Signs and Wonders: The Spectacular Marketing of America


Signs and Wonders is a richly detailed history of the giant animated signs known as "spectaculars," the evolution of which has mirrored the evolution of American commerce and society throughout the twentieth century.  Although the book concentrates on Times Square, now as ever the spectacular's principal gallery, readers may be surprised to learn that the spectacular once flourished in every American city across the land.

The blazing...

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Signs and Wonders is a richly detailed history of the giant animated signs known as "spectaculars," the evolution of which has mirrored the evolution of American commerce and society throughout the twentieth century.  Although the book concentrates on Times Square, now as ever the spectacular's principal gallery, readers may be surprised to learn that the spectacular once flourished in every American city across the land.

The blazing images portrayed in these signs are far richer and more complex than they appear to be, for they embody the soul of commercial culture.  At the core they are the means by which corporations over the decades have talked to America and conveyed the messages that have helped to shape our daily lives.  In large measure they pioneered the electronic communications revolution now taking place all around us.  

Coauthored by the third-generation owner of Artkraft Strauss, the century-old company that built most of Times Square's landmark displays, Signs and Wonders follows the evolution of the spectacular decade by decade, revealing the signs' importance as both social and technological milestones.  Culled from the reminiscences of scores of eyewitnesses, fleshed out with extensive archival research, and illustrated with dozens of historic photographs, the book reveals how the mighty supersigns came to be, and tells the fascinating stories of the promoters, con men, and geniuses who fashioned color and light, electricity and information, into icons.

Chronicling this thrilling, little-known segment of history, Signs and Wonders is a stirring celebration of theAmerican imagination.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A fairly pedantic and at times self-serving walk through the signs of our times. The idea that signs are a reflection of a society's soul is an intriguing one. Unfortunately, Starr, now president of her familyĂžs sign company, ArtKraft Straus, and Hayman (Journalism/New York Univ.) don't delve as deeply into this idea as they promise when they write in their opening sentence, "Our signs tell us who we are." Still, the book is fairly useful in its historic tracing of America's fixation with neon, something about which Starr knows quite a bit since Artkraft Strauss has literally lit much of Times Square for the last century. The authors trace the beginnings of the square's status as the supersign center of the world. There's a section on O.J. Gude, nicknamed the "Lamplighter of Broadway," and information on the division between Thomas Edison and his championing of direct current versus the alternating current theories of Nikola Tesla. The authors chronicle as well neon's metamorphosis from a symbol of richness in the 1920s to its later tackier connotation. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the description of the creation of larger moving signs such as the 60-foot-tall Miss Youth Forum, a sensuous babe who sashayed across a 100-foot-wide sign on top of the Brill Building beginning in 1947. The section on how the lighting community banded together to fight the proposed renovation of Times Square, a rehabilitation that they feared would make the Great White Way a lot less white, is interesting as well. From Times Square, Signs and Wonders moves westward to look at the development of signs in Las Vegas, a.k.a. Glitter Gulch, and Hollywood. More than the average personwould ever care to know about signage, but a serviceable history for lighting and marketing buffs nonetheless. (48 b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385486026
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/13/1998
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.41 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Tama Starr is president of the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation, which for over a century has been lighting up on Broadway.  She is the author of two books of humorous social commentary.  Her articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Reader's Digest, the Washington Post, and Reason magazine.

Edward Hayman is a veteran journalist and critic.  For ten years he was the theater critic for the Detroit News.  He has been a professor of journalism at New York University and at Wayne State University.  His articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, from The Times of London to Woman's Day.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Signs of Life

Our signs tell us who we are.

From Hollywood Boulevard to Glitter Gulch to the Chicago Loop to Times Square, the ever-changing commercial face of America is portrayed in gloriously illuminated spectacular signs.

These signs do more than advertise products, provide information, and identify locations. They dramatize America's self-image in messages with many layers of meaning. We are the biggest and the best, say our signs, and we are here to stay. And the seeming effortlessness and balletic precision with which our spectaculars operate suggest the confidence and sense of order we like to believe are the defining qualities of our national character.

