The venerable Robert E. Lee Theater in Lakeview opened in 1965 and survived hurricanes, suburban flight and endless pot-fueled midnight shows of The Song Remains the Same, but it couldn't survive the wrecking ball, which leveled the (semi)-historic structure last weekend. The exterior was never much to look at, but one feature of the theater was a landmark: the sign atop the building that spelled out ROBERT E. LEE in red riverboat-style letters.
Good news for preservationists: the sign's been saved. The savior? Art collector and New Orleans Film Society past president Ellen Johnson.
"I've got the dot in my living room right now," Johnson said this afternoon. "And it's a foot and a half high."
Johnson was driving past the shopping center at Robert E. Lee and West End boulevards when she saw deconstruction crews taking down the old rialto, which had sat dormant since the early 1990s and flooded badly after Hurricane Katrina. "So I went around to the back of the building where they were doing the demolition and asked about the sign. I wasn't the first one," Johnson says. "The man on the site said 'You cant have em, lady, theyre gonna be sold for scrap metal.'"
Horrified, Johnson swung into action. "I talked to construction people. I had to go through lawyers. I talked to the daughter of the 94-year-old owner. I appealed to them that I was an arts lover and a preservationist, and told them the sign was part of neighborhood history." Finally the owners made her an offer. Johnson made a counteroffer (which she declined to specify) and a deal was struck.
Then the work began. "It took three days," Johnson says, during which each letter was carefully lowered to the ground and stacked on a flatbed truck. The 10 letters were too large to be stored at Johnson's house, so she arranged for them to be taken to a storage facility ... except for the dot, which went home with her.
What's Johnson going to do with them now? "I don't know!" she says. "Maybe they can be used for a film society gala, or we can find them a new home. I just couldn't let them get used for scrap metal. I collect [letter] Es, and now I have four of them.
"I'll be a good guardian for the letters," she added. "And if we can't find something to do with them ... well, I'll have some nice Es and Rs around the house."