5 minute read

Sight & Sound: San Jose Signs

Written by Heather David
Photography by Joshua Marcotte

A Partnership Between the Community, Historical Organizations, and Local Businesses

Cities across the United States are saying, “Our signs matter!” From historic and cultural markers to key components in urban renewal initiatives, signs are being embraced as local art and symbols of community and a fundamental sense of place. Cities such as Glendale, Las Vegas, and Cincinnati have state-of-the-art sign museums. There are public displays of local signs in Bakersfield, Fresno, and Los Angeles. Self-guided driving tours of signs are available in Tucson, San Francisco, and San Jose. There are walking tours, guided bus tours, bike tours, and virtual tours, too. One thing is for certain: the sign is back, and it means much more to people than a form of advertising.

Here are some local favorites worth celebrating.

O.C. McDonald
1150 West San Carlos Street, circa late 1940s

O.C. McDonald was founded by Oren Charles McDonald in 1906. We believe that the eye-popping animated roadside sign on West San Carlos Street dates to the late 1940s. For your commercial plumbing and HVAC needs, be sure to “Oh See!” O.C. McDonald.

Winchester Shopping Center
Sgevens Creek and Winchester Blvds, circa 1952

The Winchester Shopping Center sign, with its giant red arrow and bouncy mid-century script, dates to around 1952. The sign has been dark for many years, but when it used to light up the night sky, the interior of the arrow was outlined in red neon, and the arrow flashed.

Babe the Muffler Man
808, The Alameda, circa early 1960s

He’s the last muffler man publically standing in the Bay Area. Babe’s cousin in Hayward, Big Mike, moved into a private collection some years ago. Babe, a purchase from the International Fiberglass Company, first appeared on The Alameda in the 1960s. He was, and arguably still is, a brilliant piece of roadside advertising.

City Center Motel
45 E Reed Street, circa 1960

The neon diving lady sign at the City Center Motel arrived around 1960, following the addition of a swimming pool to the motel property. She is one of only two original motel-sign divers left in the entire state of California.

Food Bowl
Ann Darling Shopping Center, 1625 McKee Road, circa 1959

The Ann Darling Shopping Center dates back to 1959. The “Food Bowl” portion of its flower-like Googie sign swings back and forth in the wind—it was probably motorized at one point in its life.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Bucket
250 N. Bascom Avenue, circa 1964

Want to know why people come from all over the country to photograph San Jose’s KFC bucket? It is one of the last in the country and the oldest still standing. Now, let’s get it spinning again.

Stephen's Meat Products
105 S. Montgomery Street, circa mid-1950s

The Stephen’s Meat Products display sign was created by Electrical Products Corporation, as were the Hollywood sign in Hollywood, the spectacular Coca Cola billboard in San Francisco, and the Milk Farm highway sign in Dixon. Sadly, the pig has been a wallflower for a number of years.

Help us get him dancing again by donating here: www.preservation.org/pac_donate.html

(select “Save the Dancing Pig” in the drop-down menu)

Burbank Theater
552 S Bascom Avenue, circa 1951

Designed by Cantin & Cantin, the 930-seat Burbank opened in September 1951. The theater closed in 1955, only to reopen in 1964 with a beautiful neon “Cinema” sign added to its marquee. Today, the Burbank is home to a dance studio, its notable sign dark.

Mr. T's Liquor Locker
900 Lincoln Avenue, circa 1963

OK. Inquiring minds want to know: “Who was Mr. T?” And no, we are not talking the A-Team here. San Jose’s Mr. T predates the 1980s television show by about two decades. Someone out there has the answer.

Time Deli
349 S Bascom Avenue, circa 1950

Time Deli began its days as a neighborhood market run by the Carlino family. The sign was there when the Carlinos moved in, hence the original name of “Time Market.” Alas, the deli has closed, and the sign is dark. It’s time we figure out a way to get it switched on again.

One thing is for certain: the sign is back, and it means much more to people than a form of advertising.

Do you care about our signs? Get involved.

The San Jose Signs Project (SJSP) is a partnership between the community, historical organizations, and local businesses. The mission of SJSP is threefold: to educate the public about, to advocate for, and to preserve historic signs in San Jose. For the latest San Jose sign news, follow SJSP on Facebook.

The Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC*SJ) is working with city leaders to create a complete sign inventory and develop a proactive plan of action for historic sign preservation. PAC*SJ is also spearheading the repair and relighting of the once-animated Stephen’s Meat Products sign. Become a member of PAC*SJ and donate to the Save the Pig campaign.

History San José (HSJ) has been generously providing storage space for displaced San Jose signs, with the hope that these signs will once again be on public display. Most of the signs in storage will need repair before being resurrected. Become a member and donate to History San Jose. 

San Jose Signs Project
Facebook sanjosesignproject
Preservation Action Council of San Jose 1650 Senter Road San Jose, CA 95112 408.998.8105
History San José