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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

But where are all the sign makers?


Something was missing when David Salvato opened his sandwich shop on Delmar Boulevard nearly four years ago.

"People would badger me about it: 'If you want to be successful, you need a neon sign in the window,'" Salvato recalls. The idea of electrifying what was supposed to be a European-style bistro was anathema. "I didn't want that modern look," Salvato says. "I wanted to stay in the old world."

The past arrived in the person of Bill Christman, a customer who lives about a mile away. Like so many others, Christman told Salvato to get a sign. "I was a real skeptic about it, to be honest," Salvato admits. "I said,'Let's go to a sign shop and have them pump me out something on a computer.'" Christman took that as a challenge.

"He said, 'I'm going to show you what a real sign can do,'" Salvato says.

A couple of weeks later, Christman walked in with a sidewalk sign shaped like a sandwich and unlike anything else on the Loop. The larger-than-life bread was made of Styrofoam and hand-painted with a globe and the words "Best Sandwich in the World."

Salvato admits that he didn't know what to think.

"When he brought it here, I said, 'Isn't that a little bold?'" he recalls. "It's something I never would have thought of. I said, 'What am I going to do now?' He said, 'See ya.'"

Today, Salvato says the sign that Christman fashioned from a cast-off prop from a parade float has proved the best thing that's happened to his shop. "My business doubled, and it's all because of that sign," Salvato says. "That's our signature. It's become my identity. People don't even know the name of the place. They say, 'You're the place with the sandwich out front.'"

After being stolen three times -- acting on an anonymous tip, Salvato once found it in an alley behind a nearby real-estate office -- the original is gone. It took Christman nine months to fashion a replacement -- "It had to be perfect before he would give it to me," Salvato says. Installed two months ago, the new wooden sandwich is anchored by 500 pounds of concrete and surrounded by love. "That's the most precious thing to me now -- that sign," Salvato says. "Every morning, the first thing I do is check to make sure it's still there."

Assuming thieves leave it alone, the sign will only get better as the paints fade. Salvato compares it to a copper roof that corrodes into a stately green. "To me, twenty years from now, even if I'm not here, people will say, 'Remember that sign shaped like a sandwich?'" he says. "It has personality in people's minds." Pointing toward his window, he adds, "This doesn't."

The window sign in Salvato's shop is nice enough: "Salvato's Café," it reads in white letters made of vinyl. Each letter is computer-perfect and guaranteed not to fade. And that's the problem, say devotees of old-style signs and the vanishing craftsmen who made them. Back in the day, it took years to learn the trade, and some would-be sign makers never could get the hang of it. Sharp eyes could tell who had painted which signs because every one was different. No longer.

Modern signs are designed on computers that produce every size and shape of letter imaginable. Ingram Publishing, one of several companies that sells sign-making software, offers "genuine hand-painted fonts on CD-ROM." Anyone with a computer and a vinyl cutter can make a sign these days, usually in a matter of minutes. Of the nearly 300 sign companies listed in the St. Louis yellow pages, only three advertisements mention hand lettering.

But the craft dies hard in St. Louis.

The beginning of the end came in September 1982 with the introduction of Signmaker III, the first computerized sign-making equipment that could do it all, from onscreen design to cutting letters from vinyl that could be stuck to virtually any surface. Overnight, anyone, regardless of artistic ability, could become a sign maker. And thousands did.

"Before, it was difficult to make signs if you couldn't paint," says Tod Swormstedt, president of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati that is scheduled to open to the public next year. "What has happened is that anybody thinks they can enter the sign business." But punching letters on a keyboard after reading an instruction book is different than learning the craft the old-fashioned way. "The design of the sign is as important as anything," Swormstedt says. "The white space in a sign is as important as the black space. The tendency of people who don't know anything about the proper elements of design is to cram as much as possible into the space. Also, people could jump into the sign business and fabricate signs, but they couldn't install them correctly."

Christman, who closed his full-time sign shop in the late 1980s, readily remembers early ads in trade journals for the technology that changed his life: Imagine an employee who will work for you all night for the cost of electricity, who never calls in sick, who never takes time off for a relative's funeral.

