Celebrating the Chicago Look
The Letterhead movement’s significance in celebrating the rich tradition of signpainting is well-known, and many special moments have occurred during the nearly three decades since the first meet was hosted in 1982 by Mike Jackson in Moore, OK.
Perhaps one of the most historic events occurred in a backroom of the Harvey, IL, Holiday Inn at the national Letterhead gathering in 1985. There, pinned on the makeshift display walls, hung two dozen or so original wall and painted bulletin sketches created by the staff of the celebrated Beverly Sign company, where many Chicago sign artists learned the trade in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some took notice – particularly the more experienced signpainters, who recognized how the “Chicago look” had impacted their careers; as well as sign design overall. Two former Beverly employees – Ken Millar, who was working at the Signery, and Danny Colyer, who had his own shop, coordinated the historic display.
One of those who took notice was Bob Behounek, an accomplished Chicago-area sign designer and painter. Behounek had rescued several, significant, reverse-glass pieces from the Local 830 union hall that were destined for uncertain futures.
Bob Seelander, a master craftsman well-known to signpainters, had lettered a gilded Pledge of Allegiance. He later donated it to the American Sign Museum, where it hangs today.
Behounek also saved a Beverly Sign salesman sample – another Seelander creation – which also hung in the union hall after the demise of Beverly Sign in the late 1970s.
Behounek never forgot Beverly Sign’s influence on his own, and others’, work. Then, roughly a year ago, he hatched the idea of a Beverly Sign reunion, and called or wrote to the employees with whom he still had contact. Then he procured the Local 830 roster and called all those, one-time members. Needless to say, many phone numbers had changed.
Many former Beverly staffers, some of whom would have now been in their 80s or even 90s, had passed on, but word did get out to those who were still around. An announcement in Signcraft magazine brought further response. The buzz began to grow.
In the late spring of this year, Behounek contacted the museum, and plans began to evolve for an actual date. Although few Beverly Sign works still exist, there were all those color sketches from the Harvey, IL Holiday Inn that we could rally around. Also, Millar had acquired additional sketches that former Beverly employee Harry Hagawara had given to Jeff Cahill, of Colorado Springs, CO, who sent the sketches to Behounek for the event. Colyer, offered to host the event at his Tinley Park shop. A date of September 28 was set.
Behounek and the museum agreed that this would probably be a one-time opportunity to capture the essence of Beverly Sign. Anyone connected with Beverly was asked to collect whatever memorabilia they might be willing to loan or donate to the museum and bring it to the reunion. Some, such as Chuck Hudepohl, who was now living in California and still painting signs, couldn’t make the trip, but he sent a great collection of photos of Beverly work. Keith Knecht, who was never formally connected to Beverly Sign, but who came to honor the occasion and the Chicago look’s influence on his own work, sent slides prior to the event.
Bob Behounek brought several pounce patterns by the late Dave Shaughnessy and donated Shaughnessy’s signkit, which he had been given by Shaughnessy’s step-daughter, June Tomkins. Behounek also donated a box of additional patterns, which he had acquired from the late Jack Van Bruggen. Van Bruggen had saved the patterns he had acquired when he purchased Shaughnessy’s business. Others brought additional memorabilia, such as Beverly letterheads and business cards. Three separate tables were required to display the assembled Beverly Sign artifacts.
Approximately two dozen former Beverly Sign staffers gathered that morning. The museum videotaped as much oral history as possible, beginning with Behounek recounting how the reunion had evolved. By 10 a.m., most had gathered, but we were still waiting for the guest of honor, Bob Hunniford, the 94-year-old, celebrated, “fourth employee” of Beverly Sign, who was driving from Michigan. He was to continue the formal festivities by re-telling the pre-World War II “early days” of Beverly, beginning in 1938.
After a museum-hosted lunch, noted designer Ken Millar outlined the principles of the Beverly Sign, aka Chicago, look by discussing the Golden ratio and use of panels and custom colors. The taping concluded with a panel of ex-Beverly employees sharing their personal memories. That evening, a dinner gave all a chance to thank Behounek for all his efforts and say goodbyes.
The museum spent the next morning searching for Beverly’s former shop sites on Halsted, on the west side of downtown Chicago. Both sites were leveled, with no hint of the original buildings. Efforts to locate original Beverly Sign walls in the western suburbs were also fruitless. So, the museum will rely on personal accounts, photos and sign sketches to recount the Beverly legacy.
The museum will continue to collect Beverly memorabilia and, eventually, create a display at the museum’s future and greatly expanded home. We have a good start on a documentary of Beverly Sign’s significance, but we’ll need more footage from other, involved parties. As time passes, it will be more difficult to assemble the complete story, but perhaps more will be revealed.
As we were packing up the following day for the trip back to Cincinnati, we received a call from Tim Lloyd, Mathews Paint’s national sales manager. He said he had some-thing to give to the museum. When Behounek rescued the Beverly Sign sample piece from Local 830, he loaned it to Tim’s father, Wes, who had originally worked at Beverly, but left to become the business agent for the Local. The piece had been displayed at Wes’ home until his passing earlier this year. Tim had spoken with his mother, and they agreed the piece belonged in the museum. The reverse-glass treasure will, together with the collected color sketches, be a focal point of the display-to-be.