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

Thursday, May 13, 2010

House of Television and Other Signs of the Times, Part 2

When we last left off, the Mutual Ford man had gone AWOL in 1998, suddenly disappearing after waving to drivers on Bay Street in Springfield for almost 30 years. Did the 30-foot-tall giant grow tired of seeing the decline of the Pine Point neighborhood and decide to high-tail it out of there?

Not exactly. Here is the story of the Mutual Ford man. Actually, Mutual Ford was the giant’s second home. The car dealership’s owner, Mario Cantalini, bought the statue for $2,000 in 1970 from a restaurant in Framingham, where the big fella wore a chef’s hat and held a pizza high above traffic on his upraised flat hand.

Cantalini proceeded to have him painted to “resemble” Uncle Sam (I never saw much of a resemblance) in the hope of persuading people to buy American cars at his dealership. Cantalini also performed surgery on him, amputating what had to be the world’s largest pizza from his hand, and then amending the giant’s fingers into a wave. Curiously, for many years the man’s hat was painted black instead of red, white, and blue. With his heavy eyebrows, he looked more like a young Abraham Lincoln in his black stovepipe hat than Uncle Sam.

In the years prior to his disappearance, the Mutual Ford man’s hat was painted red, white, and blue. If the goal of the makeover was to make him look like Uncles Sam, where was the white hair and white beard? Also, I hate to be nit-picky, but didn’t Uncle Sam have a red BOW tie?

When the Mutual Ford man vanished, concerned citizens called the dealership and asked where the hell he went. Even Springfield’s Union-News newspaper inquired, and Cantalini’s daughter, Maria, told the reporter that “the man,” as she and her father called him, was “in for repairs,” but there were plans for him to rise again somewhere in the area. Mutual Ford, you see, had been sold to Balise, and the dealership no longer sold exclusively American cars, so Uncle Sam was deemed irrelevant. Uncle Sam was fucking fired!

Well, he wasn’t exactly canned. He was transferred—to the Plantation Inn in Chicopee. And, as you can see, he was painted white and is now known as the “Kentucky Colonel” to the Cantalinis, who also own the hotel. They resurrected him a year later to greet motorists who take the 291 exit off the Mass Pike.

Is the Colonel gesturing hi—or halt? Indeed, he might be saying, “Hold on all you schmucks who thought this is the 91 exit. This is 291. Quit texting while you’re driving, turn around, and pay attention to the signs, ass-wipe.”

And what is this “plantation” bullshit anyway? Is this dump being billed as the Tara of Massachusetts? Well, it seems that Mario Cantalini, who once owned five hotels in Louisiana, modeled he Plantation Inn after the many bed-and-breakfasts that were created from plantation properties after the Civil War. The South rose again—in Chicopee.

So, in one short year the Mutual Ford man went from a young Abraham Lincoln (or Uncle Sam, depending on how you looked at him) to a Southern slave-owning plantation owner. Quite a career change. Let’s just call him Uncle Klan.

Come to think of it, from this angle, the way the sun is hitting the guy, it looks like he has a little mustache under his nose. It must be an optical illusion. Let's zoom in on photo and see what this is all about.

My God! Say it isn't so! I thought that the Mutual Ford man might had developed some racial biases in his new career, but who would have known to what extent? He isn't exactly waving "hi," is he?

And just think, when he started his career, just like the man on the Russell’s restaurant sign, he seemed like just a regular guy who wore a chef’s hat. Here’s another guy who wore a chef’s hat on a sign in Pine Point.

No, this isn’t THE former Burger Chef on Boston Road and near the intersection of Stuart Street. I couldn’t find any pictures of the place, and the present building looks nothing like it did in its original state. But the shell of the sign is still there, now advertising—ugh!—a pawn shop.

Below is a photo of a mostly obscured Burger Chef sign I found on the ’Net on some truck aficionado’s site. It’s a 1973 shot of a Binswanger truck in front of the sign on Riverdale Street in West Springfield (or as we locals say, Riverdale ROAD on the West SIDE). (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)

Check out the Gas Land sign behind it. Remember Gas Land? (Not to be confused with Gas Town.) There was also a Gas Land station at the corner of Wilbraham Road and Breckwood Boulevard, where Sunoco sits now. And behind the Gas Land sign you can see the red and white checkered pants of a certain person holding up a burger: the Abdow’s Big Boy, whose rise and fall is detailed in Part 1.

The story of Burger Chef is an interesting lesson on how to run a successful restaurant chain—into the ground. It was founded in 1954 in Indianapolis and at one time rivaled McDonald’s, coming within 100 restaurants of catching the fast-food giant. In its heyday Burger Chef had more than 1,200 locations.

Thanks to an almost unhealthy fascination of the restaurant from a small but dedicated cult of Burger Chef worshippers, we can read about the whole saga of the chain on various blogs: how it pioneered the use of the flame broiler and the salad bar, how it introduced its “Funmeal” years before McDonald’s Happy Meal (Burger Chef sued McDonald’s and lost). General Foods bought the chain in 1968 and continued its rapid expansion. Perhaps it had grown too quickly at that point. After all, it lacked the massive marketing machine of McDonald’s, and competition was ruthless. In the 1970s, McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Burger King battled for the hearts and stomachs of families on Boston Road—and across the nation—and the Chef got the Shemp.