"It was so brutal -- it was really nasty," he says. "I wanted nothing to do with the computers. That's why I left the sign business. They can have those kinds of signs made in prisons. It's a bastardization of a beautiful art form. It's astounding to me that a business that wants to be a high-end business will put up a shitty vinyl banner."

Christman has a degree in sculpture and art history from the University of Missouri and considers himself an artist. He's always loved signs. As a child too young to know about factories, he envisioned giant neon leaves and stems springing from an oversized pot when his father, a McDonnell Douglas employee, said he was going to the plant. As a professional sign maker, his clients have included the Jack Daniel Distillery, which hired him to make vintage-looking signs (think "Welcome to Lynchburg") that have appeared in magazine advertisements extolling a slower, simpler way of life. Closer to home, Christman made the Fox Theatre sign above the box office on Grand Avenue. He has scrapbooks filled with photographs of signs from abroad and throughout the U.S. that he plans to publish in a book. He still makes signs for friends and just for fun, advertising make-believe businesses such as the Dimwit Brothers' Signpainting Co. and the Chowhound Café while earning his living running the Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem, a.k.a. Beatnik Bob's, at the City Museum.

Before settling on Cincinnati, Sworm-stedt considered putting the American Sign Museum inside the City Museum, but talks broke down when the City Museum dropped its non-profit status. Swormstedt liked St. Louis because it's located on historic Route 66 and was once home to one of the few sign-painting schools in the country. In addition, St. Louis was the transplanted hometown of Eric Christian Matthews, a former Colorado cowpoke who moved here in 1916 and became one of the most famous sign makers in the country, authoring sixteen how-to books and pamphlets that were once regarded as must-haves for any would-be sign painter.

"There's a pretty strong history of sign painting in St. Louis," Swormstedt says. "It was just a little scary for us to invest our time and money in something that had a lot of question marks -- it just appeared like things were a little up in the air at the time. It's not easy for us to move. We've got big signs." Signs of the Times, the nation's premier sign-making trade magazine owned by Swormstedt's family, has invested $1 million in the project, acquiring some of the best-known monikers in American history, including decades-old signs from Howard Johnson's, McDonald's and Holiday Inn.

Christman says differing philosophies helped keep the sign museum out of St. Louis. Bob Cassilly, owner of the City Museum, wasn't about to turn any part of the premises into the Smithsonian of signs. "Bob doesn't want a layer of history and academia," Christman says. "He wants fun. He said, 'That guy's way too serious.'"

Missourians apparently love signs -- voters three years ago rejected a ballot measure that would have banned new billboards along the state's highways and interstates. Swormstedt considers signs pieces of Americana that are special because they are ubiquitous. "They're so obvious that they're overlooked," Swormstedt says. "If you take a landscape -- a downtown or even a smaller town -- and you take away the signs, I think they lend a lot of color to the streetscape. It lends a lot of individual expression. We view them as pop culture."

But finding signs, at least the kind that belong in museums, is tough. Swormstedt says St. Louis is fairly well picked over. "There's a lot of guys who are into antiques there," he says. "It's very hard for us to find hand-painted signs -- that's one of the genres or areas that we have the hardest time finding. In one sense, they're everywhere, if you think of wall signs. There're wall murals all over the Midwest and the East of old ads painted on bricks. But you're not going to remove those and put them in a museum."

Though most toil in obscurity, some sign makers have become famous, if not always for their art. James Rosenquist, a pop artist whose works have been exhibited in the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, started as a billboard painter. Folk singer Woody Guthrie made an occasional dollar painting signs, as did Norman Rockwell, perhaps the nation's most famous illustrator. Before hitting it big as a comedian, native St. Louisan Redd Foxx turned to sign painting to make ends meet.

Art Hewlett isn't famous. And he doesn't mince words.

"I hated that goddamn computer," says the man once acknowledged as the best in the city when it came to making gold-leaf signs. "I hated it because it raped me. In reality, it saved my life."