Our imagination is boundless, say our signs. And our capacity to express that imagination is limited only by our technology at any given moment. From the earliest applications of movable type to the latest advances in computerized robotics, every new technique in the engineer's repertoire has been applied to advertising signs virtually from the moment of its invention. Long before electric light was put to domestic use, it was animating giant images in the cityscape.

But the great illuminated signatures are more than color and lights and images and technology. They are even more wondrous behind their surface than they are in front. Beyond their components--behind the metal and plastic and paint, the lamps, wiring, and tubing, the switches, connections, and relays--is their animating spirit. What a spectacular is really about is Image in the Landscape: myth, idea, presence, and context.

"We don't sell lightbulbs and metal and wires," oneLamplighter of Broadway used to say. "The customer can buy those at the hardware store. What he's buying here is a priceless piece of real estate: a place in people's dreams."

Every enterprise, however large or small, takes its stand in the landscape. Whether a sign says "Lemonade 5¢" in crayon on cardboard or "Suntory Whisky" in 25,000 animated golden lightbulbs, it tells the viewer not only about the product but about the product's provider as well.

Like a person, a company proclaims its self-image in the face it presents to the public. Whether a modest shop or a global corporation, its sign is its signature--as individual as handwriting.

Graphic representations of corporate character take innumerable forms. Some emblems--such as the giant neon cowboy Vegas Vic, welcoming pleasure-seekers to Las Vegas with a knowing wink and a jaunty jiggle of his cigarette--whimsically symbolize an entire culture. Some--the huge high-tech video screens and dazzling animated logos that shine down nightly on Times Square--are potent symbols of corporate presence. Others--such as the clusters of familiar trademarks that brand the exits of our superhighways, guiding us to sources of food and fuel and places to rest--are more utilitarian. All are integral parts of our environment, mechanical inventions that have personality and presence, hardware that embodies a life force.

Of all the landscape-sized statements a company can make, the commissioning of a spectacular display in Times Square is arguably the most powerful. It costs more than other displays, is seen by a worldwide audience, and symbolizes a commitment to the latest in technology. On many levels--artistic, financial, social, and technological--it is a company's expression of its place in history.

As an art form, Times Square spectaculars occupy a singular nexus between America's commercial life and its emotional life. In this brightly illuminated intersection we can read, in images writ large, the story of who we are as a people and where we have been--and even catch a glimpse of where we are going.

What Is a Sign?

A sign is not merely a slab of wood, stone, or metal with symbols on it. It is a fundamental unit of intelligence.

Signs convey safety and information. Without signs and their counterparts, canopies and marquees, everybody would be standing around in the dark, in the rain, not knowing where to go or what to do. We would constantly be opening the wrong door.

Not only does a sign represent a reality, it also conveys a feeling about that reality. The familiar bright red octagon with its simple command in unadorned white letters not only tells us what to do at the intersection, it also conveys a sense of arrest.

Symbol making is the most characteristically human activity. It predates every other occupation. In Genesis, the first thing Man does--even before he is separated into male and female--is to "name the animals": that is, to attach symbols to them. Naming, or symbol making, is the only activity Adam engages in that the animals do not. Once he gives them names, they became constructs of his mind. He can tell stories about them, transform them into haute cuisine, paint pictures of them on his walls. Paleoanthropologists point to wall art, the earliest advertisements, as the origin of both art and writing, the fundamentals of civilization.

If symbol making goes back to the origin of history, the manufacture of light goes back to the origin of time.

Ancient scribes and modern cosmologists agree that the universe was once an anarchist's dream: chaos everywhere. Then, says the Bible, God "spoke," or, in scientific language, emitted a wave of electromagnetic radiation. And contained within that wave was--surprise!--Light. Then things could be distinguished from one another. Time existed. No wonder that, according to the Special Theory of Relativity, the speed of light, or light as a function of time, is an absolute, representing the maximum boundary of the physical universe.

