American Sign Museum
Visitors to the American Sign Museum are greeted by a 20-foot-tall fiberglass genie with a big smile, upraised arms, and stumps where his hands should be.
"That sign came from the Carpeteria in Los Angeles," says Tod Swormstedt, president and founder of the Museum. "He used to hold a roll of carpet. We're trying to find a picture of the carpet. If people saw the carpet, they'd understand."
Tod has been trying to get people to understand signs for most of his life. Since 1911 his family has owned Sign of the Times, a trade journal for the sign manufacturing industry. Tod was its editor and publisher -- and a self-taught expert in the field of signs -- when he opened this Museum in 2005. "Now I just work here full-time," he says. "You might call it my mid-life crisis project."
Signs are a huge part of the Roadside universe, and welcome friends to people who drive. Yet a journey through the American Sign Museum -- or, really, any sign museum, if there were any other sign museums, which Tod says that there aren't -- is also a little sad. The neon-wrapped, screaming-lettered signs that are here no longer serve their intended purpose. They have vanished from their natural habitat, and must battle for eyeballs with hundreds of other signs indoors. That's like putting the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon next to each other in a room, and expecting them to be majestic.
Tod, however, doesn't appear to brood over the vanished vistas for his signs. He's just happy to have saved 'em.
Visitors enter the museum through a "Sign Garden," a sheltered area hung with neon spectaculars for car washes, cocktail lounges, gas stations, and even a church. A smiling fiberglass Big Boy holds aloft a dripping cheeseburger next to blinking signs for Holiday Inn and a winking Speedee McDonald's. "American icons," says Tod, matter-of-factly. "If you don't have them, you're not much of a sign museum."
We notice other signs as well, warning "Do Not Touch" and "High Voltage." The Museum is filled with the rhythmic hum of electric pulses, which we tell ourselves will not scramble our chromosomes on a 90-minute tour.
Tod walks over to a slowly spinning orb studded with long neon spikes. He calls it a Sputnik sign, and says that it advertised a strip mall in Anaheim named Satellite Shopping. "The guy ended up building it himself," Tod tells us. "He took the idea around to a couple of sign companies, but they all said he was crazy."
Funky signs like Sputnik wow the public, but Tod says that his favorite signs are the older, pre-neon creations of the early 20th century. "They're very, very creative, you know." We didn't, but we know that Tod knows more than us about signs. A lot more.
A walk back into the historical "Signs of Main Street" section of the museum reveals signs for shoemakers, haberdashers, dentists, druggists, factories. Many are displayed in life-size storefront replicas. "We start about the late 1960s and go backwards," Tod says, walking past a 1936 sign that reads Blood Makes Good Paint. "We cover EVERY type of sign: wood, metal, gold leaf glass, light bulb, neon, plastic..." Tod ticks off a list in his head, knowing what he has and what he's missing. "What we're trying to do is to get as many types of signs from as many parts of the country built by as many sign companies using as many materials from as many eras as possible." Such comprehensive goals lead to unexpected problems. Tod's air-conditioning bill, for example, always breaks the budget thanks to all of the heat pouring off of thousands of light bulbs.
"My biggest problem," he says, "is the preconception among people that this is gonna be an old barn with a bunch of rusty old signs. Then when they get here they go, 'Oh. Holy shit.'"
If people are dazzled by Tod's current collection, they may be thunderstruck when the museum moves to its new location, which Tod says has 28-foot ceilings and nearly four times the current space. That means that the Museum's REALLY big signs -- fancy cantilevered monoliths -- can be taken out of a warehouse and put on display. "There's plenty to see now," Tod says. "I just have a bigger vision."
Until the new building opens, the current museum can be visited by appointment only. That's because Tod, even though he's a busy guy, conducts every tour himself. The museum's brochure makes the generous announcement that visitors can "Call Tod any time of day" to schedule an appointment, although he asks that people give him 48 hours notice when possible.
"This is what I do full-time," he says. "Or more than full time. My office is in the basement of the magazine, which is five minutes down the street. I do tours Monday afternoon, Saturday night, Sunday morning. All the time."
Since the visit story was written, the museum has moved to a new location, which opened in June 2012.