Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

House of Television and Other Signs of the Times, Part 1

First there was an orange neon H. Then there was an O. Then came the T. What’s that spell? HOT HOT.

Then, hypnotically, it would begin again: H, then O, then T. Then all together: HOT. HOT.

Were there two completely spelled HOTs? There might have been three before the individual letter sequence began again. I can’t believe I don’t remember. Then again, it’s been quite a while since the glowing the House of Television sign pulsated in Sixteen Acres Center, giving life to the tired old intersection of Wilbraham Road and Parker Street. Yes, it put a little city glitter into the burbs. And then it was unceremoniously snuffed out.

The sign advertised the House of Television from its roof in four different directions—north, south, east, and west, from 1965 to 1995. When you drove into The Acres, you couldn’t help but notice HOT. It announced, “Yo! You are in The Center, man!”

And then, all of a sudden, there was darkness atop the building. The neon tubes finally came down. Boy, do I miss the HOT sign. When I came back from college during breaks, this beacon of orange reminded me that I was home. It was a Sixteen Acres landmark. And then it vanished. Poof.

Yes, Kenmore Square in Boston has its Citgo sign, and the Acres had its HOT sign. One survived; one didn’t.

Both signs were built the same year in true 1960s flashiness, when the economy was booming and neon garishness was in. They were psychedelic before psychedelia was the rage. Then, as the years went by, some considered such displays of light to be a bit too showy. John Silber, the longtime president of Boston University, thought the Citgo sign cheapened the look of the area, and he wanted it to come down. But others founded it classic example of neon art. 1968, a short film of the sign “Go, Go CITGO,” with music from the Monkees and sitarist Ravi Shankar, captured honors at the Yale Film Festival.

In 1979, however, Governor Ed King convinced the Citgo company to pull the plug on the sign as a symbol of energy conservation, and it stayed off for four years. Citgo was ready to take the whole thing down, but people stopped its demolition when the work crew arrived. Citgo sign lovers asked the Boston Landmarks Commission to declare it a landmark, and then the company finally reached an agreement with the Commission, announcing that it would refurbish the sign and illuminate it for another three years. Thankfully, it has been flashing above Kenmore Square ever since. On TV, you can’t watch a homer sailing over the Green Monster without seeing the Citgo sign. It was refurbished again in 2005, with its fragile neon tubes replaced with a more resilient LED display.

The same hue and cry didn’t take place for the preservation of HOT sign in 1995. After all, this is Springfield, not Boston. Still, it was a true treasure. If there were any advocates for the HOT sign’s continued existence in the 1990s, they certainly didn’t make themselves known (enough) to Milton Rosenberg, the owner of Bernie’s House of Television. Would he have listened to them? Who knows? It’s doubtful. Neon signs are expensive to maintain. They take a dreadful beating in the winter. We all know that these neon monstrosities are the dinosaurs of the advertising age. But so what? Endangered species are worth saving. There were 12 letters in the HOT sign (four separate HOTs), and not a single one of them was preserved. At least one HOT should be in the new Museum of Springfield History in the Quadrangle. At the very least, one fucking letter should have been spared from the scrap heap.

I loved the HOT sign like an old friend, but I had no idea of its demise for quite a while, because I lived in the Boston area from 1986 to 2007. You know, to tell the truth, I can’t even remember when I noticed it was really gone—when I saw darkness instead of light in the nighttime sky. But I can say that its absence leaves a black hole in the heart of Sixteen Acres to this day. Think I’m exaggerating? Ask around. It does.

So, here is the short story of the birth and the death of the HOT sign and the structure beneath it. When Moses Feldstein opened the House of Television in 1965 in the old Carlisle's store, the store boasted "one of the largest color TV displays in the East." Fast forward to 1990, when he sold the business (but not the building) to Bernie’s. The store's new owner, Milton Rosenberg, immediately announced that he was making a few changes, such as dismantling HOT’s large videotape rental operation.

What he didn’t say was that he was secretly planning to dismantle the HOT sign as well. He was determined to get his Bernie’s sign atop the building, and he finally did.

In 1995 Rosenberg tore the HOT sign down and discarded it without Feldstein’s permission. Feldstein died later that year, and Rosenberg eventually moved Bernie’s to Boston Road in 2004. Feldstein’s son, Adam, soon sold the building to the owners of the adjacent gas station, who demolished the structure and leased the property to a bank.

Adam Feldstein explains that he could have purchased the two-thirds of the building—the portion he and his sister didn’t own—from their mother’s estate, and he was offered a bank lease deal as a potential option, but he chose not to pursue it. “At the time my wife and I were splitting our time between Florida & St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands,” he told me. “I figured it was better to pass, as an absentee owner is very difficult.”

Even if the younger Feldstein had decided to save the building, the structure’s best feature, the HOT sign, as the Led Zeppelin song says, was ten years gone.