No wonder either that people have always reacted positively to light embellished with the techniques of time: flashing, blinking, sequenced, rising, and fading. This is as true of our reaction to electric signs as it is of our reaction to dawn, lightning, and campfires. We respond to light because we are programmed to do so at the subatomic level. Every atom that we're made of, as Carl Sagan said, "was once part of the stars." We--or at least our atoms--were present at the Big Bang. And every charged particle oscillates in harmony with the light-containing proto-wave that created it. This is why plants are not the only beings that are phototropic. With few exceptions, mainly microbes, everything that lives turns toward light. We are all sunflowers at heart--a universe of photophiles.

"But Is It Art?"

Light has always been a vital element in the arts because of the feelings it evokes and the meaning it brings. In the theater, the play begins when the house lights dim and the stage lights brighten, directing the audience's awareness to the reality outside themselves--a spectacle intended to transform them inwardly--that is about to be enacted behind the proscenium or upon the platform. The history of painting, especially since the Renaissance, can be seen as a continual reinterpretation of light and a re-viewing of how light defines the world. Architecture and sculpture, both of which define space, depend on the play between light and mass to evoke emotion. Photography, film, video, and even computer-generated graphics employ light almost directly, with only the slimmest of electrochemical intermediaries between the manipulated light and the viewer.

The taming of electricity at the end of the nineteenth century added direct light to the artist's repertoire. The new medium, with its switchability, also offered the rhythmic power of music, which uses the contrast of silence (darkness) to create mystery, texture, and depth. It was put to use almost immediately in the creation of giant, kinetic, commercially financed light sculptures: the same advertising spectaculars we see in the landscape today. And they evoked the same awe.

"Pity the sky with nothing but stars!" rhapsodized a European visitor to Times Square at the beginning of the twentieth century. If only the displays' messages were written in Sanskrit or Chinese, he observed, nobody would doubt their pure artistry.

Like other works of art, a successful display is ultimately "completed" in the mind of the viewer. Its dynamic, like that of radio or poetry, is in the interplay between the content and rhythm of the medium and the heart and imagination of the audience.

We bring a lot of ourselves to the 1936 Wrigley's classic atop the Bond building, depicting a cheery little figure in a boat surrounded by placid, multicolored fish calmly cruising the deep, blowing gentle neon bubbles in rainbow hues. This sign, with its illusion of an immense aquarium, was orchestrated to create a soothing, swaying fish cadence and a sense of the rhythmic, chewy contentment you will feel, just like the carefree little fellow in the boat, if only you will try a delicious, refreshing stick of Wrigley's gum.

A different illusion was created in 1995 by Morgan Stanley at its world headquarters at 1585 Broadway, where a half acre of glittering LED matrices transforms the entire building into a real-time information display. As complex and technologically sophisticated as this presentation is, its effect is simple. It makes you feel good by making you feel smart. The building seems to assume that you are capable of simultaneously processing financial news headlines, stock and bond price fluctuations, currency exchange rates, and the time in twenty-four time zones. And if not, it doesn't matter. It is information as pure kinesthetic experience. The world-beat visual rhythm of pulsing global commerce is pleasing and somehow comforting. Life goes on, the display seems to say. Macroeconomics is big, entertaining, inclusive, and bright enough to care for us all. And about its sponsor, whose name appears only in palely glowing eight-inch letters at the bottom, the display is subliminally saying "MORGAN STANLEY . . . IS . . . INFORMATION."

That something so large and imposing can do its work subliminally is not the only paradox the spectaculars employ.

