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Signs Coming, Signs Going

August 18, 2012

I got started in sign making when one of the art glass boys in our clan was offered a sign job for a private elementary school and he didn’t even have a vague idea how to start a sign. He knew I was taking a class in calligraphy up at West Valley College and, while doing carpentry, I’d scrounge large, unused hunks of wood for some of my simpler sculptures. Letters and carving = signs, right? I was about 23 or so, young and ambitious, I’d try anything once. So I made the sign for the school and learned a lot, by trial and error after error.

While my good friend, Jim Farwell, had opened his famous and highly successful Mountain Charley’s Saloon and Restaurant on the second floor of the Caňada Building in 1972, he was constantly expanding and improving it. He had some wrought iron guys build a huge black iron chandelier to hang above the tables in the Saloon. He had a discreetly naked lady painted, to top the classically built back bar. A grandiose banquet facility was added to the already large restaurant. In the end, Charley’s occupied nearly the entire upper floor of the Caňada Building, with the manager’s office in the famous turret on the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and Main, while the Saloon occupied the second floor of the old Odd Fellow’s Temple adjoining the La Caňada Building.

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La Canada, August 16, 2012

As I came to do more signs, pretty much as my avocation, a side job, I came to specialize in what are called dimensional signs. or signs with depth, like carved or sand blasted or manufactured letters fixed to a “field” of prepared wood or metal or whatever. And, further, as I wasn’t dependent on signs to eat and pay rent, I specialized further by restricting myself to very artsy signs, jobs that were very challenging to my talents and very impressive to my clients and their patrons. I used to think of them as “snobby” signs.

Jim Farwell thought it good to start dressing up his establishment with my snobby signage. And it would help me out, as well. I was most appreciative. The first job I did for him was to do a sign in a medium I was just learning, gold leaf. It was to go in the center window of the turret, facing down on the busiest intersection in town, simply saying Mountain Charles’s in large, western style block seraphed letters. This would be a great show piece for my sign work and I really put a lot of effort into prepping for this job. I took hints from the old timers who had been doing this stuff for a million years. The entire gold leaf process required ultra clean everything: surfaces, tools, hands and the right amount of oil in your hair. There was a highly specialized brush used to work and manipulate the incredibly thin leafs of gold (only about two or three molecules thick, molecules of gold. This is what I had been told.) which had very long and soft bristles. You would lightly stroke this special brush down you hair to pick up a slight bit of your hair’s oil which would give the brush the slightest bit of adhesion to pick up and manipulate the leaf. The one thing everyone said about this procedure was to prepare, re-prepare and the prepare again. The gold leaf was so expensive that it was just way too costly to screw up and waste the gold. Get it right the first time, every time! So, of course, I was just really nervous as I started the job. I prepared three or four times over as I had been told.

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We cleared a desk from under the window and I vigorously cleaned and re-cleaned the glass. I set down and organized my tools on a small table next to the window and proceeded to do the layout with a finely pointed crayon. OK, I couldn’t put it off any longer, it was time to start putting gold on the glass. I just got really intense and made sure there were no air pockets under the gold layers, I cut the gold with my surgeon’s scalpel without breathing, to keep the blade sure and on target. The money counters and bookkeepers in the room got real silent as they watched me build the gold sign on the ancient glass.

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The letters were large and thick. I finished with the gold and then I bordered the new gold lettering with black paint. Because of the winter time weather, the letters were adhered to the interior glass, to be read from the exterior, thus, all the work done from the inside of the office was done in reverse. There were a lot of things to pay attention to. Sign painter’s paint is very thick, thicker than milk but not as thick syrup. I finished the thin border and when it was dry enough so that I was sure it wouldn’t run, I turned to my audience. “Go check it out” I told them, and one of them yelled at Jim in an adjoining office as they left and headed downstairs.

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Through my work I saw the office guys group together down on the sidewalk, and then Jim joined them. They all have their faces turned up to my work and Farwell pointed up and the whole group burst out into hysterical laughter. I looked behind me to see if a clown had showed up. I stepped back and checked out the window. All was well? Jim curled his index finger, bidding me to join them down there. I was at a total loss as to what could be so funny. I joined the group on the sunny sidewalk and looked up. I saw nothing wrong. And I shrugged my shoulders. Jim tells me to read it, something we graphic art implementers don’t always do, we always “look” at our work, but reading it was an entirely separate process. I had the “A” and the “I” flipped around in MOUNTAIN.

Farwell never let me fix it.  Until the ’89 Loma Pireta Quake, it read:

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MOUNTIAN

CHARLEY’S

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The Saloon resided in the upstairs Odd Fellow’s Hall next to the La Caňada Building. It had an old time facade and at it’s top it had a flattened triangular frame enclosing a 19th century “sun ray” sculptural element. Below the sun ray were two empty panels, probably once containing some ornate signage referring to the Odd Fellows, the Odd Fellows seem to always prefer elaborate and ornate decoration on their documents and memorabilia. Jim got the idea in his head to put Mountain Charley’s into the two panels, two stories up in the air. We talked about this project for a while and I came up with a design.

