A Time of the Signs

By Randy Noles


In an unmarked warehouse, the Morse Museum is quietly restoring what it has salvaged from the region’s grand and gaudy commercial past.

Dr. Laurence Ruggiero is illuminated by the fully restored Orange Court Motor Lodge sign, perhaps the crown jewel of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art’s hidden collection.
Dr. Laurence Ruggiero is illuminated by the fully restored Orange Court Motor Lodge sign, perhaps the crown jewel of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art’s hidden collection.

The interior of this nondescript, unmarked warehouse is so cool, clean and quiet, you might assume that it’s a secret laboratory in which rogue scientific experiments are conducted. That impression is reinforced when you’re instructed, more than once, not to be reveal the precise location in your story.

When you arrive, you’re to check in with a uniformed security guard, who sits at a small desk just beyond the coded entry door. It all seems like very serious business indeed.

Then, with the flip of a switch, you’re awash in neon and nostalgia. The vast dimness of the multilevel space has been illuminated by grand and garish signs, some of which are suspended from the rafters, and many of which you remember as glowing icons of Central Florida’s commercial landscape, especially after sunset.

“Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs,” sang the Five Man Electrical Band in 1971. But they didn’t know the half of it.

There’s the sign for Club Juana, its brash brushstroke letters resplendent in glorious red and yellow, and Circus Circus, with contours shaped like a double-spired big-top tent bedecked by flags. Both establishments, as if you didn’t know, were legendary Casselberry gentlemen’s clubs, where buck-naked dancers pole-danced for patrons and riled regulators.

At Club Juana, strippers famously staged Macbeth in the Buff, an ultimately successful effort to thwart yet another anti-nudity ordinance by presenting what the owners purported to be a legitimate theatrical performance.

What the politicians couldn’t accomplish, the Florida Department of Transportation did, buying the Club Juana and Circus Circus properties in 1996 to make room for an overpass at U.S. Highway 192 and State Road 436.

And there’s the sign for Ronnie’s, its elegant blue cursive signature causing you, not unlike Pavlov’s dog, to involuntarily salivate at the recollection of fresh deli sandwiches, tubs of pickles, hot rolls (for which pats of butter were rigidly rationed) and oversized desserts, such as an extreme ice-cream sundae called the Mongombo Extravaganza. The studied rudeness of Ronnie’s servers, fans said, only added to the experience. The restaurant closed, typically without apology or explanation, in 1995.

And there’s the sign for Gary’s Duck Inn, a zig-zaggy 1960s’ relic from the iconic Orange Blossom Trail eatery that was the conceptual godfather of the nation’s largest seafood-based casual-dining chain. In 1963, original owner Gary Starling sold the business to a group of investors that included Bill Darden, a Georgia-born restaurateur who figured a similar, no-frills seafood concept could catch on nationwide. Darden figured correctly, and departed to start Red Lobster in 1968. Gary’s, however, soldiered on until 1994, when competition and Orange Blossom Trail’s encroaching seediness spelled its doom.

The most visually striking sign, from the long-demolished Orlando Court Motor Lodge, dates from the 1920s and boasts huge white neon letters against a background of red, highlighted by 115 twinkling incandescent bulbs. Less flashy is the recently acquired Best Western sign from the soon-to-be-demolished Mount Vernon Inn, which opened in 1949 and was for decades Winter Park’s only mid-range hotel. With it came a small sign that marked the inn’s retro Red Fox Lounge, a neighborhood hangout for generations that gained hipster panache in recent years.

But there are also dozens of far more modest emblems, many of them hand-painted on wood or metal, which once heralded the locations of an array of Winter Park businesses. There’s La Belle Verrier, The Golden Cricket, Cobweb Antiques, Cottrell’s, Leedy’s, Francis Slater, the Winter Park Land Company and even the Morse Museum, from its early pre-Park Avenue days.

