The Valley National Bank sign hanging in the Tempe History Museum’s “Tempe Signs” exhibit was literally just a shell of its former self when the museum got a hold of it.
“We had that one in our collection, but we just had the plastic shell that had been attached to the front of it,” says Joshua Roffler, the museum’s senior curator. Displaying it properly required rebuilding the thick metal octagon frame behind the face, a tricky task that also involved replicating the extended wings of the sign’s iconic eagle with the Arizona-shaped torso, originally designed by local neon god Glen Guyette (whose sign creds include Mr. Lucky’s, Bill Johnson’s Big Apple, Courtesy Chevrolet and My Florist).
“We had to work with a contractor to build the mount for it and light it the way it originally was,” Roffler says, although modern LEDs now replace the original neon tubes. “Most of these signs have had something done to them to get them up and working.”
That includes the exhibit’s centerpiece, the familiar Minder Binders water wagon that for 41 years served as signage for the big red barn on McClintock Drive just north of University Drive that housed the eclectic watering hole (now the site of Social Hall).
“It was really decaying – the wheels had fallen off, and the axles had rotted and so it was pretty far gone,” Roffler reports. “We took the remains of the wagon and shipped it off to a specialty wagon restorer outside of Ventura, Calif. And he spent a couple of years working on it, replacing the wheels and the axles, making it roll again, replacing the wood, repainting, doing everything that it needed. We’re really proud that we were able to save it.”
The reward for all these herculean efforts, says Aubrey Feyrer, the ASU graduate student who created the exhibit – his first since ladder-climbing from unpaid intern to collections assistant at the museum – comes in watching the reactions of visitors, many of whom experience strong emotional memories just looking at the old signage for Monti’s, Rúla Búla, Big Surf and others lining the walls.
“They’re illustrative of important places for people, and that’s just it: the power of place, the power of memory,” says Feyrer, who minored in philosophy along with his history major. “They’re key visual markers for locations that have become important to so many people in the community.”
It’s not hard to find examples as the visitors file in.
“I remember I sold Girl Scout cookies at the drive-thru at this Valley National Bank,” says Carol, a 60-something ASU alum visiting the museum with her brother, Jim, and their spouses. “I’m not sure that was a good idea to station little girls selling cookies in front of a steady stream of cars, but whatever!”
Jim’s memory is jogged by a photo of the festive neon sign that once stood outside JD’s, the legendary two-level nightclub that was located on Scottsdale Road just north of the “river bottom,” before the generally dry stretch of the Salt River became Tempe Town Lake.
“I must have driven by there 1,000 times, but we never got to go in the place. We were too young!” he says with a laugh. By the time the siblings hit drinking age, the club – which later became Scene West and then Fridays & Saturdays in the '70s – was a furniture warehouse.
Video monitors around the exhibit project images of the other big fish the museum was unable to reel in, either because they were lost to time (“If anybody out there has the Greasy Tony’s sign, I would love to include it,” Roffler says), too large to display, or – as in the case of Jerry’s Drive-In Liquors or the Harkins Valley Art movie theater (on pause since 2021) – still in use.
“We went over to Haji Baba,” says Roffler, referring to the popular Middle Eastern restaurant on Apache Boulevard founded in the early '80s by Syrian-born entrepreneur Zuhier Mahmoud Khatib, who died of COVID last February at age 66. “They said, ‘We’ve got one sign – and it’s still up on the building.’”
For the owners of shuttered businesses who did contribute signs, seeing their shingles hanging up in a museum has been a bittersweet experience.
Robin Trick, who co-ran House of Tricks with her husband, Bob, until the beloved restaurant finally closed in June 2022, was initially blasé about contributing the familiar sign that welcomed loyal diners through the backdoor parking lot of the converted 1920s bungalow and 1903 adobe brick house that comprised the Tempe landmark on Seventh Street just east of Mill Avenue.
“We wouldn’t have even had a place to store that big sign, so I was really happy to let them take it,” says Trick, who’s immersed herself in fiber collage art since retiring. “To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the exhibit. I thought, ‘Oh great, they’re gonna hang up a bunch of signs from some old businesses that are no longer around?’ But it was kind of emotional. When we attended the opening, all kinds of people were coming up to me, basically crying about the fact that Tricks is gone.”
Some recalled the sign from its first appearance, atop the scale model replica of the bungalow Bob built as their booth in the Mill Avenue Art Festival (now Tempe Festival of the Arts) in the late '80s.
“It brings back memories of a different Tempe,” Trick says. “I’m not anti-growth, but I think the city could have done a much better job of preserving the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants in that area. I wish (the new Mill Avenue) was great. I want it to be great – you know, it’s my home. But it’s not, and it’s kind of sad, honestly.”
Gayle Shanks, who co-founded the Changing Hands Bookstore – first on Fifth Street in 1974 before moving into bigger quarters on Mill in '78, where it remained for 20 years (it now has two locations, in Tempe and Phoenix) – donated two signs to the museum from the Mill store. She, too, misses the era the old signs evoke.
“I mean, there’s so many vibrant downtowns, in areas like Santa Cruz and Boulder and Fort Collins,” she says. “I could name a dozen places that have independent bookstores and just really interesting, curated small boutiques and local restaurants – and we could have had that, too. But unfortunately, our city council, even in those days, seemed to be easily bought by developers who would come in and build out these mammoth projects that were completely out of scale.
“There’s nothing exciting happening on Mill now,” Shanks adds. “No one wants to go there, including the college students. The only thing they go there for now are the bars.”
Shanks recalls the woman who made their signs, a young “hippie kind of girl” who went by the name Moonshadow. Many of the other signs along Mill, including the whimsical Rúla Búla sign also featured in the exhibit, were crafted by Peter Langford, a gifted signmaker who Rúla Búla founder Steve Goumas says is currently in poor health.
“In a way, the signs sort of represented the community as well as the stores,” Shanks says. She recalls a spirit of creativity that was captured in the signs, which reflected the quirky personalities of the people running the stores.
That spirit left the buildings, Shanks says, when Mill Avenue rents got too high for anyone to remain but the national chains. She says now the strip is trying to get back to what it was in the early '70s, but the magic is gone.
“It’s not in the buildings anymore,” says Shanks. “The spirit is in the signs now.”
"Tempe Signs" continues through Jan. 27 at Tempe History Museum, 809 E. Southern Ave., Tempe. Hours are 10 a.m. -5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There is no cost to visit.