Sign of the times

Cleveland Playhouse Square Center looks to Times Square for inspiration

Cleveland's theatre district now looks more like Times Square with the addition of two LED video boards, a video ticker wall, and extensive fiber optics on two buildings. Playhouse Square Foundation is a non-profit umbrella organization that owns five vintage theaters, as well as the Hanna Building and the Wyndam Hotel [pictured], where the video screens are mounted. The 18'x16' screens face each other a block apart.

The video screens are Barko Dlite panels with 7mm pixels. At the top and bottom of each screen is a 3'x16' advertising board of Dlite 14 panels. Playhouse Square Center marketing director Tim Burch researched vendors at trade shows: "We wanted a low maintenance, low energy cost system, but we also chose Barko because of the system's modularity. We likely will expand later and the Barko panels will let us do that. Other systems demanded that we make a decision now about our needs down the road. Also, considering Cleveland's wide ranging weather, this system won't need any special heating or cooling unlike others"

The video boards operate from 5:30am to midnight. A tie-in with the local ABC and PBS affiliates supplies live news. At other times, the boards feature a catalog of upcoming shows including video clips and stadium-type animation. The sponsor boards at the top and bottom of each screen use the 14mm pixels for messages and images.

In addition to the video boards, the Hanna Building has a 3'x100' four-color video ticker wall mounted at the second floor level that displays local and world news events, Theatre District news, stock prices, sports scores, and sponsor messages.

The Barko signs allow viewing at 120º horizontal and 60º vertical. They have an 800Hz refresh rate and a digitizer to control the LED intensity based on ambient light. "At full intensity, we can burn out the area." Burch says. "We have been using only about 20% of the possible light output." That translates to 2,500 to 5,000 NIT in an installation that can output 12,000 NIT.

Controlling the video board system is a software package designed by Playable Technologies. The custom switcher box and other hardware are about two miles away at the TV station, and a back-up front-end system is housed at the theater site.

In the block between the video boards is a small plaza. Underused in the past, this area could be a center for special events--Cleveland is thinking of a New Year's Eve countdown--or Academy Awards party. The plaza is surrounded with speakers for the video walls. Joseph Marinucci, Playhouse square Center's vice president for real estate development said, "We are going to create a new outdoor performance venue. We can easily add a stage and have a jazz festival, movies, or celebrations for events such as the Cleveland Indians opening game." Playhouse Square Center is adding a half-price ticket kiosk there. Among other presenters, the theaters are home to the Great Lakes Theater Festival, the Cleveland Opera, and a Broadway series. The Hanna Theater is currently home to the long running Tony and Tina's Wedding.

Accentuating the video boards, each building has multiple fiber-optic vertical strands with eight-color capacity. The strands are sidelight BPAK-150 and use Fiberstars 404 illuminators on the Wyndham Hotel building where there are eleven 90' runs. The Hanna building has fourteen vertical runs of 20' to 80' and use Fiberstars 405N illuminators, all with 150W metal-halide lamps. Each building uses an ETC DMX lighting playback controller for synchronized DMX on each building. There is a fourth channel DMS line in every one of the 36 illuminators. The fiber optics systems are not linked to the video boards, but have their own programming which includes a visual "chime" at the top of each hour.

So how does this compare to Times Square? The video boards are the first of their kind in the US to integrate such high-resolution video along with sound capabilities. And although Cleveland's square footage of the boards is much less than New York's, the boards are more advanced and produce a higher resolution picture. The project is also the first in the country capable of broadcasting a live signal from up to six miles away. In fact, the technology for the long distance fiber link was not in place in January when the system was launched, so coaxial cable was used and replaced with the fiber link in March.

The cost of the Cleveland system is $3 million, financed through bonds from the city's Port Authority. Burch said, "We didn't want to go to the City of Cleveland or use other sources for the video boards. We have a good lineup of sponsors already, and most of the agreements are for three years, so we should cover the investment."

Playhouse Square Center contracted for conceptual drawings done over the five years of this project's development, but the overall plan was developed in-house.