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As I had only been making signs for a relatively short while so each new job brought with it new challenges. The challenges here were perspective and scope. Perspective was an issue because unless you were a block or so away from this intended sign, the only place to view it was from the sidewalk directly below it. Santa Cruz Avenue was wide enough so that this sign would be easily viewed from across the street, but, obviously , if you were on west side of Santa Cruz, you would simply be looking up at the narrow two inch edge. The letters had to be bold and very legible, nothing too fancy.

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The other issue, scope, was a more perplexing aspect. What might look good on a business card or on stationary, can get all out of kilter when enlarged several thousand per cent as with a sign as large as this. On this job, I played around a lot with letter spacing, and, as I was a novice, I came up with a very clunky ornament to tie off the ends of each word, much to my long term regret.

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The preliminary drawings were approved and I started work on this large sign after work. At this time I was employed at a small print shop in Campbell owned not by a printer but a small minded business man who thought some automated, canned “print system” that he bought was going to make him a million dollars by quickly printing business cards. When his ambition far outstripped the automatic machine’s capabilities, a friend of mine suggested he hire me to optimize the machine he had. By the end of the year, he had a regular old print shop like everyone else and he had to hire experienced printers to man the machines. This guy could sell, but he couldn’t print.

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I started the big Mountain Charleys’s sign while working for this salesman/print shop owner. My intention was to complete the sign during my off hours at the print shop, in the evenings and on weekends. I had included some rather elaborate woodworking techniques in this project and the time started dragging on. Every so often, Jim Farwell would stop by to check on the two large, redwood slabs that were to become his sign. After about a month of this sporadic sign building, Jim tells me that some festival or celebration relating to the town’s history was coming up in a few weeks. He said he would appreciate if the sign could be hung before this event. Because I’ve always been a time-keeping freak, I immediately figured there was no way this could be finished n time for this event Jim was talking about, going as I was.

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As I was no longer essential for the operation of the print shop, it being well manned, I gave notice that I was going to take the next week off to finish the sign. There were no protests. In fact, I was so concerned about now having a real deadline, even before the dedicated week occurred, I pulled a few all nighters so that I was pretty much useless at the shop anyway. The last phase of the construction before painting was to route a narrow bead on the inside edge of all the foot high letters. This was a nerve wracking, tedious and very accurate operation with you head right down next to the screeching, whining, menacing router, a powerful and demanding wood cutting monster, even as small as it was. Because of the horrible, high pitched racket the router made, I could only use it during daylight hours. I left the quiet, hand work for the darkness of night.

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Farwell came over one day early in the week of the dedicated sign work. He informed me that Chris Benson had reserved a good sized cherry picker at the rental yard for early Saturday morning. The event sponsors had scheduled a short, little parade down Santa Cruz Avenue for just after lunch time that same day. Now my deadline had a narrow, sharp little point on it.

Over the years I had seen and even helped friends make it through full blown, total burn out project completions. This was my first. It was sandwiches only, coffee and Wild Turkey and no sleep for the last four or five days, it was hard to keep track. Jim was stopping by a couple of times a day now. As no one was ever going to rent another cherry picker anytime soon, to maintain this puppy, so I wanted to get as many coats of paint on it as possible. I always thought of it as encasing the redwood in a sealed envelope of paint, where the air and bugs couldn’t get in. Eventually the sun would bake the paint off, but all these coats of sign painter’s paint would guarantee as long a life as possible, hanging there, thirty feet up on that wall, under the sunburst.

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With the last, little bit of lucidity, I called the print shop and told them I was taking the next week off too. I needed it to recuperate. My stomach was sour and sharp from the coffee and whiskey cocktails, my head was thick as mud for no sleep and my ears hurt from so much screaming router. But it was Friday night before the Saturday morning sign hanging and the sign was almost done. The letters needed a couple more coats of paint. I was surrounded by hair dryers.

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This project had been started and finished in the living room of my small cottage on Loma Alta Avenue. The door jambs had been covered with large sheets of plastic and sealed with duct tape to keep the dust from the rest of the house. The two redwood slabs had been brought in through the door, but the tight fit demanded that they leave the house through a window so as not to be banged around through the twisty front hall. Now they works of art, not beams for a patio floor.

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Jim Farwell came into the room with his first wife, Katherine. I would often baby sit their three boys when the couple went out early and came back early, so I could still go out and carouse after the baby sitting stint. Of course, this weekend, I was buried in sawdust and wood shavings and paint. I must have smelled like the bad side of a gym, and I couldn’t smile as they came in. They were going to a cocktail party (they never barhopped) and they were appropriately dressed, quite out of place in my workshop/living room.

