in Elmhurst, Ill.
"Most of these theaters have been there at least since the 1920s, so four generations have known them,'' said Richard J. Sklenar, executive director of the historical society. "Your grandfather may have gone on his first date with your grandmother there.''
But finding a sustainable business model for them has been a challenge.
"Generally, the single-screen theaters that have succeeded are run by nonprofits,'' Sklenar said. "They depend a lot on volunteers.''
Having a wealthy benefactor also helps. Symes Associates, a Beverly developer, provided the capital to buy and restore the Stoneham Theatre. Two years ago, Susan Lewis, a theater lover from Dover, purchased the Norwood Theatre for $925,000 and is funding repairs.
Weylin Symes, artistic director of the nonprofit Stoneham Theatre, said it took three or four years to develop a business strategy. Revenue comes from admissions to live productions and occasional music performances. The theater also offers classes.
"About 30 to 40 percent of our budget comes from fund-raising,'' Symes said.
Historic Boston officials and Tierney do not yet have business plan for the Everett Square Theatre, but are considering a mix of uses that could include music, conferences, community theater, and movies.
Tierney said her daughter, Maura, who has homes in New York City and on Cape Cod, backs the theater project. "She so wants me to do it. She's been financially supportive of me.''
Everett Square is the former name for the intersection of River Street and Fairmount Avenue. In the 1930s, it was renamed Logan Square.
Tierney purchased the building in 1986 with her former real estate partner Jacqueline Stanton and the two owners of the former Dottie's restaurant, which was a tenant. After Dottie's was sold and Stanton left the real estate office, Tierney bought out the other owners.
Much of the damage to the theater took place long ago, when a roof leak caused the ceiling to collapse. It's since been repaired, and most of the debris, as well as the seats, have been removed.
In addition to the new sign, the theater is getting a renovated foyer and glass entrance doors. That project, estimated to cost $5,000, is being paid for with a portion of the $30,000 grant from the Browne Fund, which was established in 1892 to support beautification projects in Boston. The foyer will be used for exhibits and small events. A ribbon cutting is scheduled for next week.
Gonyeau of Historic Boston said the theater has great potential as a performance space. "It has a wonderful sense of intimacy and scale,'' he said.