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Signs - A Commentary

By Spencer Michlin, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – I saw it just the other day. A sign on a converted old house on West Lover's Lane promising that one could find Medicine and Martial Arts within. Could anyone see that sign and not be curious? Signs are an important part of city life. They're good for business and sometimes for a laugh during their lifetimes, and they engender nostalgia and even legend when they're gone.

I wish I knew more about the Idle Rich Bar, whose painted sign still adorns the cool, small, Moorish-looking building near the corner of Canton and Harwood. Even as a kid far too young to enter, I was beckoned by its neon top hat and white gloves. Even as a kid, I understood the irony in that name. The bar and neon are long gone, but tantalizing memory endures. Check it out next time you go to the Farmer's Market.

There was the florist on Oak Lawn whose sign misspelled, by accident or design, the word "occasions." Ironically (or iconically), this was very close to the site of the old Phil's Delicatessen which sported the words "Phil's 'That's All'" in neon. Legend had it that owner Phil Miller, for whom English was something of a contact sport, answered the question of the sign company representative in that manner. "Phil's, That's All?" "Yeah, Phil's, dot's all." "That's All, you're sure?" "Dot's all. Phil's, dot's all!" Abbott and Costello used to live in Dallas.

A couple of months back, I enjoyed a newspaper feature on how the Big Red Museum at the old courthouse had saved a huge and wonderful Pegasus from a Mobil station in Casa Linda. A good start, though too little and way too late for some iconic Dallas icons. Gone are the incredible rocket ship that stood in front of a Lemmon Avenue car wash, Brownie's neon elf from the eponymous restaurant in East Dallas, and the giant and
groovy Tiki that stood guard over Trader Vic's at the old Hilton Inn at Mockingbird and Central. Although Trader Vic's has long departed, the Tiki wasn't removed until sometime last year. Long gone is the "zipper" sign from the old First National Bank at the corner of Main and Akard - a clunky mechanical device that was a knockoff of the moving news sign in Times Square. Jim Murray, my good friend and early mentor, had the job of operating this contraption when he was at SMU during the 50's, and has a dozen funny stories about it.

Endangered, besides that painted Idle Rich sign, are the unique and wonderful neon art that stands in front of The Prince of Hamburgers on Lemmon Avenue, and the Jetsonian piece of 60's kitsch that announces Sigel's Liquors down the block. Lemmon is currently undergoing some serious urban renewal, and one day these will likely be gone. So will too many others, possibly including the phallic fantasies that top the old Mercantile and Republic Bank buildings. These signs are more than history, they're part of our civic identity. God bless the forces that kept and restored the downtown Pegasus and God bless Pappadeaux on Oak Lawn for having the sense to keep the old Lucas B&B Sign when they moved onto that hallowed ground. If the biscuits can't remain, at least their memory does.

So, to the Dallas Historical Association, the Big Red Museum and anyone else who can hear me, let's do something about this. Let's start a drive to preserve more of these wonderful artifacts of Dallas. Sign me up.

Spencer Michlin lives in Dallas.