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.
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
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
Don’s son Randy recalls "sleeping on
the counters in the back, and running around and
playing with my brother in the place."
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
is to restore the lovable chubby fellow to
his original neon splendor.
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
daring. Chuck Sr. and Zoe Orlikowski ran the
business themselves, with help from their children.
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
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
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
The sign has remained through the
years. Its neon tubes need replacing every now
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
a number of years.
Chuck Sr. died in 1984 after several
years as owner of a Florida nightclub
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.
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,
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
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
to Lincoln Avenue and Leonard, and
finally to the current location. The sign moved
with them every
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,
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
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
Signs are his primary wall decoration:
street signs, business signs, advertising
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
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
and Cherry Street in Grand Rapids.
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
Ann Byle is a free-lance writer
who lives in Grand Rapids