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

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

House of Television and Other Signs of the Times, Part 4

When people ask me what it was like growing up in Springfield, I ask them to imagine a combination of the movies American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. That kind of sums it up. I guess you could throw in The Outsiders and The Wanderers when things got a little rough. For the most part, kids fought with fists. The City of Homes of the seventies is certainly nothing like the Springfield of today. Sumner Avenue, for instance, was one of the greatest cruising strips in the Northeast. I never thought it would go downhill so quickly.

Now, if you keep your eyes peeled, you can actually see prostitutes hanging out at The X once in a while. A true sign of the times. Yes, there was a time when I knew a lot of people in the neighborhood and used to hang out there every once in a while. But, sad to say, I’d be hesitant to get out of my car at The X in 2010—even on Sumner Avenue in broad daylight.

So let's turn back the clock and resume our American Graffiti-style cruise, which started in Sixteen Acres and continues down Sumner Avenue.

What a bargain: Ghostbusters for $1.50 at Cinema X in 1985. Strangely enough, the same movie was playing at the same time down the street at the Bing. No wonder these theaters went belly-up: they competed for the same audience!

Cinema X opened as the Philips Theater in 1923 and was renamed in the 1964, when it showed “art” films and soft-core porn, drawing the ire of Mayor Charlie Ryan after screening The Dirty Girls that year. In the 1970s and 1980s it showed second-run movies, lapsing every once in a while into skin flicks again. In 1975, Stephen G. Minasian, president of Maple Leaf cinemas, which owned Cinema X, was arrested on morals charges after the allegedly obscene Ilsa—The Most Dreaded Nazi of Them All, played there.

At times (1974) Cinema X lived up to its name.

I remember a particularly rowdy crowd in the place when I saw Animal House for the umpteenth time in high school. A couple of eggs hit the screen that night. Who the hell brings eggs into a movie theater? That was even beyond the antics of my neighborhood crowd, but apparently those wackos in the X neighborhood played by different rules: none!

Below is a shot of the balcony, which I believe was closed off by the late 1970s. Or maybe it was just blocked off with those velvet ropes to ward off the egg throwers and booze drinkers for films that drew hordes of adolescents. It’s possible that the upstairs was also verboten during the porns to discourage men in raincoats from whacking off to such fraulines as Ilsa. The most likely scenario, however, is that the theater was drawing fewer and fewer patrons, and the management didn’t have the energy to maintain—and police—the balcony.

The cinematic classic (not) Spring Break played there in 1983 (below). By then, Liberty Bakeries, which was on the left, had departed. I believe Cinema X showed its last movie around 1985 (possibly earlier). The Frankel’s clothing store on the right, which was in business at that site for 81 years, closed in 1994, and the entire block, which contained not only those stores, but also Big Daddy’s Gym and the Forest Park Lanes, met the wrecking ball in 1996.

Below is a shot of the back of the theater, where kids used to sneak in through the roof.

Let’s stop ruminating over the fate of the theater and go across The X to the Orange Café for a beer and a beating. I’ve walked on many sticky floors in bars—and in my old fraternity house—but this was the only floor to ever grab my foot with such a grip that it pulled my sneaker clean off during a game of pool.

Remember all those “X Warriors” graffiti tags around The X in the late seventies and early eighties? Who the hell were the X Warriors? One time my friends and I got in a brawl with a gang of kids a few streets away from The X, but it wasn’t the X Warriors. Anyway, if anyone knows who the X Warriors were, please let me know with a comment at the end of this entry. Rumor has it they hung around the Washington Street School, but this is not verified.

We’ll continue our cruise down Sumner Avenue to Blake’s. Boy, did I hate THAT fucking place when I was a kid. No reflection on the store, but I had to endure endless hours of trying on Catholic school uniforms there with my mother. If the badass hat in the ad below were part of my Ursuline Academy dress code, I might have been able to stomach the place.

Despite my bad memories of looking in the mirror there at the dork with the white short-sleeve dress shirt and polyester pants, I was still rooting for Blake’s over the years, knowing these kind of small independent clothing stores were getting their asses kicked by national retail chains.

Blake’s once had seven stores in the Springfield area and Connecticut, but they closed one by one, at the end leaving just its store at The X. When its parent company, M.L. Rothschild & Co., of Skokie, Ill. filed for bankruptcy in 1994, Blake’s was history after 80 years on Sumner Avenue. When Goodwill bought the building shortly afterward, the purchase spoke volumes about where The X was heading.