Yes, this warehouse is one surreal place. But it’s an aspect of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art — best-known for its world-class collection of Tiffany glass — that was near and dear to the heart of founding director Hugh McKean, who wasn’t pretentious when determining what was art, and what wasn’t.

Some unusually large, complex or significant signs are disassembled and carefully stacked in pieces, awaiting restoration or reassembly. Supervision of the operation is the purview of Tom Mobley, for 30 years the museum’s building manager. Mobley works primarily with Gary Yoder, owner of Jayco Signs in Maitland, on salvaging and refurbishing the curious artifacts, many of which were designed by the late Bob Galler of Graphic Systems in Orlando.

“We’re just old-timers,” says Yoder, who founded Jayco with his father in 1972. “Most people in the sign business these days want to be in the graphics department, sitting behind a computer all day. Nobody wants to get out and do the actual work of restoring old signs. So I have a combination of people who’ve been doing it for years, and young people who want to learn the craft.”

Unquestionably, “craft” is not an overstatement.

To create a neon sign, glass tubing is heated under flame until it’s malleable. Artisans use their hands to feel the heat and the degree of softening in the glass, waiting for just the right moment to shape the tubing into graphics or lettering. With the glass still soft, the “glass bender” then gently blows into the tubing to return it to its original diameter before filling it with gas.

Metal electrodes at each end of the tube excite the gas molecules, iodizing them and creating a color. Different gasses give off different colors; neon produces bright orange, while hydrogen produces red, helium produces yellow, carbon dioxide produces white and mercury produces blue.

A particularly skilled neon sign maker can synch the electrode zaps and make the alternating colors simulate movement — a bucking horse, a flying arrow, a twirling pizza. Many Winter Parkers will remember the over-the-top Roper’s sign on Orange Avenue, where a neon cook appeared to grill and flip burger patties. That sign, unfortunately, was demolished when the business closed in 1967.

From a censorious deli to a notorious strip club to an old-school hardware store to a rowdy grunge bar, the signs preserved by the Morse represent an array of Orlando-area businesses.
From a censorious deli to a notorious strip club to an old-school hardware store to a rowdy grunge bar, the signs preserved by the Morse represent an array of Orlando-area businesses.

Having some clue about how these signs were made makes them even more impressive. Just look, for example, at elements of the red, white and yellow McNamara Pontiac sign, with its art-deco design and familiar Indian-head silhouette. Motorists on West Colonial Drive cruised by it from 1963 until its removal, long after the dealership closed, in 2013.

The sign is made entirely of porcelain — yes, porcelain — a distinction likely lost on commuters but a problem for Yoder, who is an expert but not a miracle worker. “I don’t know if we can ever bring that one all the way back,” he says. “I don’t know of anyone who works with porcelain anymore.”

Here and there are rusty components of the recently acquired Merita bread sign, which loomed over I-4 near Kaley Avenue since the early 1960s. The bakery closed in 2012, and the museum salvaged the massive glass-and-steel structure last year. For many locals, the Merita sign (and the unmistakable aroma of baking bread when driving past it) marked the physical and emotional gateway to the city.

The old neon sign from Miller’s Hardware is fully restored, although the company is still in operation and busier than ever, albeit with a more modern sign. So is the sign for the Fairbanks Inn, known locally as the FBI, which first opened in 1946. By the time it closed in 2000, the rowdy hole in the wall was known for hosting noisy jam sessions and touring grunge and metal bands. The napkins on the bar read: ‘’No hassles, high prices, or cover. Just lots of pool and pinball.’’

And there’s the sign for Harper’s Tavern, a more upscale, wood-paneled watering hole where patrons enjoyed strong cocktails and listened to live entertainment while waiting to dine in the attached Le Cordon Bleu restaurant. Harper’s, located in the refurbished building now occupied by Cask & Larder, was one of the oldest continually operating bars in Florida until fire gutted the building in 1996.

McKean, who died in 1995, started snaring signs from mostly defunct Central Florida businesses in the 1970s, mainly to prevent them from being destroyed. “We’re now in the final phase of continuing Mr. McKean’s collection,” says the museum’s current director, Dr. Laurence Ruggiero, who McKean hired.

