Dickens’ Bloch: Theaters need flexibility for signage

When enjoying a night on the town, people see what’s playing before buying tickets to a show. But the Town of Millville’s sign regulations have complicated things, according to the owner of Dickens Parlour Theatre on Route 26.

“We are here to ask the council to amend the existing sign ordinance to provide for the ability of a theater in Millville to advertise what’s playing,” owner Richard Bloch told council members Jan. 12.

“The current sign ordinance, as interpreted by Millville, permits us to advise the public that we are Dickens Parlor Theatre, but prohibits the theater from advising anyone as to what is playing,” Bloch said.

The problem was discovered after Bloch installed an electronic sign in the autumn of 2015, to showcase performer names and performance dates.

While his application and appeal were primarily rejected because of Millville’s ban on electronic changeable signs, December’s Board of Adjustment hearing spotlighted the issue of advertising in the Town’s signage ordinance.

Businesses may post their name and their use (for example: “Dickens Parlour Theatre — performing arts center).

But, as a business, theaters are unique, Bloch said.

“We are the only enterprise that sells one product only, and that product changes on a weekly basis. … We are the only enterprise in town that must sell our product before the patron comes through the door. … People need to know what’s playing before they buy the tickets.”

Bloch had replaced his old sign with a two-part monument sign. The top part was permanently printed on a board, while the bottom (currently powered off) is electronic and has the capability to change electronically.

“The top says it’s Dickens Parlour Theatre. The bottom says what it’s being used for,” Bloch said in December. “When it’s used for magic, we put the name of the magician. When it’s used for charity, we put the name of the charity. Those are our intentions.”

The more than 1,200 shows held at the theater to date have expanded to include not just Bloch’s magic but other world-class professionals, lectures, dramatic readings and full theatrical presentations. Audiences should know what to expect each night, he said.

“We have several businesses that would love to have a sign like that. … I’m only going to advertise ‘this’ sale once a week,” Town Manager Debbie Botchie countered.

She said the issue could be passed to the Committee for Charter & Ordinance Review.

Flashing signs also prohibited

DPT didn’t apply for a signage permit before replacing the old stationary sign with this new version, noted Building Official Eric Evans. After Evans realized the sign was hung, Bloch submitted an application.

For the most part, Millville prohibits electronic changeable signs. Prohibited in DPT’s C1 commercial district are signs that “provide blinking, moving, animation, revolving, chaser lights or moving spotlights.”

The Board of Adjustment wasn’t moved by Bloch’s reasoning that the sign changes too infrequently to even be considered flashing. In January, the board upheld the building official’s rejection of the electronic sign. The sign would have changed with each new show, at most on a weekly basis, since shows usually last one to three weeks.

“There’s no animation, no motion on this sign whatsoever,” Bloch had said at the December appeal.

But the sign is capable of flashing electronically, the Town decided.

“If it flashes once — [even] if it’s once a week — it’s a flashing sign. That would be the Town’s position,” countered Town Solicitor Seth Thompson.

Millville Town Code only allows changeable signs for municipal buildings, police, fire and ambulance departments. Flashing signs are allowed for time and temperature, commonly found at banks.

Several other businesses were “grandfathered in” with electronic signs before Millville’s code prohibited them. Those preexisting nonconforming signs are allowed to remain.

Although DPT also has a backlit sign hanging on the building to advertise the shows, Bloch said it is “unsightly” and practically “useless.” Facing and parallel to the road, it’s only visible to drivers for a second.

And, because of its use in advertising shows, that sign might also be non-conforming.

Bloch asked the BOA in December if he is really not allowed to advertise name of a play in any way. But Thompson warned the board against getting into an advisory position when that wasn’t the appeal at hand. Instead, he advised Bloch to ask before hanging future signs.