Steve's Letterhead Memories

This was our first Letterhead Meet in KansasCity, Missouri in August 1983. I remember watching Ellis Doughty layout, letter and pinstripe this shop window in 30 minutes. Up to this time I had only followed The Letterheads thru the pages of Signs of the Times magazine. What a thrill to finally meet all my heros. Kent Smith taught me how to lay gold leaf and Mark and Jeannie Klein looked at my portfolio and, lying through their teeth, convinced me I had what it took to do this business. They made me feel like a million dollars. Jeannie died of a brain anuresum a few years later and we all miss her.

The big project in Kansas City was the restoration of these old gilded glass signs. The guys even allowed me to lay two sheets of gold on this project. I was scared I would screw things up but Kent Smith and Noel Weber wouldn't let me get out of it. It is so important to get involved in these projects at meets, the pros are eager to share their skills if you show any interest. We sat around that shop until 2am each night scared we would miss something. If I recall correctly, we were experimenting with an old time technique that involved using stale beer as a size. Unfortunately someone drank it and we were forced to use the more traditional water size.

I believe this is Tom Cavanaugh, a very talented pictorial painter from the Chicagoland area. He bombed out 3 of these Norman Rockwell type pictorials while I sat there watching in awe. I learned about a new magazine called SignCraft and met a guy who talked with a funny accent called Mike Jackson. Little did I know that this same mutant from Oklahoma would return to haunt me nightly on our IRC channel. Other memories of Kansas City include Steven Parrish, overflowing toilets flooding the hired blues bands shoes and traffic backed up as thrifty sign artists lettered cab doors in exchange for a lift to the airport. We flew back to Ontario charged up and eager to apply what we learned to our business.

Ken Millar hosted a couple meets in Chicago in 1985 and 1987. These meets were held in a Holiday Inn instead of a sign shop. I really liked the hotel setting, everyone was in the same place and we would sit in the hall until the wee hours talking signs. The conference rooms were excellent for seminars. In this picture Bob Behounek of Chicago, is taking questions on truck layout. A plywood van was later lettered and pinstriped. Bob has always been one of my heros. I had spent hours tracing and projecting his work, trying to discover the secret to his wonderful bouncy scripts, and I was determined to meet him and learn his secret. When I finally summoned up the courage to ask him a few questions he not only said yes but gave me a private lesson. Gerber Scientific were on hand to demonstrate a new lettering machine they had developed...a Signmaker3 or real sign painters just scoffed at it and agreed nobody would ever buy one. Vinyl letters? No way!!

By this time it was becoming a tradition to bring a project panel along based on the meets theme. One of Chicago's more famous citizens was enshrined in this piece. The quality and scope of these projects never cease to amaze me. At this meet an entire room was setup just for projects as well as portfolios. We spent hours in that room, admiring and photographing each others work. What a source for ideas! Another room was setup with signs and photographs produced by The Beverly Sign Company of Chicago, a wonderful old sign company where Ken Millar and many other Chicago sign artists learned the trade in the 50's & 60's. I loved listening to the stories of walldogs suspended hundreds of feet in the air and practical jokes played on each other.

Keith Knecht is another one of my favorite sign artists. He is based out of Toledo but can show up anywhere at anytime. Here is Keith conducting one of the best truck layout seminars I have ever attended. This guy can do it all, pinstriping, illustration and his layouts are wonderful. I was determined to make him my buddy and went everywhere he did, hanging onto his every word. One of Keith's greatest pleasures is to relax with a coffee and smoke a cigarette. I was lucky to get a seat in the coffee shop right across from him and was scared to move for fear of losing my spot. After a dozen cups of java my bladder began to get the best of me, but I hung in there, taking in every word he said, just knowing that sooner or later Keith would also hear the call of nature. In the end, my bladder won the war and I was forced to give in. I was fortunate enough to reclaim my nest but I am convinced to this day that Keith has a hollow leg.

One of my earliest sign books was called Practical Sign Shop Operation by Bob Fitzgerald. I still think it is one of the best books ever written on what a well equipped shop should look like. My first copy actually got wore out! I was unable to get inside an actual sign shop in those days and Bob's book was my window into the sign painters world. Imagine my delight when I came upon him lettering this panel under a tree in Cleveland, Ohio in the summer of 1986. I was so excited that I returned to the hotel and made Barb and the kids return with me to meet him. Bob had just purchased a computer for his shop and has never stopped learning. A true Letterhead!

