By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Moe Allen was a character. He was the kind of man whose girlfriends were invariably described as "floozies" and who drank a fifth of Seagram's every day. He flew his own airplane. He fished for--what else?--bass. He'd spent a few years in prison for bad checks. Sometimes your bad habits get expensive. It was in prison, however, that Moe Allen learned the trade that ultimately put his name in front of the public and keeps it there a quarter of a century after his death. In prison, Moe Allen learned how to do body work on cars, and so he turned his fiber-glass boat plant at the corner of 16th Street and Osborn into a body shop. That was in 1955.
Because he used wheel-alignment equipment made by the Bear Manufacturing Company, Moe had two huge bears painted on either side of the shop's bay door. The animals replicate in giant size the trademark of Bear Manufacturing. They are dark brown, and every bit as big as real bears, except that they are leaning over at the waist with what appears to be hilarity, and laughing happily.
When Moe Allen died of his bad habits, he was in the process of selling the business to Wally Marion, whom he had hired as his accountant in the late 1940s. Wally Marion hasn't changed the name of the shop, the kind of equipment used or very many of the employees.
Most significantly, he has not changed the laughing bears alongside the shop's doors. In fact, the bears are repainted every so often, when they begin to show the effects of the late-afternoon sun on the westward-facing wall and the fumes from the 16th Street bus.
For people in the neighborhood, the bears are a landmark. Wally Marion says, "When I tell people I own Moe Allen's, they say, 'Oh! The place with the bears!'"
Since the 1920s, wheel-alignment businesses using equipment made by Bear Manufacturing have displayed the company's trademark bear. Guys would open a shop, hang a double-sided metal bear over the sidewalk or plaster a couple on the front wall. Their customers knew the logo the way they'd know the Texaco star.
The actual bear of the trademark is not brown, like Moe Allen's, but yellow, like no bear in nature. Although he's usually holding a sign that says things like "Line Up With Bear," when he's shown without the sign, his arm is still extended in the sign-holding position, so he has about him the appearance of a slightly demented panhandler. Hey, brother, can you spare a tie rod?
The little yellow bear is possibly the cutest advertising trademark ever displayed in the United States. "It's American folk art at its best," says Jerry Keyser, publisher of Check the Oil magazine near Columbus, Ohio, which is devoted to automobile collectibles. It is impossible to look at this creature, bending over with laughter, and not feel somehow cheered about life in general, and optimistic in particular at what wonderful things could be introduced into your future if your car would only stop wandering all over the pavement.
On the bear's face is an expression of sheer joy, a laugh that is not at anybody's expense, or that contains the faintest hint of cruelty or unkindness. He is laughing a laugh that could only come from the complete innocence of a child, or the wisdom of a Buddhist monk.
By comparison, Smokey the Bear is a tight-assed bureaucrat completely devoid of humor. What can you say about a bear who lays a guilt trip on you about campfires? Smokey ran an ad campaign last year insisting that his correct name is Smokey Bear, and never appears in public without his trousers on.
The Happy Bear, his official name at Bear Manufacturing, never had any clothes to put on, which shows a primal innocence that contrasts nicely with Smokey's perverted modesty. Smokey is a middle-aged white guy, and has just about that much fun.
Bear signs began to disappear from the landscape in the 1960s and 1970s, partly because of more restrictive sign laws, and partly because of internal changes at Bear Manufacturing that would ultimately reduce it to a division of a larger company with the bland name of Automotive Diagnostics. The disappearance of a sign that had been so well-known prompted coverage a couple of years ago on Good Morning, America. The show ran a photo of the bear in one of those "what ever happened to" segments, which prompted a sharp reply from the folks at Automotive Diagnostics headquarters in Kalamazoo, Michigan, pointing out that the bear was still alive. Still, most of the bears that remain on display in this country are remnants, retained by sentimental owners loyal to Bear equipment, the kind of men who, like at Moe Allen, have stayed in the same place long enough to have mechanics die or retire rather than move on.
Phoenix, although it still lacks a decent football team, is singularly blessed in the bear department, a fact the town has yet to trumpet in its Chamber of Commerce promotions. For aficionados of the bear sign, this city is a gold mine. At least half a dozen wheel-alignment companies in Phoenix still use the bear to advertise their services. In addition to Moe Allen's bears, the three locations of Jack's Wheel Alignment use the cheerful little logo, as does Paul J.P. Johnson's over on 35th Avenue, Jim Wilson's on 16th Street, and J & L on McDowell. The bear transcends cultural and linguistic barriers--Tom Ocano's auto body shop on Buckeye uses the logo. His Spanish-speaking customers know it as the "osito."