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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Roadside humor appears to have taken an offramp

Commuters once could count on seeing funny sayings on business marquees. The decline could be a reflection of the economy, with most companies unwilling to devote space to anything but their products.

August 16, 2009|Steve Harvey

One recent morning, an employee of Ganahl Lumber in Anaheim walked out to his car and found a tea bag and a handwritten note under his windshield. Imprinted on the bag were several thoughts for the day offered by the tea company. The note read, "Give this to the person who puts the sayings on your reader board."

The employee dutifully passed along the note to administrative assistant Lorraine Uribe, who has been posting daily witticisms on the company's Ball Road marquee for 11 years.

"A lot of people seem to notice them," she said. "I've had people tell me, 'I drive down Ball Road on purpose every morning just to read your signs.' "

But Uribe may be part of a dwindling tribe. Although no statistics are available, roadside humor writers seem to be in decline in Southern California

"I can't think of anyone near us that does it," she said.

Time was when commuters on the 5 Freeway could count on the Hyatt Hotel in Commerce for a daily yuk -- something along the lines of, "Shhh . . . Rosemary's Baby Is Sleeping."

But the Hyatt closed in 1989, and its successor, the Radisson, which carried on the tradition, went under in 1993.

For years, the Don Kott Ford dealership in Carson had a giant electronic board that tried to soothe frazzled motorists on the adjacent 405 Freeway with a quip or such thoughts as "Laugh Even When You Feel Like Crying." It folded in 2007.

A few decades earlier, there was the Loser's Club on La Cienega Boulevard, whose sign saluted a "Loser of the Week," usually the latest athlete or politician to embarrass himself or herself in public. The club occasionally nominated itself, inasmuch as it burned down twice and was robbed once.

Comic Frank Calcagnie suspects one reason businesses are so, well, businesslike on their marquees these days is that "you need some nut like me to come up with the jokes."

For nine years, Calcagnie, still an active stand-up comic at 84, fashioned message-board quips for the Commerce Hyatt and a dozen other businesses that have either gone belly up or gone serious.

"Not many people can do clean humor," said Calcagnie, adding that he has no problem in that regard.

"Non sequiturs, double entendres, word plays, reverses, snappers and toppers -- I can do them all."

Besides the note about Rosemary's baby, Calcagnie funnies that played one-day engagements on the Hyatt board included "Hong Kong Flu Brings Us Back to Hoarse and Buggy Days" and "Astronauts Earn Extra Pay by Moonlighting."

Perhaps today's roadside humor dearth is also a reflection of the economy, with most companies unwilling to devote space to anything but their products.

But Giant RV, off Interstate 10 in Montclair, mixes specials and a thought for the day on the company's electronic board. Sales manager Dan Johnson thinks it helps business.

"People tell us, 'Your billboard put us in a good mood,' " he said.

Though daily doses of marquee wit are largely absent, some businesses do throw out a funny line when they feel inspired.

During the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Rita Flora flower shop on La Brea Avenue posted, "Bill Never Sent Monica Flowers."

Virgil's Hardware in Glendale once greeted visitors with this bit of nonsense: "Virgil Said Bob Change the Sign So I Did."

And Bloom Service in Studio City has advertised its flowers this way: "Diamonds Only Last Forever -- Send Something That Dies."

At Ganahl, however, Uribe puts up a new saying almost daily.

She said she never runs out of items, choosing some from contributors, some from publications and some from the Internet.

As she was being interviewed outside the entrance, a departing truck driver rolled down his window, pointed to the marquee and shouted, "I love those things!" (That day's message was: "Taxation 'With' Representation Isn't So Hot, Either.")

Uribe can recall receiving only one complaint, from a husband who called on behalf of his wife the day the sign read: "In 40 Years There Will Be Thousands of Old Ladies Running Around With Tattoos." (Evidently the husband had missed another of Ganahl's messages: "Blessed Are the Flexible, For They Shall Not Get Bent Out of Shape.")

Uribe noted that marquees, humorous or otherwise, can also be imperiled by civic sign restrictions. "We were grandfathered in," she said of Ganahl's two-sided, 22-foot-by-14-foot sign.

Not so lucky was tiny Arthur's cafe, whose rooftop sign in Downey parodied the ads of bigger restaurants with such one-liners as "Banquet Facilities for 6 or Less," "Thank you, Gourmet Magazine" and "Seating for 1,000 -- 30 at a Time."

Then in 1998, after 30 years in business, owner Arthur Fast was told he was in violation of a 1977 ordinance banning rooftop signs.

He resisted, was arrested and then went into retirement.

Code enforcement officers took down his sign, whose last message read:

"The City of Downey Happens."

--

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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