As students of charisma understand, image can overpower reality--and even outlive it. Some of the great displays of the past continue to work their magic even after they are gone, and even after the companies sponsoring them are gone. The Corticelli Yarn Company has long been forgotten, but the Corticelli rooftop kitten of 1912 continues to frolic with its giant spool of lightbulb thread in the minds of people who have seen it--or have seen even a photo of it. The first neon sign in America, made in 1922 for a Los Angeles Packard dealership, still glows in myth and memory (and probably in someone's garage), long after the last Packard drove off into history. And people constantly claim to remember the famous "smoking" Camel sign who cannot possibly have seen it. That sign came down in 1966.

The peculiar perseverance of these images says as much about the way we perceive the world as it does about the medium itself. The displays that live on in our memories do so because of the way they "play" with us. They create a sense of wonder. They make us feel alive. We know we are alive, not because reasoning tells us so (after all, computers can reason), but because we have the capacity to feel. The impulse driving these memorable signs is the same as that behind Mount Rushmore or any other monumental totem. It expresses, larger than life, an essence, an emotion, a sense of being.

The art of the advertising spectacular makes myths come alive. Even today, the Anheuser-Busch neon eagle in flight--our national icon, the image of soaring power wrought in light, surreally large--invigorates and stirs us, touching the same heart in us that responds to music we love.

At the same time, by depicting everyday objects at many times normal size, the signs appeal to the child in us. We love to contemplate a steaming coffee cup bigger than six hot tubs, and savor the sight of the heroic Johnnie Walker, as tall as a skyscraper, striding endlessly across the night sky. In December of 1996, round-the-clock crowds gathered for three days in bone-chilling cold to cuddle up to a 102-foot replica of a Concorde jet while it was parked on Seventh Avenue, before it was hoisted onto the roof of a nearby building--just to feel the power and excitement of this giant toy. This peculiar combination of grandeur and whimsy has an undeniable, if ultimately inexplicable, magnetic attraction.

Global Images in America's Town Square

A commercial landscape, like a newspaper's editorial page, is an expression of the way people think things ought to be. It embodies an ethic and a cultural ideal; it presents a worldview, a set of principles, a context in which novelty can be interpreted. This was as true in Maoist China, with its screaming red posters exhorting Communist obedience, as in medieval London, bedecked with the emblems of merchant guilds, the newly influential class.

Today, from metropolis to prairie, from the desert to the mountains, and from sea to sea, Americans of all ages and origins share a common commercial culture. And this culture--more than even the sum of its artifacts--is our largest global export.

Throughout the world, the McDonald's Arches, the red Coca-Cola logo, and the Marlboro Man are universally recognized symbols. Traveling off the beaten track? Take along some Levi's, Nikes, or Calvins to share with the locals, and make new friends. But don't try any off-brand substitutes. People know the difference. These globally sought-after products promise and deliver quality, variety, and immediate satisfaction. They symbolize the sense of confidence, optimism, and ease that defines American charisma. To acquire these products is to acquire the magnetism they represent.

The world depicted by advertising is a happy world, replete with joy and fulfillment. Everything is okay in the world of Donna Karan, Met Life, and Joe Camel. Everybody is beautiful, secure, and cool. The point of advertising is not only to create desire but also to make you feel good about participating in something larger than yourself, a universe that, unlike the real world, is defined by satisfaction and contentment.

Times Square is a paradigm of these values. Every town square, marketplace, or other public venue is a microcosm of the larger community and its history. But Times Square offers a multilayered text that is spectacularly easy to read--perhaps because the letters are so large, clear, and brightly lit.

Like other historic venues that have served as "Crossroads of the World"--Jerusalem, Athens, Constantinople, or Thebes--Times Square is a time portal. Walter Winchell said, "If you stand on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, you will eventually meet everyone you know." And he was right. Stand in the middle of any one of those places, and watch history unfold.

Times Square is inclusionary. It always has been. A subway token gets you here. If you haven't a theater ticket, you can watch the show on the street. You see rich people, poor people, ordinary people of every race and nationality. You hear end-of-the-world preachers, street musicians, commentary in myriad languages passing by. Or perhaps you arrive via TV or the movies, or by postcard or the Internet. In one way

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