But let’s unlock our car doors, because this is The X of yesteryear, right? Yes, we could go cruising up and down Sumner Avenue endlessly (my friends and I once logged 80 miles on Sumner one night in high school), but let’s head over to Riverdale Road in West Springfield, past the old Palace Theatre, which became part of Showcase Cinemas, and then was razed in 2002. A Raymour & Flanigan furniture store stands there now.

At least the Donut Dip sign is still there.

Further down Riverdale, let’s pause for a moment of silence for the Galley restaurant, which closed in 2008 after 33 years in business. Its neon sign was a true classic sign of the times.

I always wondered what happened to the sign. Check out the classic faded red paint/rust below. I emailed by friend, whose family owned the place. Let’s just call him Bill LaBench, better known to us as “Benchy.” Where, I asked, is the sign now? He replied that his dad sold it for around $400, “which was like throwing it away,” he complained.

Enter Google, where I found an ad for a “Good Home Cooking” sign. “A great sign for your retro kitchen or diner,” reads the ad. In the photo below, taken from the ad, the sign appeared to be in someone’s kitchen. Is the buyer of the Galley sign now trying to make big bucks on it? I had to inform Benchy by sending him the link. He emailed me back, saying that it turned out the “buyer” had never picked up the sign. Apparently, the sale was never made, and the sign was now in storage next door at his uncle’s business, Red’s Towing.

So what about this ad? The mystery only deepened when I read the fine print. “Vintage neon look.” Neon LOOK? It IS neon. “Simulated rust.” No, that’s REAL rust. “Made to look old and used from heavy metal.” Cripes, it IS old and used and heavy metal. What the hell? “Measures 14 ½ inches-by-15 inches.” What? Definitely a typo, I thought. That sign is as big as I am! Then I clicked on “view similar items” at the bottom, and came up with the photo below.

Mystery solved. Yes, the item for sale, pictured lying on a table, is a flat sign that was REPRODUCED FROM A PHOTO of the real sign. But how did the photographer get the “baked-on finish” on the metal? Was the image painstakingly painted from a photo? Who knows? Wow, the person who created this was so enamored with The Galley sign that he/she recreated it! And it sold. The sale date is listed as March 16, 2007.

The point is, this story validates my spending four blog entries on various roadside signs and buildings in the area. Some of them are indeed works of art, and they are worth saving! Regrettably, the House of Television and the Russell’s signs are gone, as are the Burger Chef and various theater signs. But, hopefully, my millions of readers will prevent the potential discarding or dismantling of any classic Springfield-area sign in the future. That means you, Bruno’s Pizza and Donut Dip! Don’t even think about trashing those signs!

Thankfully, the Galley sign still exists—hopefully to rise and light up again. And just think, a small metal reproduction of it is hanging in someone’s kitchen or restaurant.

Look, I’m fully aware that I went a little overboard with outrage over the disappearance of some signs and buildings. As I mentioned, the Christian Bookstore structure was unspectacular, and many a dry eye attended the downfall of Russell’s restaurant. But I still say it’s a shame that so many small businesses, including family restaurants, bite the dust with little or no fanfare. So I guess it’s up to bloggers like me to record their passing for posterity. I mean, SOMEBODY out there must wonder what happened to, for instance, the neon Tic Toc lounge sign that used to grace downtown Springfield.

There it is, in Bill Baughman’s Boston loft, with his collection of neon clocks.

The Tic Toc’s first home was on Dwight Street, where it stood from 1965 to 1987. It went from a dive to a happening place when it moved around the corner to Worthington Street 1988. But in 2000 the bar’s lease wasn’t renewed, and it moved to the South End, on Main Street, and then it finally closed two years later. I always loved the Tic Toc sign, and I had presumed it was just tossed into a dumpster. But no. It once was lost, but now is found—was dark, but now we see it.

Here is the sign for Orr Cadillac on Mill Street in Springfield (just off of Main Street). The dealership closed in May and auctioned off parts and supplies in June. The sign, which wasn't included in the auction, will be sold at a later date. How'd you like to have that in your living room? The Cadillac of signs (lol!)

I had always dug the beaten-up neon sign of the Hotel Charles on Main Street in Springfield. Not that I ever saw the dang thing lit—it must have stopped working some time in the Eisenhower administration. But it had that weary weathered look that screamed “Welcome to the Hotel Charles—the Hotel of Broken Dreams.”

