Chasing the Big Top Sign

6 April

Courtesy of Teresa Young, from her blog,, 6 April 2011.

This is a new, regular feature of the Signhugger Blog, with the help of Tod Swormstedt, Founder of the American Sign Museum. My purpose, when I approached Tod for this concept, was to draw attention to the ways that signs have been part of our visual lexicon for generations, and how they create a more spirited environment. I want people to look at old signs fondly, feel nostalgia, and respect their design, and especially, their stories….
“…often, I hear it’s the stories I can relate about the signs that make the museum experience unique.  I’m told they call this “provenance” in museum speak.   Thanks to Teresa M. Young, I will be sharing some of these stories with you.”

The Pursuit of a Grand Dame!

It’s as true in the sign industry as it is anywhere else: A project is either easy from moment One or it is difficult all the way through to completion. It’s as though some things are meant to be, and others are meant to be only if you work really, really hard.

Such is the case with items acquired by the American Sign Museum. Tod Swormstedt, the founder and Trustee of the Board which guides the Museum, can spend countless hours tracking down the owner of an abandoned sign, only to discover the object of his desire is now scarred by random battering, and ravaged by time.

In other instances, a beauty of a sign can virtually knock on his door. Like many things in life, that which is out of reach can drive us harder to attain it. As in any endeavor that has passion behind it, the line between caring and obsessing can be a thin one.

How does Tod find his next object to acquire? Well, contrary to romantic belief, Tod does not drive around the country looking for signs. The museum is saving up for a new building – so that sort of largess with money is not in Tod’s job description.

Tod will occasionally purchase signs, sometimes on eBay, sometimes from privateparties.  In other cases, they are donated. And in still other cases, he has to wrestle fate to stake his claim. Take the Big Top Restaurant sign, an experience he is NOT likely to cherish….

“One thing I have figured out, though: The more I “chase” a sign, the less likely the case for a positive outcome,” he says.

The “Big Top” saga can be traced back to at least six years ago when Tod first began receiving phone calls and e-mails about this “cool sign” the museum needed to get.

Indeed, at that time, the sign was cool– ripe for acquisition, seeing how the business was closed down and the building boarded up. Here’s the sign in it’s original condition and location at 800 Reading Road in the town of Mason, OH.

The 1950’s decade began with Harry Truman in office, Milton Berle was Mr. Television, the Weavers were signing Goodnight Irene, and moviegoers were watching Sunset Boulevard.

The 50’s were marked by a feeling of optimism, prosperity, and material comfort. Television came of age, the first McDonald’s opened and Elvis was the undisputed King. And a burger was .40 cents…

The Big Top Restaurant looked like a vintage Norman Rockwell picture of the 50’s.
It finally closed around 2005 and the property has been for sale since then. Interested? Here’s the listing information: PDF.

Originally displayed in Mason, OH about a half hour from the museum, the sign stood unattended after the closing of the restaurant. Over the next six years, Tod made at 40-50 phone calls, starting with the City of Mason, and then on to the realtor who had first listed the property. In every case, a helpful contact would assure Tod that the owner of the sign would be informed of the museum’s interest. But despite these many queries and contacts, no return call ever came.

The Hawaiian’s have a word, “Pu Lama” which means both “Torch” and “To care for, treasure, cherish, save.” By this time, Tod was still remembering the sign as she had appeared six years earlier, and was determined to ‘pu lama’ this sign. He conquers who endures. ~Persius

Late last year, the property was re-listed under another realtor, and it was the agent who finally made it possible to talk to the owner in person. Voila! The sign was now within reach!

In 2005, the paint on the sheet metal was still in relatively good shape. The museum’s policy is to avoid re-painting signs, so this was an important criterion for acquiring a sign.

Like seeing your highschool sweetheart a couple of decades later, sometimes it is better to have the old memories instead of making new ones…. Six years later, there was barely any paint left, and what was worse is that there was a huge “crease” in the bottom cabinet of the three-tier sign—most likely caused by a truck backing into the sign when she was down and out. Not only was the sheet metal caved in, but the entire structural integrity of the sign was now compromised.

This was more than cosmetic: The one-time marvel of a sign may now be past saving. The Museum has some contemplating to do, debating the merits of bringing Big Top back to life. A hard life, a hard won victory. Sometimes, it is better to let bygones be bygones…

From a lost era, now a faded memory, the Big Top just may be history, like Rockwell’s America and the .40 cent hamburger.


2 Responses to "Chasing the Big Top Sign"

  1. Barbara says:

    Please email with details: including a complete description and picture. Also, please note our statement regarding appraisals, etc.

  2. lois weimer says:

    need help looking up bay oil sign can you help me get information on it?

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