After the acquisition of the Merita sign in 2014, Ruggiero points out, there simply aren’t that many vintage signs — especially those crafted from neon — left to save. They’ve mostly been replaced with generic and charmless stamped-plastic light boxes. There are a few — the Western Way Shopping Center on West Highway 50 and Olde Dixie Fried Chicken on South Orange Avenue in Pine Castle come to mind — that would warrant saving, but they were still in service at press time.

“Hugh felt that these signs were important parts of local history,” says Ruggiero, who recalls accompanying McKean to a Maitland vegetable market called Little Big Horn to buy produce. “Next thing I knew, we had the sign.” Indeed, the modest, hand-painted work of decorative art, with its rustic letters and horn of plenty logo, hangs in the warehouse, which now spans 27,000 square feet after a 2005 addition.

Generations of Winter Parkers enjoyed cocktails and conversation at Harper’s Tavern. It was one of the oldest continuously operating drinking establishments in Florida when the building burned in 1996.
Generations of Winter Parkers enjoyed cocktails and conversation at Harper’s Tavern. It was one of the oldest continuously operating drinking establishments in Florida when the building burned in 1996.

Decorative art? Sure, why not? McKean enjoyed recounting for interviewers how much of the museum’s now-priceless Tiffany collection was scatted about the artist’s ruined Laurenton Hall, N.Y., estate, free for the taking. Only he and his wife, Jeanette Genius McKean, seemed to recognize its value. So, if McKean chose to believe that old signs are legitimate forms of decorative art, who would have had the standing to argue with him?

“It’s all design,” agrees Jennifer Perry Thalheimer, the museum’s curator and collections manager. Thalheimer holds a master’s degree in the history of decorative arts and design from the Parsons School for Design and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. You can’t help but wonder how many of those who earned such degrees were able to find jobs doing exactly what they were trained to do, as Thalheimer did.

“The decorative arts were once snubbed,” she continues. “Dr. McKean felt strongly that we should not create hierarchies of art. So we approach these signs as we would any works of art, fixing them while learning their history. Plus, people identify with these signs. They’re part of the landscape. And making them — fixing them — is a craft that’s dying.”

Ruggiero agrees. He points out that every sign in the warehouse was a gift, although, in the case of the larger ones, such as the 17,000-pound Merita sign, the museum had to pay for them to be moved. “We don’t get them when they’re in great shape,” he adds. “We get them when they’re about to be destroyed.”

Galler, in fact, began receiving long-overdue public attention when his signs began disappearing in the early 2000s. Newspaper reporters sought him out and interviewed him about his work. “It makes you feel good that so much of your stuff is still out there,” he told Orlando Magazine in 2009. “But it makes you sad when you see it come down.”

Alright, even if it is all art of a sort, why so much trouble and expense for the restoration of signs, particularly signs touting some pretty unsa­vory businesses? For one reason, the Morse has the money to do whatever it wishes. And what it wishes to do is carry forward the legacy and the aesthetic of Hugh and Jeanette McKean.

“We do what we think an American museum ought to do,” said McKean to a reporter in 1990. “When we collected our Tiffany, they didn’t accept it either. We think [the sign collection] is lively. It isn’t self-conscious. It comes right out of society, right out of our people.”

Also, the museum hopes to someday display the signs. However, Ruggiero is quick to point out that there are no firm plans to do so in the near future. For now, museum officials are keeping their eyes open to make certain that the few remaining vintage signs still in use make it to the warehouse, not the landfill, when and if the owners decide to replace them. Currently, however, no one but invited guests are allowed inside.

“It may seem odd that the Morse, which is known internationally for its unique collection of works by Tiffany, should also have a group of brash and brassy neon signs,” admits Ruggiero. “But Hugh was interested in everything, and greatly loved everything that was a part of the history of his community. So here they are, much to the delight of everyone.”

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