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 on the second floor of the Cañada 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.
Farwell also 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 Cañada Building, with the manager’s office in the famous turret on the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and Main Street, while the saloon occupied the second floor of the old Odd Fellow’s Temple adjoining Cañada Building.
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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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 wintertime 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 Farwell in an adjoining office as they left and headed downstairs.
Through my work I saw the office guys group together down on the sidewalk, and then Farwell 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? Farwell 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. Farwell 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 the word MOUNTAIN.
Farwell never let me fix it. Until the '89 Loma Prieta quake, it read, "MOUNTIAN CHARLEY'S."
—To be continued. For the complete post, please visit www.lgartbridge.wordpress.com