Route 66 News

A last of the breed

In my first Route 66 trips, I noticed on dozens of businesses and billboards in eastern New Mexico the signs of  a distinctive lettering by a sign painter.

The signs were notable because of their lettering — often a thick, squat, easily read style that I’d seen nowhere else. Some of the letters were shadowed — a sign of good craftsmanship.

Some of the signs belonged to long-defunct businesses, especially in the Tucumcari, N.M., region. Even though a gas station or restaurant had perished, the sign painter’s work had endured — even decades after the business had gone bust. I wasn’t even sure if the sign painter was still alive.

Thanks to a bit of asking around, I tracked him down. He not only is very much alive, but still in business. He is Rudolph Gonzales, whose one-man sign-painting business, Signs by Rudy, is based in Tucumcari. And signs are still done by hand, as they have been for over 50 years.

In a phone interview, Gonzales, now 75, said he began his career in the sign-painting trade in 1954, a few days before his 20th birthday. A native of tiny Roy, N.M., Gonzales says he’d always had a knack for drawing and painting, even putting letters on farm trucks for their owners.

He started on his lifetime trade when Jim Hall, owner of Ace Sign Co. of Tucumcari, hired him.

Gonzales says Hall painted the original “Fat Man” logo for the Club Cafe, a much-missed Route 66 restaurant in

One of the famed Fat Man logos of the Club Cafe. (Photo courtesy of Guy Randall.)

One of the famed "Fat Man" logos of the Club Cafe. (Photo courtesy of Guy Randall.)

Santa Rosa, N.M., that closed in the 1991. Gonzales painted later “Fat Man” signs for the Club Cafe in the 1970s, including one that’s displayed at the Rotue 66 Auto Museum in Santa Rosa. Gonzales also has one of his “Fat Man” logos gracing Joseph’s restaurant in Santa Rosa, the unofficial successor to Club Cafe.

Gonzales eventually started his own business in 1980.

Gonzales’ work can be seen as far west as Gallup, N.M., and as far east as Dallas (that one was a Stuckey’s billboard). His signs can be frequently seen in the western Texas Panhandle and the eastern half of New Mexico on the Route 66 corridor.

“I think I’m the lone survivor in hand-painting,” Gonzales said. “Now it’s all computers. Computers, under the right supervision, can do the job well. But you still have to be a good sign-painter to begin with.”

Gonzales is quick to cite Hall and Russell Kinter, whom he described as the “Michaelangelo of sign painters,” as influences.

But Gonzales said he developed his own style over time. He described his basic fonts seen on his signs as  a “left-handed quick style.”

Being a southpaw is one of key reasons his lettering is easily identified — it’s hard for others to emulate.

“I’ve had a lot of people try to imitate that, but they weren’t successful,” he said. “I tried, but I didn’t find anyone with the ability. I had one employee who worked for me for 17 years, and he couldn’t do it.”

Gonzales, who has two daughters and three grandchildren, says he plans to keep sign-painting “as long as my health holds out.” He’s putting together a book of his work to preserve some of his work for posterity.

“Once it’s gone, I’m afraid it’s going to be lost forever,” he said.

16 thoughts on “A last of the breed

  1. Trevor Hilton

    I hope some of his signs will be preserved in museums. But, where ever possible, I hope they stay out advertising businesses, like they were meant to.

  2. Richard C. Moeur

    There’s someone in the Holbrook area still doing hand-painted signs – he’s done many of the signs downtown, and the big “Welcome to Holbrook” on the back of the Auto Safety House building facing toward I-40 (away from old 66). Don’t know the name of the person, though.

  3. TM

    I love those old hand-painted signs. I remember my dad painting his own when he opened a garden center in the 80’s. I’d love to see a book of his signs. But even moreso, I’d like to see them in person!

  4. Dave Eames

    Great story, Ron. This is one of many reasons why I love your site. These signs are as beautiful (and historically important) as many of the neon signs we all love. Excellent work.

  5. Motel Safari

    Rudy is truly one of a kind and unfortunately a dying breed, due to the age of computer graphics and complete lack of original artistry today. He is the only one that does our painted signs, and if anyone gets the chance, we’d highly recommend having him do an original piece for you just to keep as a collector’s item.

  6. mobey

    I do remember my father working for your company, and he often took me to the shop. I just want to remind people that the artist’s which did alot of the signs weren’t not just Rudy but other wich he employed. I wish he could of remembered a few of them in this story.
    Because I remember as a boy seeing my father along with others do alot of the work.

  7. Richard C. Moeur

    I found out who is (are) making the hand-painted signs in the Holbrook / northeast Arizona area. It’s the Barela family – I just met the elder Mr. Barela at a service station in town. He and his sons are still creating colorful hand-painted signs for local merchants on 66 and elsewhere.

    (written in between chiliburger bites at the Wayside Cafe in Holbrook… :)

  8. Audrey Ackerman

    Just out of curiosity… when did Hall own Ace Sign Co.??? My grandfather, Warren Ackerman owned the company in the 60’s and 70’s before retiring and selling the shop.

  9. Debra Cantrell Wyatt

    I love this site. My father was a renound sign painter from Oklahoma. Painting many, many signs along Route 66 and beyond. His name was A.J. Cantrell. He was brutally murdered along with my mother in Depew Oklahoma in 2003. We have a book on Amazon.com (AJ Cantrell American Artist) of some of his work and are working on another book. Trying to get pictures of all of these timeless works of art is a job, as they will be gone soon, never to be replaced by this lost art. My daddy would start with a blank background and with a tiny piece of charcoal, work his magic, laying out the sign, or picture, then begin to paint it. All the while, usually visiting with someone. He worked for many companies in Tulsa, but mostly had great success working for himself. “A.J. Cantrell Signs”.

  10. John Knight

    Great article, just come across this forum.
    I’m a signwriter in Brighton England, and have been for 56 years, I’m now 70 and still doing signs,I love it.

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