The oldest part of the structure was built in 1848 and named Cooley's Hotel. An 11-story addition opened and the place was renamed the Hotel Charles with much fanfare in the summer of 1929, shortly after the neighboring Union Station was built—train passengers could actually disembark at the station and walk right into the Charles. But the stock market crashed six months later and the hotel suffered from financial problems, although it did soldier on through the Great Depression. After World War II, however, fewer and fewer people relied on rail travel, and by the seventies the Charles was mostly home to alcoholics, junkies, and the elderly who had no other options except to pay the $40 weekly rate and pray they didn’t get mugged by the riff-raff. Over the years many a down-and-outer pulled the ultimate downer and leaped off the roof.

Nicknamed the “hard-luck Hotel Charles,” the place really did seem cursed. It was on the verge of a $15 million renovation in 1988 when a fire “of suspicious origin” destroyed the most historic part of the building. Then-mayor Richard Neal railed against the homeless advocates and housing officials who had successfully delayed the eviction of 80 residents. These people stood in the way of a developer’s conversion of the hotel’s 400 rooms into 157 condominiums, and their last stand put an end to the Charles’ future, because the fire probably wouldn’t have happened if the building had been secured.

Fire officials said the fire was of a suspicious nature because of the intensity of the flames and the difficulty in quelling the inferno. But, four years later, in 1992, Fire Chief Gary Cassanelli said the fire “may well have been accidental” because vagrants were known to break into the closed area where the conflagration originated.

There had been a cloud of suspicion—which smelled like smoke—over the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA) for years after the fire, because the agency had taken the property by eminent domain two months prior to the blaze. The Arson Squad investigated the Hotel Charles fire, as well as a number of suspicious fires on SRA properties, and determined that several were intentionally set. But it found no evidence of involvement of SRA personnel or former employees in the fires. The SRA was also the target of a federal grand jury investigation in the alleged arson-for-profit scam, and SRA records relating to the fires and property acquisitions were subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Like a jilted lover, the Hotel Charles stood abandoned and forlorn for years as the investigations were conducted and as Springfield officials chewed over the building’s fate. But the city decided that this brokedown palace was in the way of urban renewal, even though the developer who proposed the original renovation said his structural engineers felt the Charles could be saved. In the mid-1990s there was hope that the developer of a proposed downtown casino across the street would rehabilitate the Charles into its former glory. But when voters rejected the casino in a referendum, the building was doomed. Lady luck certainly wasn't with Springfield's Grand Old Whore.

The whole enchilada finally came down in 1997, but not easily. Demolitionists had to whale away from above with a three-ton instrument called “the spear” to knock the stubborn brickwork apart before another tool, “the clam,” could finally peel away the supporting steel.

I always thought that the Hotel Charles looked like a larger version of the Grateful Dead's Mars Hotel. You be the judge:

A WGBY-TV special documented the Hotel Charles’ rise and fall, and it was from this special that I was able to get the images of the sign as the station’s camera somehow panned down from top to bottom.

But what ever happened to the Hotel Charles’ neon sign? Oh yeah—the sign! That’s what this portion of the blog entry was all about! Sometimes I get carried away. Well, according to The Sunday Republican newspaper, a photographer snapping shots of the demolition expressed some concern about the sign after it was “knocked into the scrap heap”—and that’s the only reference to the sign I could find. I guess we know where the sign ended up: in neon heaven, a place of day-glo colors and an eternal neon buzzing sound.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig sometimes stayed at the Hotel Charles in the 1930s, when the Yankees played exhibition games against Springfield minor league teams in League Park. Can't you just see it now? The drunk, philandering Babe with some babe, sucking face under the glow of the neon sign. The two stumbling up to his room. The Bambino banging a bimbo while the Iron Horse hides in the closet and peeks through the door, polishing his Louisville Slugger.

All right, I admit it. I guess pure unadulterated nostalgia was the reason for this four-part blathering on my blog—the chance to relive the past. Where else can you see so much of this Springfield kitsch in one place? So enjoy the photos—the images and stories are out there in cyber-perpetuity for all to revel in. My only regret is that I couldn’t find more. Where, for instance, is a photo of the neon cow on the Miller’s Dairy Bar sign on Center Street in Ludlow? You know, the one with the waggley tail. I know it’s out there somewhere!

I’m sorry. I just can’t stop nostalgia mongering. Just one more. Remember the old sign in front of this Springfield strip joint before it was pulled down by a bunch of punks?

Just kidding. I wanted to see if you were still paying attention.