Tuesday, June 28, 2005

What it's all about

For about ten years, I've been photographing places and things that retain the strong stylistic flavor of a colorful and distinctive period in the annals of design, architecture and signage. From the bold, heroic forms and confident Streamline Moderne curves of the Public Works Administration and the post-Depression recovery period to the futuristic fantasies of the Space Age to the programmatic whimsies and carefree dayglo color splashes of the Beatle era.

Why? This is the way America looked when I first saw it as I was growing up. The colorful jumble of every city's neon-laced commercial strip was about to be muted by more stringent signage codes and a muted, earth-toned sensibility that would eventually slap a dull, shake-shingled mansard roof over the gleaming candy-striped tile and glowing golden arches that had helped make the suburbs seem somehow exciting.

In the days before Everytown's fast-food-and-motel strip was dulled down by a beautification movement spearheaded by a President's wife, the commercial landscape was chaotic. When one sees a 1960's photograph of a typical "miracle mile," it's almost always shot with a lens that flattens the perspective, making the jumble of signs into a panicky collage of overstimulation--No one at the time took a picture of Fast Food Row because they thought it looked "cool;" such a photo was always created and used as an example of how how ugly and out-of-control things had become. Fair enough; there was certainly plenty of truth to that viewpoint. But today, when a vintage photo of that type is displayed, many of us find ourselves squinting to catch the details; the little things we remember from our youth but haven't seen in years. Is that an old Jack-in-the-Box sign, with the clown head bobbling on a spring? Wasn't the old Holiday Inn sign magnificent? Oh, wow, do you remember Arthur Treacher's...or Carrol's...or that huge neon Katz Drug cat with the bow tie, the one that scared the hell out of you when you were four? (Okay, that's just me. But by the time I've dug all the evidence out of my archives and posted it here, that damn cat will give you the willies too.)

A friend told me that nostalgia literally means "past-pain." We took things for granted back then, and we miss them now; we fear that someday they'll all be gone. It could be argued that a single blinking, buzzing Edsel-era neon sign remaining among a forest of tasteful, backlit logos on the highway strip is more striking and more beautiful than it was when everybody's sign blinked and buzzed just so.

Along with a growing legion of mid-century dreamers, I'm out there every chance I get, looking for that last neon beacon. If this sort of nostalgia trip seems like your cup of Postum, you should check out the Society for Commercial Archaeology and the list of links I'll be posting and most likely adding to frequently. And there will, of course, be photos. Lots of 'em.


Anonymous said...

Hi D,

I'm putting together a list of things for a show for a major cable network I came across your website and wondered if I could ask you a few questions.

How can I contact you?


geri said...

Hey Darren,
Thank you so much for the walk down memory lane! I just caught the movie "Dreamer" with Tim Matheson on TV last night which was filmed in Alton in 1978-1979? when I was in high school and I couldn't exactly remember if they used Acme bowl or BowlHaven and your site popped up in my search! I graduated in 1980 and moved back to Illinois in 1994 and found much of my beloved hometown was still the same but a lot has changed. I used to love rootbeer slushes from Block's when it was still a drive-in with a car hop. I remember going to A&W for their signature root beer and even the lttle 'baby' glasses and the yellow spongy mats on the window trays they left on your car window. I remember going to my first drive-in movie, "Bonnie and Clyde" with Warren Beatty when it first came out at the Starlite drive-in. I remember going many times to the Grand Theatre and walking across the brick street after my mom would drop me off. I think I even saw "Jaws" there when it first came out. I remember the Piasa Bird when it was painted on the bluffs near Norman Landing on the River Road and the big bicentennial celebration that was an important event there in 1976.
Anyway Tony, thanks again, I wish I had pics to send you...Alton used to be a nice town, I remember in the summer, I could get on my bike in mid morning with 32 cents in my pocket, worth 2 slushes or snowcones at Mr. D's ice cream shop on Elm street, and all my mom would say was "Be back by dark"!!! No cell phones to check in, no phone calls to check in, just as long as I got back before the cars had healdlights on, all was good in my world. Geez, where did that world go? Thanks for your time Tony, May you have interesting and peaceful journeys all your days!