Made of gold, typically 23 karat, the tissue-thin sheets measuring three-and-three-eighths inches square are a delicate and notoriously difficult medium. Just lifting a leaf is difficult. A leaf picked up with fingers is prone to crumble into tiny pieces -- the same kind of gold flakes that give Goldschlager liqueur its trademark appearance. Sign makers rub a gilder's tip, a brush usually made of badger's or squirrel's hair, against their hair to generate static electricity so that each leaf jumps onto the charged brush. Using lacquers, water, gelatin capsules and a steady hand, sign makers apply the gold to smooth surfaces, typically glass, an exacting process that takes several hours, even when the design is relatively simple.

Gold-leaf artwork dates to biblical times. Medieval and Renaissance artists used gold leaf on sculptures, paintings and manuscript illustrations. In the sign-making business, handmade gold-leaf monikers were once standard on fire engines and window signs for banks, law offices and other establishments that demanded an upscale look. Gold leaf was also a popular choice for address numbers on transom windows. Cared for properly -- don't wipe with a squeegee or ammonia -- a gold-leaf sign can last indefinitely.

Hewlett hasn't made one in years. Although he keeps a gold-leaf booklet in his sign-making kit, sign makers today usually buy their gold already affixed to stick-on vinyl. At 67, Hewlett is still making signs in his garage on North Hanley, but not the kind he loves. He bought a computer and a vinyl cutter seven years ago. He says he had no choice.

"I started losing all my accounts -- I lost them to a computer," he says. "It didn't come real easy to me. And I'm still not really sharp. You just punch that stuff in and let it fly."

Hewlett found out the hard way that there's no demand for an aging artisan, no matter how skilled. With business dropping, he applied for a handyman job at Six Flags about ten years ago. After spending a lifetime climbing ladders and balancing on makeshift scaffoldings amid high winds, he figured he could come in handy climbing a roller coaster. But he didn't get hired. He thinks Six Flags wasn't eager to have an old man doing grunt work several stories above the ground.

"All those old artists had to go collect unemployment or do other stuff," says Hewlett, who's been making signs for nearly a half-century. "I've got to keep working. I don't have any options. And who the hell's going to hire a guy 67 years of age?"

Hewlett's handiwork has appeared on police department D.A.R.E. cars, brick walls and windows throughout the region, but he says he no longer pushes customers to spend extra for a personal touch. When he does pull out his brushes, the results can be remarkable. A couple of years ago, he says a Chesterfield pet-store owner hired him to paint a window sign advertising exotic birds that weren't selling very well. Hand-painted parrots did the trick. "We put the pictures in the window and the birds didn't last a week," he says. But most customers insist on vinyl, much to Hewlett's disappointment.

"It looks fine to the average guy," Hewlett says. "But you take a guy like me, it looks colder than an operating room. It's too damn sharp. It's too clean. There's no human element in it whatsoever."

A handful of Hewlett's customers still insist on the personal touch. One is Manchester Electric, an electrical contracting firm that has hired Hewlett to paint its vans for years. Hewlett confesses he doesn't know why. The signs are plain-Jane, essentially the company's name, address and phone number in blue letters. But Dorothy Manzo, who owns the business with her husband, says she wouldn't consider anything else.

"He does beautiful work," Manzo says. "It seems to last longer. Some dinosaurs shouldn't be extinct."

Lonnie Tettaton is almost finished with the "Louis" in "St. Louis" when he notices the mistake on the side of a scrap-metal bin he's painting for a long-time client near his shop on North Broadway.

There should be a period after "St" instead of the comma that Tettaton has painted in quick-dry white enamel. He catches the error in time, wiping off the comma's tail with a rag as he remembers a day long ago when he spent an afternoon working atop a car dealership only to find he'd misspelled "Chevrolet." No one said a word until he climbed down from the ladder to put his paint away. Then everyone from salesmen to secretaries had advice. "I got all kinds of comments -- 'It'll be different, leave it like that,'" he recalls. He had to start again from scratch, just like the time he painted a plastic sign that illuminated from the inside and learned there's an "I" in "business."