If you talk about Burger Chef to a youngster, you'll get a quizzical look—it's as if you had told him you remember when Schlitz and Schaeffer once rivaled Budweiser as the country's top-selling beer (which they did).

In 1982, General Foods sold Burger Chef to Canada’s Imasco, which also owned Hardees and converted many Burger Chefs to Hardees. If my memory serves me correctly, the one on Boston Road assumed the Hardees moniker for a while. Wasn’t it an Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips after that? Who the fuck knows? Fill me in with a comment at the end of this entry, because for the life of me I can’t put together a history of the building, even though I drove by there all the time.

I can’t remember what year the Burger Chef stopped beckoning Boston Road traffic with his spatula, but I do recall buying the “Batburger” with Batman’s “bat shadow” printed on the wrapper. However, the rest of the gimmicks have almost faded from my memory, including the chain’s attempt to counteract the “McDonaldland” characters with its own lame cast: Burger Chef and his sidekick Jeff (pictured below), along with the magician Burgerini, the vampire Count Fangburger, the talking ape Burgerilla, and Cackleburger the witch.

It's sort of like describing an alternate reality—a fast food bizarro world—but this shit actually existed. I swear.

When did the world’s last Burger Chef finally hang up its hat? A Burger Chef in Cookesville, Tennessee, with the help of the courts, kept its original name as late as 1996.

Burger Chef, with its sign sticking out like a Cadillac fin toward Boston Road: long gone but not forgotten, like some of the other signs and businesses on this street. Now let’s take a cruise down the Boston Road of yesteryear in Wilbraham, shall we?

Ah, the slasher films of the ’80s: click on the photo and feast your eyes on the mayhem on the marquee of the Parkway Drive-In, which was open from 1948 to 1987. Amazingly, 26 years later, a remake of Nightmare on Elm Street is out. But it won’t be playing at the Parkway. Now it’s a Home Depot.

Belli’s, down the road, was a Wilbraham hot spot in the ’40s and ’50s—word has it that the nightclub’s floor show included a stripper. By the ’60s the place was pretty much defunct, but a couple of restaurants gave it a try after that, including a Ground Round. When was the last time the place opened its doors? Beats me. Looks like it’s been a while. Make an offer.

It’s a pity no one seems to want to take a chance on this curious castle-like building. I’ve been in Wilbraham for three years, and each Wilbraham winter is taking its toll on the structure. How much longer will it be vacant before someone buys the property and tears the building down? Look at that cool stonework—my phone camera doesn’t do it justice, dammit.. Check it out yourself. And then make an offer. Just don’t tear it down!

The Boston Road of yesteryear tour continues with Stateline Potato Chips, which was at the present site of Krazy Jakes restaurant (or was it at that self storage unit?) I can’t remember. When was Stateline demolished? The photo seems to document the sign’s last hurrah before it was taken down, but it has no date. The company literally started on the Massachusetts-Connecticut state line—in Enfield, before moving to Wilbraham. I worked at the one on Boston Road right after I graduated from college as an office temp. Some of my job entailed digging up old invoices, so once in a while I had to walk through the factory portion of the building to get into the storage room in order to drag boxes full of documents back to the office. And yes, when I had to do this Stygian task, I smelled like potato chips—for the entire day. Below is a photo (year unknown) of pieces of the building, piled like chips in a bowl.

Further east on Boston Road was the Lakeside restaurant. I have fond memories of my father taking my brother and me to the Lakeside’s small beach, where we swam in Nine Mile Pond. The establishment’s unique sign featured a black cauldron (below). Yes that's a Schlitz sign above the cauldron.

The Lakeside, with its porch and lawn, is used to quite the popular destination, as evidenced by the photos below. When I moved back to the area three years ago, a crappy Mexican restaurant tried and failed in the Lakeside building, but a new place, Abruzzo, with Italian cuisine, seems to be doing pretty well there.

It’s getting dark. Let’s head back west on Boston Road, take a left on Parker Street, and head back to the Acres. What’s this? Do my eyes deceive me as we approach Wilbraham Road? My God, did they actually resurrect the House of Television Sign?

No, that’s wishful thinking. Since I couldn’t find an old photo of the HOT sign lit up at night, I simply found one of the Hotel Empire’s sign in New York City and cropped it.

Sorry, that was kind of a dirty trick on my part. The sign doesn’t look anything like the real McCoy, does it? Oh well, I tried. Unfortunately, we’ll have to settle for the black and white daytime picture—and our memories of how it lit up the night sky in The Center of Sixteen Acres.

A quick look to the right: whoa! What the hell is happening to the old Christian Bookstore building? Stay tuned for House of Television and Other Signs of the Times, Part 3.