Belsinger produced signs of the times

June 26, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

A few people watched as a work crew eased a neon sign down from the facade of Becker's men's shop at Greenmount and 31st.

This Waverly institution closed some months ago and the property was auctioned off. Collectors carried out the shop's manual cash register, BVD counters, merchandise racks and, last of all, its 1939 neon-decorated sign.

"It's coming down to go in a future neon garden," said Norman James, a 30-year-old sign painter who collects the advertising messages of an earlier era. He plans a neon garden in the rear of his Riviera Beach home.

Mr. James has worked all his adult life at Belsinger Sign Works in Pigtown. It was the birthplace for some of Baltimore's best-known exterior corporate ads.

"It kills me to see great signs dumped in the Quarantine Road landfill in Curtis Bay. That's where the 1958 Westview Mall sign went. So did the 1954 Edmondson Drive In and the Ritchie Hi-Way Shopping Center signs," Mr. James lamented.

"Just three weeks ago, an old Studebaker dealership went in Glen Burnie and with it the Goodyear sign. It was porcelain and went up in the air 80 feet."

His sign collection began with a small neighborhood dry cleaner's panel from Southwest Baltimore. Later came a Little Tavern motto, a Read's drug store soda fountain sign and a Greenberg's jewelers' clock sign from Brooklyn Park.

He stores some in a Millersville barn while he completes the restoration of his collection.

"I went into the Becker's store in Waverly and could not believe how welcoming the Becker family was to me. I wish I had shopped there all my life," he said.

Another recent addition was a battered, welded steel ice cream sign that lured generations of Route 40 West motorists to Mr. G's fast-food mecca.

Mr. James works in an old Balti- more firm whose craftsmen have been fabricating giant letters, pulsing neon images and other signs since 1919.

Consider the monster at Glenn L. Martin's Middle River aircraft plant. Its lettering spelled out M-A-R-T-I-N with a star in a circle above it. The letters were ten feet high.

"The airline pilots said they could pick it up two miles away. I'm told the [electricity] consumption could run 27 homes," said Harry Flair Belsinger, son of the firm's founder.

Of the firm's 40 employees, six are members of the founding family.

Baltimore's fondly recalled outdoor ads include the vanilla bottle and spice can atop the McCormick spice factory that once stood beside the Inner Harbor. These hid a water tower on the roof.

And Russell Street motorists knew they were home when they sighted the rooftop dog -- RCA's Little Nipper.

Belsinger made signs for fast-food pioneers Ameche's and Gino's. It gave the old Pimlico Hotel on Park Heights Avenue its logo, as well as radio station WCAO its call letters at Charles and Chase streets.

The Westinghouse plant on Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore still retains its Belsinger silver letters.

The aluminum letters of the Memorial Stadium dedication were produced at Belsinger. The company also made the projecting sign for Haussner's Restaurant in Highlandtown.

The Belsinger archives are something of a library-graveyard of fallen Baltimore businesses: the Oriole cafeteria; Baltimore National Bank; Elite Laundry; Harley's restaurants -- "class in, carry out" -- Hooper's restaurants; the Wagner's food stores chain; the Western Maryland Railway.

Baltimore has its orange-red Domino Sugar sign that lights the harbor and Locust Point. There is also the Stieff Silver one at Keswick Road in Remington and, until it closed, the "Esskay Quality Meats" sign in Highlandtown. It flashed so that the sign read "Eat Esskay Meats," on rotation.

"That was one of my favorites," said Harry J. Connolly, a salesman with the firm. His father, who was also in the sign business, stood by as workers removed the 1905 Ford's Theatre sign off the Fayette Street facade of the fabled playhouse.

That lovely script in welded metal is preserved at the Belsinger Sign Works.

Belsinger signs are not a thing of the past. While the Ritchie Hi-Way logo may be rusting in a landfill, the workers here are fabricating, painting and wiring new generations of shopping center signs each week.

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