Tettaton isn't alone. Sign makers, who Tettaton says tend to focus on individual letters as opposed to complete words, aren't necessarily good spellers. Sworm-stedt, the sign-museum founder, says he once considered setting up a spelling hotline for sign painters before the advent of computers equipped with spell-check.

A scrap-metal company isn't a particularly demanding client. Serviceable and cheap are more important than fancy, so Tettaton works fast in a script halfway between Gothic and cursive, balancing his painting hand against a three-foot-long dowel called a maulstick that increases steadiness and speed. T's and I's are relatively easy. It's curvy letters like S and O that are easy to screw up. Tettaton swears he can do this kind of lettering as fast as a machine, which is a good thing, because his uninsured computer was stolen three years ago and he hasn't replaced it. He averages about twenty hours of work each week, which isn't bad, considering he doesn't even have a fax machine. "I just get whatever comes in the door," he says. "Things have been a little slow, but I still do a little work."

Back in the 1960s, Tettaton founded the Midwest School of Lettering and Design, one of the few schools in the nation devoted to teaching the art of sign painting. He also wrote a sign-making textbook for beginners and self-published several how-to manuals containing dozens of alphabets in varying scripts and tips on painting everything from trucks to windows. Vatterott College bought Tettaton's school in 1981 but dropped sign making from its curriculum in the mid 1990s. "Nobody teaches that anymore," says Kirby Kaufhold, business representative for Sign and Pictorial Painters Local 774. "There's simply not that much demand."

Tettaton learned his craft the old-fashioned way, by going to work in a sign shop and learning on the job. He also picked up a few pointers from Matthews, a man so devoted to his craft that he used his refrigerator as a paint cabinet and ate all his meals in restaurants. What was supposed to be a four-year apprenticeship lasted half as long. Tettaton went into business for himself in 1959 and remembers the days when breweries and other wholesalers kept sign makers under contract or on staff to hand-paint advertisements in retail establishments. Tettaton once worked for Quality Dairy, which let him decide how big and fancy a sign should be based on the size of the grocery store and how busy it was. "It was up to me to determine if the stop could pay for it," he says.

Thanks to his books and his school, Tettaton is one of the better-known traditional sign makers in St. Louis, where the old-school fraternity is small and tight. "It used to be a real good trade," says Bob Blair, who lives in Smithton, Illinois. "It was kind of a private clique. We knew each other's work. Each guy had his own little individuality, a trait that gave him away, a certain letter style or something like that. Now, you can probably count all of us on one hand. To tell you the truth, I used to think I'd like to have one of my kids get into it. After seeing how it's evolved through the years, I say I wouldn't want to put them through that."

But some sign makers beget sign makers. With an uncle and father who helped teach them the trade, Kevin and Greg Downen have sign paint in their blood and, at least once in awhile, maulsticks in their hands.

Greg Downen, who owns a shop in Fairview Heights, says he had planned on getting a degree in architecture and designing buildings, but he has no regrets after seeing what happened to his younger brother Steve, who did become an architect. "It was about five years after he was back from college," Greg Downen says. "I would go in and visit him. He's got nothing but all these sheets and sheets and sheets of paper. Everything's in black and white -- rules and regulations and books and pamphlets. It was just so black-and-white. I said to him, 'I can't believe all this black-and-white going on. I'd rather paint signs.' Steve looks at me and says, 'Me, too.'"

Kevin Downen, who apprenticed under Blair, teams up with his former mentor each spring at Busch Stadium, where they spend a couple weeks painting logos representing the Cardinals, Major League Baseball and New Era caps on the dugouts. They also paint retired numbers and pennants with World Series championship years on the wall beyond center field. Each year for Opening Day, they paint a different design on the turf behind home plate, something that can't be done in vinyl. Their work appears even where fans can't see it. At the field entrance used by umpires, they paint a baseball diamond with the words "Only The Best Pass Through These Doors."

