Sign of the times: New business will keep piece of city’s past

For a quick lunch, a leisurely dinner, or an afternoon snack, why not stop at Frisch’s along with Suellen Grady and Sherry Zink. Republic archives
For a quick lunch, a leisurely dinner, or an afternoon snack, why not stop at Frisch’s along with Suellen Grady and Sherry Zink. Republic archives

For several months now I’ve followed progress on the clearing of a nondescript property at 25th and Cherry streets. The one-story building in the middle of the property had been vacated several years ago, and it was demolished earlier this year.

For months the land was vacant save for a forlorn structure just off 25th Street, an outsized sign that had no words. I kept wondering when that, too, would be added to the Bartholomew County landfill, until construction began for what will be a Ricker’s gas station. The sign is still there, and there it will stay.

It’ll bear the Ricker’s logo, but a lot of people with memories of an older Columbus will look at it and remember the image of a smiling boy holding aloft a loaded hamburger over the name of the business — Frisch’s Big Boy. There was a second sign just under the symbol of the happy waiter, one that usually advertised the special of the day or displayed a congratulatory message to some group or team, usually from the nearby Columbus High School.

The sign and the drive-in restaurant had special meaning to several generations of Columbus High School students. It was the center of action for a rite of passage — the cruising phenomenon of the mid-20th century.

Its horseshoe parking lot was an ideal setting for cruising. Sometimes some of the cruisers would even pull into one of the slots set aside for ordering meals and having them delivered by carhops, but for the most part it was used so that young drivers could parade their rides past admiring peers, exit back onto 25th Street bound for another cruising station and then return for another showing later in the day or night.

The site was so popular that Columbus police had to periodically assign officers to manage traffic going into and out of the business.

There is a twofold reason why the sign will become a part of the new Ricker’s store. One is a practical application of recycling. The other is pure nostalgia.

The notion of keeping the sign came to Travis Smith, director of real estate for the Ricker’s chain, earlier this year as he drove past it on 25th Street.

“As soon as I saw its shape I immediately thought of a Frisch’s Big Boy sign on property up in Anderson,” he said. “The restaurant is still functioning, and it’s a familiar place for a lot of us on the Ricker’s staff, especially the company founder, Jay Ricker.”

Smith took his idea to Ricker and proposed that the shape be retained for the new location. Ricker, somewhat of a nostalgia buff himself, agreed.

Apparently, Ricker’s personnel aren’t the only ones with a whimsical sense of nostalgia. The sign was larger than that mandated by Columbus’ sign ordinance, but the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals granted a variance, allowing it to stay in place.

Although the smiling carhop won’t be part of the Ricker’s logo, I suspect that a lot of older drivers on 25th Street will be reassured by the retention of the familiar shape. In some respects, attachment to signs like the old Frisch’s Big Boy is a Columbus thing. Some of those that have helped draw customers to local businesses have achieved iconic status.

One of the most memorable would have to be the old waving clown that beckoned hungry customers to the Dairy Queen on 25th Street. Equipped with an arm that went up and down, the sign, named Sammy, proved to be a magnet, especially for young children out with their parents on drives around town. Over the years I’ve heard many accounts from parents who were forced to repeatedly drive past the sign so that their young passengers could wave back.

Several years ago, Dairy Queen decided to drop the waving clown as a logo and sent out messages to franchise holders across the country to scrap their signs. The late Frances Olinger, co-owner of the local franchise, stood her ground on keeping the clown, and Dairy Queen officials decided not to press the matter.

Unfortunately Sammy stopped waving when the 25th Street Dairy Queen was closed. It was put into storage by co-owner Bob Franke.

Just as iconic was the large hammer sign that drew customers into the Gross Hardware Store on State Street. It was pretty much a landmark in East Columbus, people unfamiliar with the area being told where to go based on how far their site was from the big hammer.

Adding to the special aspect of the hardware sign is that it was made in Columbus in the mid-20th century. After the store closed, its owner, Beth Gross Dilley, tried to find a place for it in Columbus where it could still be admired. That effort didn’t yield any positive results, but eventually a new home was found for it in Cincinnati, headquarters of the American Sign Museum.

I realize that the Ricker’s sign on 25th Street won’t be quite the same as it once was, but for several generations of cruisers just its outline will serve as a reminder of their youth.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.