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Jim Gleason started in the sign industry when he was 12 years old, sweeping the floors in his dad’s sign shop in Salina, Kan. He worked for his father for 18 years at Gleason and Sons Signs before eventually coming to the metro area.
Now the sales manager at Superior Signs, and president of the Oklahoma Sign Association, one of Gleason’s missions is to preserve the kinds of signs his father used to turn out.
“We’re going to help owners find funding to restore old historic landmark signs,” he says. “That way we can preserve them so they don’t rust away and end up being tossed and thrown away.”
Gleason says all the older theater signs are special, including those at Will Rogers, Jewel, Tower and Winchester Drive-In. His company restored the sign at Tower Theater on N.W. 23rd Street in 2010. Built in 1937, the theater remained open until 1989.
Signs mark time periods in people’s lives.
And they’re often etched in memories as remnants of a youth gone by.
“I’ve only been in Oklahoma 12 years, but I’ve learned to recognize landmark signs,” Gleason says. “I think it’s important to an older generation, and it reminds them of their childhood.”
Signs become icons in a community, he says. You can’t help but spot the milk bottle when you drive down Classen Boulevard. A Sonic Drive-In may be there now, but a special spot on N. Western Avenue always will be remembered as the home of the Split-T and T-Bar. Demolished in 2000, the home of the theta burger is still paid homage by the current owner with the weathered Split-T sign out front.
Signs such as these need to remain as long as they can. That’s why Gleason has a vision. Once the association’s program is up and running, Gleason says his hope is for companies or individuals to adopt signs around the metro. Money would be raised to restore the sign and then pay for the upkeep.
Matt Hinkle, general manager of Tyler Signs in Oklahoma City, says all signs started out of a single desire that still exists today for business owners.
“To pull an old phrase, ‘a business with no sign is a sign of no business,’” he says. “They’re the lowest form of advertising and in today’s dollars and economy, you don’t have much choice but to advertise to get business, but you don’t want to spend a ton of money to get it.”
Superior recently finished a refurbishment of the Winchester Drive-In. The waving — shotgun in hand — still stands as the last drive-in theater holdout in the metro.
It’s cash on the barrelhead to get into owner Lindy Shambour’s establishment, but the memories are free.
Hinkle says the industry underwent a metamorphosis nearly 10 years ago. Neon gave way to LED signage and nostalgia went out the window.
Photo by Shannon Cornman