"Everyone looks forward to spring for some reason," says Kevin Downen. "It's a nice break."

Most of the advertising signs in the stadium are made with computers by the Warren Sign Company, but it's cheaper to paint the other stuff, Kevin Downen and Blair say. Just one of the outfield letters would cost about $25 in vinyl. They can paint the same letter in a half-hour.

Outside the ballpark, Kevin Downen rarely paints by hand. A typical job is painting commemorative basketballs and volleyballs for Saint Louis University. "I guess they put them in a trophy case someplace," he says. "I recently did a gold-leaf transom on Lafayette. A young professional couple wanted their address in gold so the pizza man could find them." And they paid dearly. With gold leaf selling for about $50 per 25-leaf book, a four-number address can cost as much as $500. "You're eating up gold, is what you're doing," Kevin Downen says. "It's not cheap stuff."

Kevin Downen has worked at Hiclay Studios, one of the city's oldest sign shops, since starting his career in 1983. By contrast, Wayland Downen, Kevin and Greg's father, spent eighteen years jumping from one job to another, often working with an older brother, who died in 1998. "We learned what we could at a shop and then moved on," Wayland Downen says. "This way, you got to learn how to letter trucks, gold leaf work, billboards, wall signs, real-estate signs."

After eighteen years as a gypsy, Wayland Downen landed a job with Anheuser-Busch in 1975. With seven kids to support, he chose stability over creativity. "When I took that job, I knew that the type of work I would be doing would be a letdown from what I had been doing, but the benefits were wonderful," he says. "I started out doing general sign work: 'Keep Door Closed.' I painted 'Men' on one door and 'Women' on another. Real imaginative stuff. Being the only sign painter there, I was in demand. The brewery is very concerned about its appearance, especially the parts that the tourists see." Eventually, his bosses figured out he had artistic talent, and he was occasionally given something fun. He once spent a week applying gold leaf to a giant eagle perched on a flagpole nine stories above the ground. He also designed a series of more than a dozen bronze plaques depicting the brewery's history that were hung in corporate hallways. And he was allowed to restore a vintage gold-leaf-on-etched-glass sign that featured an eagle and roses.

"All it said was 'Anheuser-Busch Beer,'" Wayland Downen recalls. "It was quite ornate. It was just sitting there in the shop. I told my boss that I would like to refurbish this thing before I retire." Downen worked on it off-and-on for three years before finishing. It's now hanging in an office suite, and he hasn't seen it since he left the brewery. "I was going to go in and see it, but they were having a meeting in that room and I couldn't go in," he says.

Wayland Downen was the last full-time sign painter at Anheuser-Busch, which purchased a computer and vinyl cutter in the early 1990s. After he retired, his son Greg landed the job to repaint the giant horses that hang outside the brewery facing Interstate 55. Wayland helped.

"I finally got to touch the Clydesdales," he says.

At least one part of St. Louis remains a hotbed of the old school.

Hand-painted signs outnumber vinyl ones on stretches of Page Avenue, Martin Luther King, Natural Bridge Road and other commercial thoroughfares north of Delmar Boulevard. Some are crude, with crooked letters, misspelled words and what-were-they-thinking colors. But others look like they came straight from sign shops of yesteryear.

Inquire at beauty shops, restaurants, garages and car washes with the better signs and the same names keep coming up. Rico. Bambino. Ace. Tony. No one seems to know their last names, their phone numbers or where they live. And don't bother looking in the phone book, because these guys don't advertise.

"We haven't seen him today, but ask around," says an employee at Bapharoh's Unlimited car wash at the intersection of Natural Bridge Road and Fair Street next to Fairgrounds Park. "He's always in the neighborhood."

Sure enough, Bambino is a few blocks away, sipping from a brown-bagged Colt 45 can on the sidewalk outside M&A Liquors. His paint-spattered pants are threadbare and ripped. His socks have holes. His hands shake and his voice is a deep, raspy growl. At 47, he looks like he's seen better days. His T-shirt reads "Officially Retired."