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Katherine hadn’t seen the sign yet and she made the words that she was very impressed. She had a big smile that she turned to Jim and then me. She pulled up her fancy shawl and went to touch the shimmering gold paint. “Don’t,” I told her, “it’s wet.” She scrunched up her face and frowned at me and touched it anyway. “Cat” (I’ve called Katherine Cat since we were in middle school together) can be at least as contrary as I can, and around me, she likes to show it off. I shut off the last whirring hair dryer so we could talk. Jim had one of the brightly colored dryers in his hand and was looking down its barrel,
“What’s with all these?” he asked looking round to all of the dryers positioned around the slabs.
“Paint drying,” is all I needed to say. They both rolled their eyes.
“Chris is going to have the cherry picker delivered to the parking lot (behind Charley’s) as early as possible, could be as early as 7:00. He’ll come by around then and load these guys on his flat bed around then and we will meet up in front of the Saloon. We should have at least four hours to do your thing.”
“We shouldn’t need that much time,” I answered, pointing to the large lag bolts and washers I had already purchased for the mounting of the slabs.” Days ago, Chris and I shared ideas about the mounting.
Katherine puts her arm around me and tells me to get some sleep.
“You look like hell.” she confides in me.
“Yeah, well, these things need two more coats of paint. I’ll probably be working till Chris comes by.”
Katherine stood up abruptly and said “These look great just the way they are. They don’t need any more paint. Go to bed and get some sleep.” As always, she was acting like my big, protective sister, even though she was a year younger than me. Cat was into what looked good and I was into being professional, what was going to be best for the client, longevity.

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As usual, Jim diverted the conversation, “You know, Ed . . . ,” he starts, and then he says the absolutely wrong thing to say at this particular time in this particular place, “it’s not really that important that we have the sign for the parade, I just thought it would be cool, you know, a bunch of local people going by and have the new sign to show off.”
Immediately, like the Wizard, pulling knobs and pressing buttons behind the big mechanical face, located in the Emerald City in the land of OZ, my hand, all by itself, reaches under the thick layer of sawdust covering everything in the room and finds an ax. The arm raises the ax high into the air. Now the Wizard pulls the cord to make a high pitched, yelling voice. The voice says “if you don’t promise to hang this sign, tomorrow at dawn, this ax will make all this work into big pile of redwood toothpicks, . . . , and I’m NOT kidding!” I look around and to my astonishment, this arm and this voice were only connected to me. Where is that damn little wizard who is pulling the strings? He’s making me look crazy as a loon.
Cat is looking at me in astonishment, her eyes so wide they would have fallen out of her head had she looked down. Jim slid the ax handle out of my hand and said quietly and calmly,
“Yep, we will hang the sign tomorrow. Do the two more coats. But, please try to get a little rest. See you in the morning.”

They left, Cat shaking her head, and as they walked away I could hear Jim telling her how I took a week off work to finish the sign on time, so on and so forth. I sat in the sawdust wondering where that malicious little wizard had come from and where did he go. I was at a loss for an answer and I was at a loss for what to do. Now, automatically, I turned on the blow dryers and proceeded to add two more coats of sign painter’s paint. Chris came by in the morning, all the paint was dry, we loaded the signs on the bed, drove across town and met Jim in the parking lot.

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Chris maneuvered the strangely mobile cherry picker around the corner and in front of the Odd Fellow’s Temple. I found that I couldn’t look up. When I did, I swooned and my knees gave way from the effects of extreme vertigo. I had the “spins” so bad, I had to get across the street and lace myself into a tree to keep from passing out.
The sign got mounted, Mountain Charley’s enjoyed even greater success and I went on to bigger and better things.

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Within ten years, Jim sold Mountain Charley’s. The sign disappeared from the exterior wall, under the sunburst, and I sometimes wondered what might have become of it. The old place went through good times and it went through some bad times. But I never ever went back there. I didn’t want to tarnish the really great memories I had of it.

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But, last November (2011), Jim’s son, Joe Farwell, signed the lease so that the family was once again in charge of the Saloon. As soon as I heard about this new state of affairs, I did return to the place and congratulated Joe. We entered the Saloon and it was dark and dingy and rundown. It was hard to absorb it all. We looked from wall to wall and tried to see it with eyes that had seen the place in its glory days. But as we turned to the back wall, my eyes adjusted a new way, in astonishment. Above a newer, second bar, hung the two slabs. All I could do was laugh. Joe told me they had been there for a very long time on that back wall. As Joe refurbished and restored the entire place, for awhile, the two slabs sat on the floor, the carpenters and electricians working around them and stepping gingerly past them. Then the slabs disappeared again, but this time into Joe’s garage.

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Whether the old sign is to be demolished or restored, I realize now that these two old pieces of potential patio floor may not have spent fifty years on a high outside wall, as we all expected, but they saw a lot more of lively human culture than any of us could have ever imagined.

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