So, below is another relic from House of Television, besides the photo, that was saved by Adam Feldstein: a curious cartoon that seems to be ripping on a German-American factory worker named John (click to enlarge). In the words of Pee Wee Herman, “What’s the significance? I DON’T KNOW!”

Anyway, this blog entry isn’t entirely about the House of Television sign. I also want to give a nod to all the long lost signs and and unique landmarks BEYOND Sixteen Acres. Such as:

Russell’s, with its familiar Boston Road sign featuring the friendly chef and his chef’s hat, finally closed its doors in April 2005 after more than 50 years in business. Oh man, I can still taste the Royal Burger and the restaurant's famous fried egg sandwich, known as “The Russell’s Special.”

I always viewed Russell’s as a cherished relic of the past. It was like walking into Arnold’s Drive-in of Happy Days fame—similar to Treats, a soda fountain shop/restaurant we frequented in what is now called the Breckwood Shoppes just down the road. Indeed, Russell’s was Pine Point’s Arnold’s, opening in 1952 as a car-hop, with waitresses serving customers who called in their orders from radios in each parking spot.

I guess Russell’s was a pig-out place we just took for granted, until one day, like the HOT sign, it just disappeared. Actually, the last leg of its decline really began in 2003, when it began closing at 3:30 p.m. I mean, how much longer could the place stay open when it was closed for dinner?

The corny portraits of Ray Russell and his wife Mary Lee hung in the dining room, adding to the kitschy-ness of the place. As a kid, I marveled at the fact that they didn’t bother to wash off—or paint over—the restroom graffiti. Those pen and magic marker musings gave me my first glimpses of bathroom wall profanity. It was always an adventure to see what would be penned above the toilet or on the stall above the toilet paper roll.

The restaurant (known as Mallory's ice cream prior to Ray's 1952 purchase of the business) started becoming a bit of a dive by the '70s. We should have known back then that the writing was on the wall, so to speak, for its ultimate demise.

Check out that "R" in Russell's ad (below), as funky as the curve on the bottom of a pair of bell-bottom jeans, as groovy as the boot in the "Keep on Truckin'" poster by Robert Crumb, as laid back as the shoe on the back of the Grateful Dead's Europe '72.

When did the Russell's sign came actually come down? More importantly, where is it now? I want it! I wonder if my neighbors would mind if I put it in my front yard. I'll even settle for the parking sign!

Anyway, Russell’s boarded-up building (below) remained for a while after it closed. In late March I head rumors that it was finally demolished. And sure enough, when I checked it out, there was no trace of Russell’s.

In its sixties heyday, the restaurant was a teenage hangout, with greasers cruising in their jalopies back and forth between Russell’s and Abdow’s Big Boy further down Boston Road.

The Big Boy was famous, of course, for its fiberglas statue of the Big Boy holding up, well, the Big Boy, America’s first double-decker hamburger. Like Russell’s, Big Boy started as a drive-in, and then turned into a sit-down restaurant in 1972. No, the above photo isn't the Big Boy on either Boston Road or Cooley Street. I couldn't find photos of either, but you get the picture.

In 1994, Abdow’s dropped the Big Boy name because George and Ronald Abdow wanted to change its image from a fast food joint to a full-service restaurant. But it turned out that the cash infusion needed to remodel the buildings made the aging brothers hesitant to soldier on in the competitive family restaurant business. The following year, George, 65, and Ronald, 63, sold their 16 Abdow’s restaurants to the Bickford’s Family Restaurants chain, 36 years after they opened their first Abdow’s on Riverdale Street in West Springfield.

The advertisement below was in a 1976 program for the now-defunct Riverside Park Speedway. Evidently, this was before there was an Abdow’s on Cooley Street in Springfield.

We had always dreamed of stealing the Big Boy statue on Cooley Street, but the planning never got beyond the drunken “someday we should…” conversations. Another bunch of guys I know at Cathedral High School, however, did pull off the dastardly deed. Nonetheless, they didn’t account for the sheer size of the thing—the arm and hamburger portion stuck WAY out of the trunk, announcing their caper to the world, and they were soon pulled over.

“Big Boy affirmative,” said the cop into the radio receiver, announcing to fellow officers that the search for the kidnappers was over. I can’t recall whether they were arrested—or simply forced to take their wrenches out of the car and reinstall the statue. In fact, the only part of the story I really remember is “Big Boy affirmative.”

Now here’s one REALLY big boy who’s just too large to steal—although he did go missing from his home at Mutual Ford on Bay Street in 1998, prompting everyone from Pine Point and Sixteen Acres to wonder where the hell he went. Read about his reappearance, as well as other signs of the times and bizarre roadside landmarks, in my next post.

Until then, see ya. (Wave to big whitey!)