Bambino has been painting signs for half his life. His teacher was Jerome Williams, a minister who also ran a sign shop. "He said 'I'll teach you how the game really go and how to charge for it,'" Bambino recalls. He's never heard of Hewlett, Blair, Christman or any of the Downens. "I met Tettaton before," he says. "I used to buy his books all the time."

While the old-timers fondly remember the days of maulsticks, Bambino wishes he could afford a computer. "The faster you can turn it out, the more money you can make," he notes. Bambino also wishes he had a valid driver's license so he could haul his ladder and expand his territory. The driver's license, he predicts, will come soon enough, but first he needs to come up with $650 for his lawyer to deal with a bullshit DUI bust. "I'm trying to pull it back together," he says. "It's been a struggle."

Bambino may not look professional, but his work does. The Ten Commandments and the portrait of the business owner in King Tut headgear painted on Bapharoh's. The cars, soap and buckets painted on Trendsetters, another car wash about a mile up the street. The silhouette of a lawnmower and "Jennings Lawnmower Repair" painted in cursive on the window of Todd Harris' shop on West Florissant Road.

"He's really a God-gifted person," Harris says. "I refer everybody to him. Everybody's been on him to get a little sign shop. We've been pushing him."

At least one sign maker with a computer and a listing in the phone book is surprised at Bambino's skill. "Bambino, I didn't like his style at all," says Troy Kirby, owner of Troy Signs. "Not consistent. The fonts didn't look right. I didn't like none of the layouts." Like most sign makers, Kirby is always scouting his competitors. "Sign people really study signs," he says. "A new sign comes up, everybody knows about it."

What about Bapharoh's? "I don't know who did that, but I like it," says Kirby, who still paints by hand by special request. He's instantly forced to re-evaluate his opinion of Bambino. "Oh, boy," he exclaims. "Bambino did that? He's better than I thought."

Tony House, another North Side word-of-mouth sign painter, says there's enough work for everybody, especially someone like Bambino. "He's the baddest," House says. "He's cold. Better than me."

While Bambino sees sign making as his career, House regards signs as a way to pay the bills until he hits the big time. He's got a small workshop on Natural Bridge Road where he airbrushes portraits on T-shirts, bedsheets, cars and anything else a customer brings him.

"I don't want to do this shit," House says of his sign work. "I want to go to Clayton. I'm an artist -- I feel like I could be Michelangelo. I could do tattoos -- I know I could. I just don't want to deal with the blood."

The North Side method is distinctly different than the craft practiced by union painters elsewhere in the city. For one thing, it's mostly freehand -- neither Bambino nor House nor Kirby use maulsticks. "I didn't train that way," Kirby recalls. "I broke a window once with a maulstick. When I touched the window that day, it was hot -- it just split across the top and dropped. It was better if I could use just one hand and not touch anything."

Kirby, a retired postal worker who painted signs as a side job, learned the craft in the late 1950s by walking into a neighborhood sign shop and asking for work and pointers. A union apprenticeship was out of the question. "We couldn't get a job in a white sign shop," he recalls. "They wouldn't even talk to us. We couldn't get training. I worked for a sign company one time on Washington -- I was lettering city trucks. But they wouldn't let nobody know I was there. I had to work out in the backyard.

"A lot of sign shops, they'd give us something to do sometimes, but we couldn't be connected to the shop. If someone saw us painting on a union job, they wouldn't even ask if you were union -- they knew we wasn't. They'd go in and tell the manager or something. They'd either shut us down or tear the sign down after we left."

Kirby, who is 70 years old, says he initially resented the advent of computers. "I didn't want the vinyl because I had all this knowledge and time with the paint brush," he says. "But I couldn't save it in the computer like I do now. And I can do more with the computer. I can buy gold leaf already cut."

Still, something is missing. In the old days, promoters would hustle up hand-painted portraits of Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Fats Waller and other famous entertainers when they came to town, but no one does that anymore. And pretty girls on the sidewalk no longer kiss the glass to distract him as he paints window signs from the inside.

"It was fun," he says.

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