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Signs of Past Times

Signs are city storytellers, and there are some great stories around Grand Rapids. Drive through the city and you’ll discover businesses that have kept their signs for generations. You’ll also find signs advertising businesses that are long gone.
The Van Andel Museum Center "Streets of Old Grand Rapids" exhibit boasts a few original signs, as well as copies of originals. Curator of History Veronica Kandl said the museum’s general collection includes signs advertising Western Union, Bronson’s Garage, Hamilton Watch Co. and Alaska Fur Co.

By Ann Byle

Whether the signs are in a museum collection, nailed to a garage wall or hanging proudly on a building, the stories they tell are part of Grand Rapids’ past.

Fat Boy
Travel through the city on Plainfield Avenue and you’ll find Fat Boy Restaurant at 2450 Plainfield Ave. NE. The brightly lighted, chubby cherub with a curl on his forehead who sits above the small restaurant turns heads and draws smiles from passers-by, many of whom have eaten at Fat Boy at one time or another through the years. Fat Boy is a landmark for north-enders. The restaurant that started as a Tastee Freeze has been serving customers for 56 years.

Original owner Don Baker, who now lives in Florida, commissioned the sign from Gall Sign Co. The restaurant started as an ice cream place, then a counter area was added. Later came the front seating area, and later still the back seating area. Matt Ottenjan, 58, remembers it all. He’s worked at the restaurant for about 40 years, the past 18 as a full-time employee.

Don’s son Randy recalls "sleeping on the counters in the back, and running around and playing with my brother in the place."

Nick Baker, who is no relation to Don or Randy, owned the restaurant from 1976 to 1990.

" Somebody was always stopping by wanting to buy the sign," he remembers. "Apparently it’s valuable because it’s unique as a neon sign."

Current owner Mike Rizqallah has no intention of replacing the now-famous sign. In fact, his plan is to restore the lovable chubby fellow to his original neon splendor.

The Clique
Chuck Orlikowski was 18 when his parents opened Clique Lanes at 533 Stocking Ave. NW. In 1953 its 16 lanes on two floors was innovative and a bit daring. Chuck Sr. and Zoe Orlikowski ran the business themselves, with help from their children. Now three of their sons own the business that is still drawing bowlers from all over the city.

" My dad was a very progressive person," says Chuck Orlikowski. "In 1939 he bought a bar at Bridge Street and Turner (Avenue). He wanted to expand and the land on Stocking was available. Because he was a bowler and he couldn’t find a place to bowl, he decided to build a bowling center."

Orlikowski, 69, remembers Bill Lynch, who designed both the sign and the building for his parents.

Lynch created a drawing of the sign, using a name he came up with almost as an afterthought.

" He showed us the sign and my mother said, ‘We’re a clique; let’s keep the sign,’" Orlikowski said. So a large Polish family who lived on the West Side created a bowling legacy with a French name.

The sign has remained through the years. Its neon tubes need replacing every now and then, and this year Orlikowski will replace the neon that outlines a bowling ball.

" We always thought it was a classic sign and that’s why we never changed it," says Orlikowski. "We just like the sign."

" The Clique," as it’s known to regulars, drew big-name bowlers to its lanes during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In fact, Billy Orlikowski, grandson of the original owners, bowled professionally for a number of years.

Chuck Sr. died in 1984 after several years as owner of a Florida nightclub he purchased from Guy Lombardo.

" The Clique is part of the family," says Orlikowski. "We’ve made lots of friends there. It’s been a great place."

Clique Lanes celebrated its 50th anniversary in May 2003.

Mr. Vanguard
Adolph "Bud" Stanton accomplished a lot in his life. He played clarinet and saxophone during the big band era in New York, he owned a service station in Grand Rapids, and he founded Vanguard Business Service in 1951.

Though Stanton died in 1995, his legacy lives on thanks in part to his children, who maintain Vanguard. They’ve even kept the old sign that advertises the franchises he created to compete with H&R Block: Mr. Vanguard Income Tax. In its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, there were 40 to 50 Mr. Vanguard sites in the Greater Grand Rapids area. There are now only two Vanguard offices, and one of the original signs.

" We keep it because we’re part of the franchise my dad started," says Pam O’Neil, who with her husband runs Vanguard Business Service at 740 Leonard St. NW.

Jim O’Neil bought a Mr. Vanguard franchise from his father-in-law in 1960. His first office was at White Street and Leonard, then he moved to Lincoln Avenue and Leonard, and finally to the current location. The sign moved with them every time.

" It comes with the territory," says Pam O’Neil. "My dad started it and we wanted to keep it."

Bud Stanton’s son Bob operated Vanguard Business Service from the building his dad bought in 1955 at 16 Straight St. NW. Stanton, now semi-retired, works from January to April doing income taxes. That building once boasted a similar Mr. Vanguard sign, though it’s now gone.

Bob Stanton, 62, says the original Mr. Vanguard sign isn’t the only legacy left by his father. Bud Stanton lived in New York in the late 1930s where he played in several of the famous big bands. He wrote a song during those years, then convinced Glenn Miller to listen to it.

Miller immediately agreed to buy his now-famous "In the Mood," and recorded the song one day after buying it from Stanton.

The Sign Guy
Wes Myrick calls himself "a serious pack rat." There’s no doubt he’s right. The outbuildings on his Belmont property are jammed with restored cars, ashtrays and "automobilia," toys and tools, and just about anything else imaginable.

Signs are his primary wall decoration: street signs, business signs, advertising signs and gas station signs. He figures he’s got 500 of them. Pride of place, however, goes to the Crystal Flash sign that stood outside the gas station and full-service garage he co-owned and operated for 42 years. M&F Service stood at 3034 Coit Ave. NE in the North Park area. Myrick and his partner ran it from 1946 to 1988.

" I’ve been collecting for 50 years," says Myrick, 79, who still shows and drives some of the cars he’s restored over the years. These days he’s got about 60 of them on his property. "I’m driven by my hobby. Anything and everything to do with cars I’ve got."

Myrick has steering wheels, tires, Firestone signs, toy cars, photos, gas pumps and globes, the famous Pegasus Mobil signs, and a 6-foot-high Fisk Boy who once advertised Fisk Tires at Jefferson Avenue and Cherry Street in Grand Rapids. Myrick’s kids gave it to him as a gift. And don’t even mention the odd stuffed animal, Bissell Carpet Sweeper display, and airplane sign.

He’s currently helping restore a GM Futurliner bus for the National Truck Museum in Auburn, Ind., and collecting more stuff. Some of his signs and automobilia are part of the "A is for Automobile" portion of the Collecting A to Z exhibit at the Van Andel Museum Center.

" I’m about as deep into this as you can get," laughs Myrick. GR

Ann Byle is a free-lance writer who lives in Grand Rapids Township.

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