Cleveland is also the spot where I first met Alton Gillespie, the pride of Austin, Texas. A race car had been reserved for Alton to work his magic on and he got right to it. I remember asking him for some tips on proper airbrush handling and care. His answer was to toss his airbrush through the air into his kit which was 20 ft. away. A perfect 3 pointer! I'm convinced Alton has a special gift, he sees more than the average person and is able to reproduce the smallest details. A contest developed later that night to see who could letter the smallest letters. Before long the jewellers glasses were out and although the competition was fierce, Alton won easily.
Other memories of that meet include a gilded watermelon, getting to try my hand at bending neon tube, and a great speech by Dusty Yaxley on how to sell signs. Where was a tape recorder when you needed one? A guy named Donatti came up with a great idea to do an impromptu mural on the side of a transport trailer. A mob of brush and roller wielding Letterheads swarmed all over the trailer and in no time our masterpiece was finished. Shame it turned out to be rented! We always assumed host Paul Soles would have another meet so we could do the other side too.

For me, meeting the late Mike Stevens was probably the best thing that happened for me at this meeting. Mike was very soft spoken and very articulate. He did a series of mini layout seminars and I attended two of them. He developed terms for layout that made it possible to discuss layout theory intelligently. Mikes gone now but I can see his influence today in the works of many of us who were lucky enough to know him and those wise enough to study the books and videos he left behind. By the way, anyone know who that gorgeous blond is standing next to me?

In 1987 Barb and I hosted the first Canadian Letterhead Meet at our shop in Fergus, Ontario, Canada. We invited Ken Millar and Harry Tallon up from Chicago to conduct a 2 day layout and design course. That Saturday night, we opened the doors and invited every sign shop we could find in a 50 mile radius to head over. I'm certain most thought it was some kind of evil plot to steal employees or secrets, but the lure of free admission and door prizes proved to be too much. Ken gave his fascinating talk on how brushes are made and presented a slideshow on trucks and signs in the Chicago area. To be honest, most of these characters have never attended another event but we came away with dedicated core group that developed into The Southern Ontario Letterheads.

Here we have Ken Millar sharing his knowledge of layout with us. Later , his sidekick Harry Tallon gave us all some great tips on sales and marketing. Ken worked as a sign designer and later taught sign painting at a union school in Chicago. One of his pupils was Bob Behounek. Like many sign artists, Ken is left handed and nobody knows more about signpainter brushes. He continues to operate Quill, Hair & Ferrule or QH&F as some call it, from his new home in North Carolina and is connected with Peter Payne at Canadian Signcrafters in Canada. Peter is a sponsor of The Letterhead Website. If you need any hard to find sign supplies give Pete or Ken a call.

Bevin Finlay, a very talented Ontario airbrush artist, hosted a Sign Painters Picnic in 1989. Everyone brought their families and many camped over. Peter Payne put on a glue chipping demo and we defaced this Lada. This to me is what Letterheads is all about. I still like the small, intimate meets where you just put on the coffee and invite your competition over. Use the Bulletin Board to contact other shops in your area, then get the e-mail going and organize a getogether in your area. Bring along a portfolio of your work, an open mind and leave the egos at home.

In April of 1988 we were off to Elkhart, Indiana. The weather was gorgeous that weekend, which fit in perfect with the meets theme "Signs of Spring." The event was hosted by The Michiana Letterheads and was held at 2 shops, one owned by Vince Rogers and his son Monte. The other shop was owned by David Knowles and called Bender Signs. This Michiana group really knows how to throw a Letterhead Meet. Seminars were held at both shops and we would shuffle back and forth between them.

Canadians everywhere! This was the biggest group of Canadians to ever attend a single meet. Bob and Millie Burrows chauffered us down in their van while Doug "TooTall" Downey sat in the rear with his big feet stuck in my face. Peter and Marge Payne drove down themselves and "Cosmic" Ray Renooy from Winnepeg joined us for this Kodak moment. Bob has battled health problems this last year and was hospitalized a great deal of time. Despite a car accident that has confined him to a wheelchair for many years, Bob is aways smiling and ready to try something new. I'm glad he is my friend.

This project panel pretty well summed up this meets theme I thought. I can't even recall who did it but suspect it was either done by Gary Anderson or for him. It was a great meet for everyone. Doug was able to meet Mike Stevens and John Cox. I got to meet Dave and Suzie Butler, Gary Anderson and many others. We had supper one night with Bob Behounek, Ken Millar and Jack Rumph who publishes The Signwriters Price Guide. Jack did a great seminar on pricing and how to determine an hourly rate. I was afraid a riot might break out....touchy subject.
Other memories include a special award for Suzie Butler for outstanding brush care, a personal SignCraft cover for Gary Gitchell, Bob Behounek lettering David Showalter's new pickup and Dave Butlers sign kit. Alton Gillespie had too good a time at Monte's shop on Saturday night looked awful the next morning. I took advantage of the situation and traded him a new Canadian $1 coin, which we call a loonie, for a future Alton masterpiece. This meet was well organized and set a new standard for future meets.


Watch For Part 2!


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Copyright 1996 The SignMan, Revised April 29,1996